On My Agenda: Building a Strategic Board Is More Important than Ever

By Henry Stoever    //    Volume 28,  Number 4   //    July/August 2020
Blog Post

The COVID-19 pandemic arose at a time when colleges and universities were already facing significant challenges, including enrollment constraints, public scrutiny about the cost of postsecondary education, rising student debt, questions about the value of a degree, and more. As we work through this global health crisis, the need for strategic board leadership has never been greater. To me, there are three critically important steps to achieving a strategic board: focus on strategy rather than operations, develop a strategic focus from day one through the onboarding of new board members, and bolster impact—ensure leadership that promotes relevance and solutions.

As fiduciaries, board members assume significant responsibilities for higher education institutions spanning reputation, financial health, academic quality, student success, workforce preparation, risk oversight, and much more. Consider these the “stewardship of intangible assets” responsibilities. While many board members correctly view their roles from a core governance and policymaking perspective—i.e., the fiduciary duty of care, loyalty, and obedience—this is just the starting point.

Strategic boards perform at a much higher level than boards that get caught up in management and operations; they form a strategic partnership with the president and management team. The key differences include a strategic mindset versus an operational approach, or “long-term versus short-term view.” Strategic board leaders collaboratively create meeting agendas that align with a future, long-term orientation mindset, and their time spent between meetings is used for learning about higher education, their students, and trends so their institution delivers distinct outcomes for their key constituencies.

As institutions approach the fall semester, board members have made, and will continue to make, the most vital and difficult decisions in recent memory. Questions boards will need to answer include these: if/when/how to reopen campus; how to deliver a high-quality education experience in a purely virtual or hybrid model; how to support student health and wellness in a scalable and efficient manner; and how to foster short- and long-term financial viability.

Further, many new board members will begin their board service over the next few months. These board members are entering their service during an unprecedented health crisis and must quickly get up to speed to participate effectively. AGB’s online orientation program (complimentary to all AGB members) is one way that new board members are becoming familiar with their duties, roles, responsibilities, and expectations.

Composing boards with committed leaders who bring diverse experience, skills, perspectives, and insights to oversee an institution or an institutionally related foundation is part of the formula for a strategic board. Another component is board development—ongoing conversations about duties, responsibilities, expectations, and partnerships.

Just as faculty are developing new ways to deliver high-quality academic experiences, board members should bolster the value that boards offer during this time. Campus constituents expect strategic board leadership, and they are wondering how their institutions will transform to tackle this crisis and beyond. It is essential that board members are well informed about their role, the decisions to be made, and the impact (real and potential) of their work.

In light of the current crisis, sustained board development is necessary. Board development topics frequently include strategy and oversight, financial planning, competitive differentiation, crisis and risk management, academic quality assurance, technology, distance education, and more. No one has all the answers to this current pandemic or its total impact, but it’s clear that there are many decisions to be made and obstacles to overcome.

Lastly, while board orientations and meetings are an excellent time to build your understanding of your institution and board governance, I encourage you to think about additional AGB resources to supplement your work. AGB recently began offering new, complimentary discussion forums to help board members ask and discuss press-ing questions with their peers and subject matter experts. While some of the discussion forums are role-specific, peer-to-peer discussions, others are topic-oriented. One such program, Ask the Expert, allows board members, presidents, and senior leaders to connect with AGB experts in an “ask-me-anything” setting, to discuss important questions like “what decisions are boards making to reopen their campuses?” Another new offering, Peer to Peer Conversations, serves as a forum for board chairs and vice chairs to learn from each other.

I urge you to look into these programs available to you as an AGB member. The pandemic has rocked higher education and society at large, and I am continually impressed by your passion, dedication, and commitment to your institutions. I begin my second year at AGB with a sense of tremendous opportunity, and I look forward to collaborating with you.

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