View from the Board Chair: Extending Influential Engagement Beyond the Boardroom

By James E. Shreiner    //    Volume 21,  Number 6   //    November/December 2013

The fiduciary and governance roles of college and university boards have continued to evolve and expand over the last several decades. In addition, the expectations of time, talent, and treasure continue to increase as the challenges facing academic institutions require board members to have a deep understanding of the many variables that drive student outcomes, all in an increasingly competitive world.

Few new board members have a deep understanding of historical academic governance, the roles of administration and faculty, or the developing dialogue related to cost, value, and student outcomes. Many institutions, both public and private, face this same issue.

How then do you improve the odds that new trustee recruits will rise to the challenges of the position and be prepared to provide the guidance and governance the institution needs when many current board members may not be available to serve as mentors? I believe we have come up with a solution that may serve other boards as well as it has served our own.

Leadership council: an idea whose time had come. In 2004, David Beidelman, vice president of institutional advancement, recommended to the board of trustees that Elizabethtown College organize a leadership council. The council consists of up to 50 members who meet formally twice a year and provide the board and the president with advice on the vitality of the college and its long-term financial strength. The beauty of this model is that it comes without the burden of governance and fiduciary responsibilities that go with a board position.

Expectations of the members are as follows:

  • Strongly advocate for the mission and vision of the college;
  • Provide the board of trustees and the president with counsel on issues important to the college’s long-range interests;
  • Make the college a top philanthropic priority;
  • Attend two meetings per year, including one in combination with the board of trustees, and participate in a conference call between board meetings;
  • Undertake ad hoc assignments where individual expertise or influence will benefit the college; and
  • Serve at least one three-year term, with the possibility of reappointment.

The leadership council gives the council member and the college an opportunity to test the relationship. Is the member engaged? Does the member see value and provide some form of time, talent, or philanthropic support to the college that would be expected of a board member? For example, our council members often serve as campus speakers, ad hoc committee members, mentors, and event hosts; our council chair recently served on a vice presidential search committeee. It is much easier to enter or exit the leadership council than the board.

Topics covered in the council’s plenary sessions have included strategic planning, facility master planning, the Spellings Commission report, institutional marketing, campaign planning, and admissions planning. The leadership council serves as a sounding board that represents many different professional backgrounds. This service dimension is invaluable to the president and the board since the council often considers our college’s issues from a different perspective and can be counted on to shed fresh light on the topic of the day. Outcome notes are taken at each meeting and sent to all members to demonstrate that their effort was meaningful and valued.

The council is led by a chair and a vice-chair who are appointed by the president in consultation with the chair of the board of trustees. The council chair is asked to attend meetings of the board of trustees and the board’s institutional advancement committee. The chair of the board of trustees or a designated representative is invited to the leadership council meetings.

The interaction among leadership council members and board members has been rich, and I believe it has served to strengthen the ultimate direction and outcome of the issues discussed. Of our 38 current board members, 12 are former leadership council members, which speaks to the success of our leadership council initiative.

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