Governing Higher Education Systems in Perilous Times

Assessing Your Board's Readiness and Capacity for Strategic Change

By James H. Page and Barbara Brittingham    //    Volume 29,  Number 2   //    March/April 2021
AGB Trusteeship Magazine 100th Annivery Edition: March/April 2021

Higher education governing boards face a surfeit of challenges. For most institutions, enrollment and financial disruptions add to worsening demographic trends. Competitive pressures grow more intense every year, especially with the dramatic increase in online and remote learning. Now COVID-19 has overturned some of higher education’s most deeply rooted operational assumptions while further limiting a board’s financial ability to respond.

All higher education boards face these challenges. Boards of public institutions face the additional likelihood of substantially reduced state support in fiscal year 2022 and beyond. But the situation is most complex for boards of public systems, which play an outsized role in assuring the quality of American higher education. Approximately three out of every four college students in the United States attend a public university, and about two of every three public institutions are in a system. Consequently, about half of all students in higher education attend a college or university that is part of a public system.1

Not all systems are alike. Most public systems serve an entire state, while some such as a community college district, serve a smaller geographic area. Furthermore, there are two kinds of system boards established in state law: governing boards and coordinating boards. Coordinating boards may coordinate among individual institutions, each of which has its own governing board, or they may coordinate among systems, each with its own governing board, but the authority of the coordinating board is necessarily limited. Beyond that, things get complicated, as illustrated by these examples:

  • Some states have multiple public system boards. For example, Maine has one system for its seven public four year-institutions and a second system for its seven community colleges. The Maine Maritime Academy stands alone with its own board.
  • Some state systems include the flagship (e.g., California and Iowa), while others do not (e.g., Connecticut and Rhode Island).
  • Texas has six systems of public universities, encompassing 34 of its 38 public four-year The Texas State Technical College includes 10 institutions throughout the state; in addition, there are 50 community college districts. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board serves the entire state.
  • Some systems, particularly in the community college sector, serve a geographic region that is part of a state. For example, the Maricopa County Community College District consists of nine institutions enrolling 220,000 students in the Phoenix metropolitan district.

Nevertheless, points made here about serving a state apply as well to systems that serve part of a state, and the diagnostic questions presented in this article apply wherever a board has responsibility to address the challenges outlined here.

While there is considerable variation among public systems (see sidebar), their boards all face three challenges beyond those faced more or less by every public higher education system.

First, the fundamental obligation of public higher education to serve the people of the state means that institutions in a system need to “add up” in service to the entire state: institutional mission differentiation and total program array must summatively reflect the state’s and its citizens’ educational needs and opportunities in the broad context of state resources, demographics, geography, and economy.

Second, by definition, system boards face the complexity of overseeing multiple institutions. Yet institutions in a system, while distinct in geography and sometimes in mission, are intertwined; any significant changes in one institution will have consequences for the others. Whether the system has three institutions or more than 60, the board must ensure the system meets its mission through the work of each institution adding up to success for the whole.

Third, unlike boards of independent colleges and universities, the option for system boards to close a member institution is generally unavailable, even when that institution may no longer be individually viable. Mergers may work, but for now closures are essentially off the table.

Every higher educational institution is now in some process of assessing how it meets its challenges and, indeed, whether its current operational model fits the times. It has always been the responsibility of the board to oversee this assessment, but the challenges are now so pressing and so fundamental that it is incumbent on the board to ensure it has the readiness and capacity (the “will and skill,” to use an older idiom) to do so.

Following is a series of questions to help provide a framework for this self-assessment, grouped under three headings: Board Responsibility, Authority, and Culture; Board Capacity; and Board Planning and Accountability. These questions are addressed both to individual board members and to whole boards. Answering them is a form of gap analysis. The easy answers are the ones for which there are clear, unambiguous “yes” responses as they show that the underlying conditions are well understood and met. Outright negative answers at least make clear there is a gap that needs to be filled. The difficult cases are the ones for which there are uncertainties, unknowns, or disagreements. In those cases, there is serious basic work to be done.

The questions are fundamental but not exhaustive. They are also interrelated; answers to one will often engage issues called out in others. If a board meets to discuss these questions as a group, a good facilitator can often aid the group in getting beyond surface responses, enabling more in-depth reflection and discussion.

Board Responsibility, Authority, and Culture.

The first question in this section has to do with the board’s scope of responsibility, authority, and action. The others are about a board’s readiness to act within its full range of authority.

1. Does the board understand its full range of responsibilities and authority? Understanding the board’s legally established responsibilities as well as the scope and limits of its authority is fundamental to this exercise. Indeed, there is little point in proceeding until this question has been answered. Our experience is that boards are often invested with all the authority they need but may be unaware of that fact, have chosen not to exercise their full authority, or have had their authority de facto superseded by others.

2. Does the board have a culture of acting decisively when and where it counts? Does a review of board decisions in the last three to five years reflect more than routine actions (e.g., approval of the budget, of tenure, of new degree programs)? Do the decisions demonstrate a deep engagement with the most serious issues? What decisions exemplify this culture of action best? This last question is particularly important as it is designed to draw out differing assumptions or viewpoints.

3. Does the board ensure frank and transparent consideration of worst-case scenarios? Given current uncertainties, it is critical that discussions take into account every parameter and variable for which the board is responsible, especially worst cases and their root causes.2 What exemplifies this ability best? As with #2, this question is intended to draw out fundamental assumptions, differences and disagreements.

4. Is the board forward-looking? One way to answer this question is to review board meetings, many of which have devolved to rote readings of reports and updates that can be better handled in meeting A useful rule of thumb is that three quarters of a board’s meeting time should be devoted to forward-looking analyses and decision-making.

5. Can the board act as an aligned organization even when it is divided in opinion? A key element of board culture is how it reacts to its own difficulties in reaching decisions and acting on True divisions must be acknowledged, but unless there are irreconcilable differences about fundamental principles, a board should always strive to act in alignment. A truly divided board cannot lead change.

Board Capacity.

Boards that think of themselves mainly as traditional boosters are mostly gone, but many still have work to do building and maintaining a diverse, knowledgeable, and mutually well-informed group.

6. Does board composition reflect the right mix and depth of expertise and perspectives? Does it include expertise in finances, economics, HR and labor relations, communications, leading complex organizations, broad knowledge of state needs, technology, and other relevant areas.3 If not, what are its plans for closing these gaps (through board rebuilding, staff work, consultants, etc.)?

7. Does the board build capacity through professional development? Does this include attention to immediate issues through the higher education press, for example, or focused professional development using regular education sessions or professional seminars, conferences, and webinars? There are almost as many experiments in change going on as there are systems, with much to learn from one another.

8. Does the board have timely access to necessary data and information? Much if not most of the data required for good board-level decision-making exist, but are too often not available in a timely or useful Addressing what needs to change to make that data and information usefully available may involve staffing, processes, calendars, and even policies. It certainly will involve integrating data and information flow.

9. What partnerships contribute productively to board activities? The board should have an inventory of key partnerships that may include, for example, other public institutions or systems of higher education, business and industry partners, alumni associations, local foundations, and institutional advisory groups. Especially important is the relationship with the institution’s accreditors who can be a strategic change partner.4 How effectively does the board engage with each?

10. Does the board have an effective communication strategy? Public boards are the public’s representatives. All internal and external parties need to have a way of communicating effectively with the board. It is also important that the board is able to convey information between the academy and its outside constituencies, including the public and state government, who often speak past one another.

Board Planning and Accountability.

This last set of questions addresses strategic planning and the assessment of its effectiveness.

11. Does the board have a history of effective strategic planning? What recent successes best exemplify effective strategic planning? As was the case with several previous questions, this question (and #14) are about uncovering differing views and assumptions; in this case, about strategic planning and its follow-through.

12. Has the board articulated the right set of strategic priorities with quantitative success metrics for each of its priorities? Strategic plans often conflate priorities, their success conditions, and particular initiatives meant to achieve those Improving student retention, for example, is an important initiative, but it is a means toward the strategic goal of improving student success. As public institutions, these priorities and metrics should be defined primarily in external terms—i.e., student and state success.

13. Does the board have and exercise appropriate control over resource allocation? Does it have an integrated financial management structure, enabling comprehensive financial analysis, planning, strategic resource allocation and audit? If the answer to these questions is anything other than an unequivocal “yes,” start the operational changes No board plan that looks to address today’s challenges will succeed otherwise.

14. Does the board hold management accountable for achieving those priorities? How? Here too, assessing particular cases will help make clear the board’s attention to follow through.

15. Are the priorities and metrics reviewed regularly to ensure they are appropriate for the current and foreseeable situations? The time of the unchanging five-year strategic plan that is only occasionally referenced is gone. There should be long-term goals, plans need to be audited constantly, adjusted as needed, and revisited annually.

To repeat, these questions are diagnostic; addressing any gap they uncover will likely require substantial effort. But closing them will lead to a stronger, more focused, and more nimble board, and therefore a stronger, more focused, and more nimble organization.

The challenges with which we began are actual, not theoretical, and our institutional responses have contributed to the significant decline in public confidence in higher education.5 With half of all students enrolled in public systems, the stakes are high and the timing is urgent. While much of today’s attention is focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to remember that when the pandemic subsides the demographic, economic, and other long-term pressures will remain. These are challenges that were long coming, are here now, and will not be easily or quickly resolved. There is no silver bullet, and no substitution for strong, effective board leadership.

James H. Page, PhD, is a retired chancellor of the University of Maine System. 

Barbara Brittingham, PhD, is a retired president of the New England Commission of Higher Education. 


  1. Given credible predictions that individual public institutions will have less autonomy, the role of systems and their boards is more important than ever. See, for example, S. Johnstone, M. Goldstein, and J. Page, “The Fading of the Autonomous Institution” in Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 52, Number 4, pp. 7-14, July/August 2020.
  2. It is also important to consider who has responsibility for the items not under board purview.
  3. In concert with SHEEOs, NECHE, the New England regional accreditor, developed a Statement on Appointment to Governing Boards of Public Systems and Public Institutions of Higher It can be found here:
  4. For more on system / accreditor partnerships, see B. Brittingham and J. Page “Demo- graphic and Economic Data Drive Innovation in Quality Assurance” in the proceedings of the Quality Assurance Association Scotland international enhancement conference, November 2020 (forthcoming).
  5. See https://www.insidehigherecom/news/2018/10/09/gallup-survey-finds-falling-con-fidence-higher-education. This decline has social and political roots as well, but reversing this trend certainly involves strong leadership by the board in its role as the public’s trustee.


  • Governing boards of public systems face complex challenges. Boards must ensure their system institutions are effectively managed and successfully “add up” in service to the entire state. A series of self-assessment questions grouped under three headings helps boards form a gap analysis to address these challenges: board responsibility, authority, and culture; board capacity; and board planning and accountability.
  • Board responsibility, authority, and culture questions assess the board’s readiness to act within its full range of authority. These questions urge boards to discuss their culture of decisiveness, reactions to worst-case scenarios, and ability to act as an aligned organization even when opinions are divided.
  • Board capacity questions assess the board’s ability to maintain a diverse, knowledgeable, and productive team. These questions focus on board composition, building board capacity through professional development, and effective communication strategies.
  • Board planning and accountability questions assess a board’s strategic planning and effectiveness. These questions focus on resource allocation, metrics, articulations of strategic priorities, and methods of holding management accountable for achieving priorities.
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