Over the summer, numerous chief executives and board chairs shared with me their concern about how—after operating in crisis mode for 18 months, in an environment that demanded quick decisions and short timetables—their boards are now struggling with how to plan for the long term. From one president I spoke with, “My board and I have met so frequently over the last year to discuss existential threats, and we not only survived—we are thriving! I now need to reorient my board to focus on long-term, strategic matters.” In that regard, let me share some thoughts about how board members, presidents, and senior staff can reorient the board toward strategic thinking rather than focusing primarily on reactive, tactical activities.
First, it is imperative that the president and the board chair work together to help the board focus on long-term strategy and their institution’s future. As an AGB FAQ “Selecting a Board Chair” (www.AGB.org/FAQs) emphasizes, a key responsibility of the board chair is to focus on the institution’s vision. Board chairs are also responsible for ensuring that all board members are afforded opportunities to deepen their knowledge and capacity to effectively serve in the boardroom while also ensuring board members provide strategic oversight and guidance.
Second, board chairs need to ensure that the board and leadership team have solid strategies, policies, and practices around crisis response and planning. Over the last year, many governing boards faced some sort of crisis. Those who were unprepared were required to rapidly update their crisis strategies and plans, akin to rebuilding the plane while flying it. Going forward, boards should review their crisis strategies and plans regularly. I also encourage either the board leadership or members of the audit or risk committees to participate in tabletop rehearsals with key campus leaders to ensure seamless implementation of crisis plans if needed. Reviewing AGB’s book on crisis leadership (see AGB.org/CrisisLeadership) is time well spent.
Third, now is an excellent time for boards to hold retreats focusing on specific long-term issues. After more than a year of remote meetings, I encourage boards, if possible, to hold in-person retreats. Extended conversations among board members in both formal and social settings often lead them to examine concepts and perspectives in a new light. Retreats also create the opportunity for boards to hear from guest speakers who can help them understand specific issues, such as student recruitment and retention strategies; external influences; cyber security; justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion (JDE&I); or financial sensitivities. AGB’s Top Strategic Issues for Boards 2020–2021 (www.AGB.org/TopStrategicIssues) lays out six important issues that boards can consider together.
Finally, board chairs can “reset” their board’s mind-set by reviewing governance fundamentals. Most boards, as a best practice, conduct periodic board assessments (required by many states and accreditors) to help identify blind spots and define opportunities to sharpen board alignment with institutional priorities. Further, many boards provide ongoing, annual professional development for board members to supplement new board member orientation. I submit that these practices can be beneficial for new and veteran board members alike, serving as a reminder of the board’s purpose and its fiduciary responsibilities. In this regard, please see AGB’s new Principles of Trusteeship (www.AGB.org/Principles), which identifies the attributes and actions of exemplary board members and underscores why effective board members should focus on what matters most to long-term sustainability. Reflecting on these principles can help board members and senior staff shift their thinking from the immediate into the long term.
It would be a mistake to assume that higher education is no longer vulnerable. Despite a trend of good news about reopening, many questions remain about what the future holds. Board members need to be in partnership with their presidents and campus constituencies as appropriate to address today’s challenges, sharing their thoughts and suggestions. At the same time, we all need to recognize that higher education as a sector is changing drastically. Although it is not possible to predict what the next 5 years (or even 10 or 20 years) will look like, our boards and campuses do need to focus on the horizon.
Henry Stoever, AGB President and Chief Executive Officer