On My Agenda: Strategic Foresight Through Data-Driven Insights

By Henry Stoever    //    Volume 29,  Number 4   //    July/August 2021
AGB Trusteeship Magazine, July/August 2021 with cover article "Winning Amazon HQ2"

AGB’s Principles of Trusteeship: How to Become a Highly Effective Board Member for Colleges, Universities, and Foundations states explicitly that one of the fundamental responsibilities of each board member is to “think strategically by focusing on what matters most to the long-term success of the whole enterprise.” It is axiomatic that effective strategic planning is informed by data-driven insights.

As boards fulfill their oversight responsibilities and collaboratively establish strategic plans with their presidents and leadership teams, it is imperative that discussions about student success, enrollment policies, mergers or affiliations, academic quality, and others are based on high-quality data and metrics. We have observed that for far too many colleges and universities, first-year enrollment is often viewed as an important measure of success when in other metrics, such as graduation and tuition-discount rate, are even more significant.

AGB urges board members to consider the data that they want to review more closely. For example, boards may well want to see graduation data in terms of the demographic profile of the student body such as family income, gender, ethnicity, high school GPAs, and academic majors. Many boards have found it valuable to track student success in relation to their engagement in high-impact practices such as study abroad, undergraduate research, service learning, and internships.

Considering such segment-specific data will enable boards to more easily understand the gaps and issues that a more global view of data will often not reveal. Informed with this knowledge, boards can ensure that institutional resources are being allocated to areas that will have the greatest impact on student success. AGB suggests that such data be shared with the faculty as they develop the curriculum and think about what pedagogies will be most effective for different students.

For example, many institutions collaborate with regional economic development organizations to understand employers’ needs over the next decade, while others attempt to understand graduates’ incomes and career satisfaction over time to identify opportunities to enhance student outcomes. In other words, good data can assist boards as they fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities in terms of their oversight of financials, student success, and academic quality.

Perhaps stating the obvious, board members should rely on the administration to gather and present the necessary data to make good decisions. At the same time, board members should also ask probing questions to ensure that they and the administration understand and can address potential problems. Indeed, it is sound practice for boards to think about what may be missing and what other data might be more informative.

American higher education has long benefitted from the notion of citizen board leadership. The likelihood that most board members come from outside of higher education means that boards are composed of leaders with varied experiences and perspectives. My colleagues and I encourage all board members to leverage their experience when interpreting data that informs strategic options and institutional decisions.

We also encourage all board members, especially new board members, to invest the necessary time and energy into ensuring that they understand their institutions’ dashboards and that they comprehend the implications of the data made available to them. In particular, we urge you to consider these questions:

  • What are the primary goals of our college, university, system, or foundation, and what data has the administration provided to measure progress toward those goals?
  • Is the board focused on the right information?
  • What other information would we like to see, how often, and in what form? Or to put it another way, where might there be gaps or blind spots?
  • What insights can I personally bring to the discussion?

In closing, and if you have not already done so, please download a copy of the Principles of Trusteeship: How to Become a Highly Effective Board Member for Colleges, Universities, and Foundations at AGB.org/Principles-of-Trusteeship. This resource highlights nine principles that board members can utilize to deepen their knowledge about the institutions they serve and become a more consequential board member. It also provides useful insights into the fundamental characteristics and attributes that make up effective board member conduct and service.

Thank you for your service to students and higher education.

Henry Stoever, AGB President and Chief Executive Officer

Related Resources

Principles of Trusteeship: How to Become a Highly Effective Board Member for Colleges, Universities, and Foundations