Lessons from Other Boardrooms

By April 14, 2011 March 7th, 2019 Trusteeship Article

I have spent over four decades as a professor and administrator in higher education, but I have also served as a board member in other, different organizations. I believe that some of the lessons that I learned outside academe are relevant to colleges and universities as well.

For several years, I was a member of the National Review Board established by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to implement the Dallas Charter on clerical sexual abuse of children. Our lay board was responsible for establishing training program guidelines, developing criteria, and evaluating the effectiveness of programs. When we first proposed an audit of every diocese in the country to determine how well they were fulfilling the requirements of the charter, some bishops flatly opposed the initiative. Yet when we engaged them in constructive dialogue, they agreed to the proposed audits.

Lesson: Effective governance is not simply a matter of authority. It may lie in the give and take that modifies propositions until mutual needs are met. Our dialogue generated understanding and agreement, and the plans we ultimately implemented were better than those we began with.

As a director of several public corporations, my top consideration was to increase the value of the company’s stock or provide shareholders with a dividend. In higher education, the quality of education is the comparable value, but we do many things that would be unthinkable in the corporate sector. By providing institutional financial aid and scholarships, we actually pay the “customer” to “buy” our “product.” We try to keep the price low to promote access and routinely offer programs that do not generate a profit in order to provide a comprehensive academic program. We build the endowment, but we save the principal to support the future—rather than reinvest it in new initiatives or distribute it through tuition reduction.

Lesson: Colleges must be accountable in different ways than corporations. We must be as diligent in auditing our mission effectiveness as businesses are in auditing financial performance. At the end of the year, it is easy to determine our financial status, but it is more important to assess what progress we have made towards enhancing the quality of education.

For the past six years, I have served on the Illinois Board of Higher Education, which oversees the curricula, budget, and missions of all higher-educationinstitutions in Illinois. Because the university is dependent on the legislature for its operating and capital budgets and for student aid, administrators can be tempted to respond to the interests of public leaders. That’s of greatest concern for public institutions, but independent institutions are also vulnerable to pressures from major donors to make academic decisions to achieve political goals or to satisfy the personal preferences of influential people or groups.

Lesson: The only effective governance strategy is to have clear, well-established, and openly communicated priorities and criteria for making transparent and consistent decisions. That won’t prevent efforts to influence and intervene, but it will make it difficult for anyone attempting to subvert public governance to personal ends to do so without incurring bad press and public censure.

I have also served on numerous nonprofit boards and have been impressed with the commitment of staff, trustees, and donors to the success of the agencies. Those who work for these causes see themselves not just as donors, program managers, or trustees, but as fulfilling a mission.

Lesson: Commitment to mission is vital. The strategy of the nonprofit is to lead the community beyond the daily work to recognize that they are participating in something greater. People so inspired and engaged will work harder and achieve more.

Thus, I have learned the importance of: dialogue, accountability in mission attainment as well as financial performance, clear priorities and transparency, and the power of mission. The one constant I have observed among all the different types of boards has been people’s commitment to their organization’s goals. That is the most important lesson for building effective boards.