Marshaling Board Leadership in the Face of Disruption

By Marcia P. DeWitt    //    Volume 27,  Number 2   //    March/April 2019

I started my postgraduate career in the 1970s, involved with both large private and public universities after at tending an excellent liberal arts college, Manhattanville College. Looking back at the educational environment and leadership from these schools—the University of Notre Dame, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Maryland—now feels like a heyday period of excellent funding, “can do” attitudes, and, in particular, recognition of the schools’ con-tribution to positive outcomes for students, community, and the public good.

Over the subsequent decades there have been cultural changes in presidents, faculty, student populations, and board leadership that was predominantly male. Key questions remain for boards on the best approaches to attract significantly more diverse audiences at every level. This transition progresses as other related issues percolate: what type of work is ahead for graduates, how can institutions deliver quality education to diverse candidates, how can families fund education, and how can the colleges and universities remain financially viable for the long term?

If that wasn’t enough, two major events have made headlines. First, a February Wall Street Journal article, “America’s Disappearing Private Colleges,” highlighted problems affecting schools with declining enrollments and limited endowments. In March, a national college admissions scam exposing elite U.S. universities and prominent individuals dominated the news, creating additional public skepticism about the fairness of the admissions process.

I have been privileged to chair Manhattanville College’s board of trustees with an outstanding president, Michael Geisler, PhD, and excellent board colleagues. Here are three approaches we use to strengthen our liberal arts college:

ENGAGED COLLABORATION

The role of the board chair is partly defined by the members of the board and the president. Ideally, employing a collaborative partnership facilitates the close working relationship of the board chair, board members, and the president. A crucial requirement for the chair is ensuring that all board members make a real commitment to giving their time, talent, and treasure in the college’s best interest. As Southern New Hampshire University President Paul LeBlanc, PhD, noted in “New Dimensions: Finding Depth with a Smaller Board” (Trusteeship, May/June 2017), the right size of the board has a real impact on achieving this collaborative model while maximizing a board’s needed skills. Effective board chairs are experienced in managing diverse board members in open conversations to build consensus that focuses on handling the great risk and opportunities ahead.

PROBLEM SOLVING

Problem-solving skills are essential for board members to fulfill their strategic and fiduciary roles. Serving on a college or university board is no longer just a prestigious appointment; it is very hard work. Applying this set of board skills to craft timely, creative solutions while partnering with the president and his or her team is the main requirement of a board today. Active committees that bring resolutions forward for board consideration can result in many accomplishments.

FUTURE FUNDING

Colleges and universities must focus on building their endowments while having a financial bottom line that is in the black—a difficult, but necessary charge. Developing a three- to five-year strategic financial plan highlights what it takes for your institution to stay in business. This is difficult, as boards can be unrealistic when judging future financials. Sometimes nostalgia and “wishful thinking” get in the way of projecting donor contributions and enrollment figures. How-ever, board members in their fiduciary role must have a clear picture of high and low estimates for sustainability. If staff do not have enough experience and objectiv-ity, this may require engaging consultants. In addition, publicly funded and private schools face challenges on the equity of their decision making around admissions, scholar-ships, and financial aid. Schools’ choices can have an impact on their long-term legal and financial standing.

A clear plan can set the board and college on the right path.