Awarding Exceptional Board Governance and Leadership

By AGB    //    Volume 27,  Number 2   //    March/April 2019

AGB’s Board of Directors and executive team reestablished the John W. Nason Award for Board Leadership in 2015 to recognize and honor boards leading the sector in innovation, creativity, and exceptional leadership. The award is named after John W. Nason, a highly respected higher education leader who exhibited these characteristics throughout his life and espoused the importance of effective governance. Nason served as the president of Swarthmore College and Carleton College and also served as the president of the Foreign Policy Association, which was established in 1918 to encourage the American public to learn more about the world. Perhaps his most inspiring accomplishment was his service as the chairman of the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council during World War II, negotiating the release of interned Japanese American students and persuading higher education institutions to allow them to continue pursuing their studies. It is in recognition of his spirit that AGB honors six outstanding governing boards with the 2018–2019 John W. Nason Award for Board Leadership, exclusively sponsored by TIAA.

In the fall of 2016, Furman University officially announced the Furman Advantage as the strategic vision for how a Furman education will deliver greater value and impact. The Furman Advantage required faculty and staff engagement, as well as significant changes in campus culture. In addition, the then chair of the board challenged the board to consider a review of trustee structure and engagement to ensure the advancement of the vision. The Furman University Board of Directors embarked on a 15-month process of board assessment that led to Furman rewriting its bylaws and significantly updating its governance structure. Important changes ensued, including broadening the com-position and role of the board’s executive committee; reshaping other commit-tees; strengthening board orientation; instituting term limits; and creating a more effective trustee evalua-tion process. The board took a data-driven approach to making important decisions regarding the size of the board, term limits of board members, and emeritus status of board members. Realizing it didn’t need to wait for final recommendations to begin practicing consequential governance, the board engaged in better practices right away.

Founded by Quakers, Haverford College is an institution fully committed to consensus decision making and to its values-centered education, as well as to the principles of equity, community, and social justice. In the past few years, some issues presented them-selves that challenged the college’s board of managers to commit to these founding principles. Following a period of ambitious reform—during which the board revised the framework of internal governance (including bylaws and structure)—the board realized the institution was facing concerns about its financial stability. An obvious starting point was to eliminate Haverford’s need blind admissions policy but doing so would seem to stand in opposition to its institutional mission. Nevertheless, by means of engaging all constituents in a very public and inclusive way—demonstrating a commitment to collaboration—the board smoothly effected the shift to a need aware admissions process. The board once again committed to this process of collective exchange in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, when President Trump issued the travel ban and enacted actions against certain populations seeking immigration or asylum status in the United States. Haverford’s board engaged in a focused exploration of the relation between the federal administration’s actions and the college’s identity, values, and mission. In response, the board issued a statement of care, affirming the college’s soldarity with students, faculty, and staff who are not United States citizens or are members of vulnerable religious minorities.

The past three years presented significant challenges to Kansas State University (KSU). Substantial declines in state support and decreased student enrollment placed a severe financial strain on the university. In response, the KSU Foundation Board of Directors acted boldly, moving beyond the traditional role of an institutionally related foundation, embracing the opportunity to address the university’s holistic success. It engaged in developing a centralized scholarship administration system to ensure all scholarship dollars were being optimally leveraged for student enrollment and academic success. With the endorsement of university leadership, the KSU Foundation Board approved the purchase of software that will match student data with scholarship criteria for each foundation fund to provide a list of students who meet the funds’ qualifications. Further, the board focused on improving processes to better utilize donor funds. Beyond helping to alleviate financial strain, the board also helped to build an inclusive and modern campus. Following a string of racially charged incidents in and around campus, the board endorsed the development of a multicultural student center. Further, it developed a proactive real estate formula to help draw corporate partners to the university.

The Miami University Board of Trustees cultivated a culture of creativity and innovation for the institution, resulting in original programs and activities, among them the university’s Armstrong Institute for Interactive Media Studies (AIMS). This is a cross-disciplinary institute committed to preparing students for the opportunities that interactive media present. In addition, it developed a leadership training program through Miami’s Institute for Entrepreneurship, which is one of the fastest growing programs at Miami’s Farmer School of Business and which has nearly tripled in size over the last six years. The success of these and other initiatives would not be possible without the board’s commitment to creating a wide-reaching university strategic plan: the Miami University 2020 Plan. The board not only challenged the university to develop this plan, board members also served as active participants by attending committee meetings, working with subcommittee chairs, and collaborating directly with the president and provost. Tied to the strategic plan is the Lean initiative, which the board helped guide. Miami’s Lean approach focuses on increasing revenue, improving productivity, reducing costs, and “green” initiatives.

In the 1990s, St. John’s University experienced tremendous growth and expansion, including transformative construction and infrastructure developments. However, when the global financial crisis unfolded in 2008, the endowment suffered a $100-million decline in market value. The institution also faced the retirement of a president who had served for 24 years. Key members of the board quickly designed a smooth transition of leadership, and a new president joined the university in July of 2014. Soon, the board approved a new Strategic Priorities Action Plan, a university-wide planning framework for the implementation of four strategic priorities: student success; recruiting and retaining the best faculty, staff, and administrators; enhancing the teaching and learning environment; and expanding global and community partner-ships. Immediate bold steps were needed. With a long-term debt approaching $600 million in 2014, the board froze long-term borrowing and implemented a historic freeze in tuition and fees, as well as room and board costs, for the 2015–2016 academic year, demonstrating a sharper focus on financial governance. The president and board placed new emphasis on recruiting local students, who retain at a higher rate than out-of-area students. These efforts succeeded. St. John’s reversed a five-year decline in undergraduate enrollment. In addition, to further enhance student success, the university—with board sup-port—is undergoing a campus-wide digital transformation and establishing a uniform technology standard to improve learning outcomes.

In 2013, Youngstown State’s board of trustees found itself grappling with financial uncertainty, declining enrollment, and frequent changes in leadership. At the same time the university’s enrollment was drop-ping, the state of Ohio reduced funding appropriations by 15 percent, compounding the financial storm. To restore fiscal integrity, the board mandated that the administration work with the campus community to resolve a $10-million structural deficit. In addition, it directed the administration to work with the YSU Foundation to assure a new partnership—resulting in the $100 million “We See Tomorrow” fundraising campaign. As a result, the structural deficit in the budget was effectively erased by June 2016. Simultaneously, the board recognized that there needed to be a renewed commitment to shared governance across campus. It adopted a resolution on shared governance and a document outlining principles and expectations for practicing an integrated decision-making process. More recently, the board endorsed the president’s recommendation to update the university’s strategic plan—a significant demonstration of the board’s under-standing of its leadership role and its commitment to shared governance and responsibility.

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