How the Board Helped Transform New England College

By John Stevens    //    Volume 20,  Number 4   //    July/August 2012

In 1999, the president of New England College, a private liberal arts college in New Hampshire, asked me if I would join its board. At that time, the institution was on a downward spiral, despite the president’s efforts to update the curriculum and open up new student markets. Her hard work toward strategic change and innovation was rebuffed by faculty members, students, and alumni even though depressingly low enrollments and huge financial losses threatened the college’s very survival.

Were the faculty members, students, and alumni the enemies of change, placing their own shortsighted interests above those of the college? No, we the trustees were the true enemies. As a longtime higher education consultant, I’ve learned that struggling colleges almost always have poor-performing boards.

New England College was no exception. Over time, a confused governance structure had emerged: The board was abrogating its big-picture responsibility to set policy while micromanaging day-to-day matters, often frustrating the president’s plans. Individual trustees’ willingness to have friendly consults with the college’s faculty and staff resulted in embarrassing governance challenges. They made it difficult, for instance, for the president to make responsible decisions about promotion and tenure as well as to recommend new programs. With a board unwittingly working against her, our president eventually resigned.

I was the board chair during much of her and the next president’s tenure and also served as interim president on a pro bono basis during the transition between presidents. Along with some other trustees, I knew the board needed to change the way it governed for the college to succeed. We needed to teach people at the institution about their proper roles in governance, and the full board had to understand that it could not waver when good governance practices were challenged. In addition, we needed to create internal structures that would support innovative change.

Today, after an initial period of tumult that included some significant changes in board membership, New England College can boast about its strong president and an enrollment four times larger than it was at its lowest point a little over a decade ago. About half of its students are enrolled in its traditional undergraduate programs, while the rest attend a variety of off-site, distance-learning, and limited-residence undergraduate and graduate programs. The college has consistent annual surpluses and a rapidly growing endowment. The administration and faculty quickly develop new market-sensitive, nontraditional programs, committing to them only when sufficient enrollment has been in place to sustain them financially. The college will move soon to a 12-month calendar and trimester system to optimize space on the campus, and it will seek another doubling of enrollment by continuing to add programs that use technology effectively. Based on our experience, I would share the following lessons with trustees of other struggling colleges:

Take action to change your behavior. First, accept that more likely than not, you are a big part of the problem and must change. Second, realize that while the board has the ultimate responsibility for all matters at your institution, it should focus nearly all of its attention on mission, direction, values, constituents, programs, services, and finances. Strong boards spend their time measuring and evaluating their own performance, as well as that of the president and the institution, in each of the areas I’ve listed.

Weak boards, in contrast, often focus instead on operational details like solutions to anecdotal complaints they hear in impromptu talks with faculty, staff, or students about such matters as how many hours the bookstore should be open or whether the color scheme in the residence halls should upgraded. There are people at your institutions who know more than you in each of these areas, and you should listen to them. While never abrogating the duty to make key policy decisions, boards should delegate management of the institution to the president and support him or her in every way possible.

Work with your president to educate everyone on the campus about their roles in the governance of the institution. During the period I was chair and interim president at New England College, our board engaged in a broad-based collaborative discussion with the campus community that resulted in a definition and codification of everyone’s governance roles. Such definitions, for example, made it clear to faculty members that, while their domain of authority included the delivery of academic programs, the board would from a strategic perspective decide which of those programs the institution would offer based upon the faculty’s and the president’s advice. After we reached an understanding about governance roles, the college conducted a highly collaborative strategic-planning process, reinforcing those roles.

De-sanctify unworthy sacred cows. Once the strategic plan was in place, we insisted on regular reporting on how the institution was performing and meeting the goals of that plan. At every board meeting, we also engaged our institution in generative discussions that challenged traditional thinking and envisioned new ways of doing business that respected our institution’s values. Many of our efforts in areas like distance education and hybrid programs resulted from such discussions.

Work with your president to set up decision-making structures that foster innovation. A decade ago, most undergraduate faculty members at New England College were not experienced in taking nontraditional approaches to higher education. So the president set up new structures that respected the domain of the faculty but still encouraged innovation. Instead of having the traditional undergraduate faculty members make program recommendations for distance education and graduate programs, separate divisions with separate faculties were created in both areas.

Ultimately, what we learned in the process of turning the college around was that crisis conditions require that responsible people work together to take measured risks and make innovative change happen. As board members, we are the agents responsible for enabling and overseeing such change—and that is never more important than when the institution is struggling.

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