Recognizing Exceptional Boards

By May 16, 2018 March 7th, 2019 Trusteeship Article

AGB created the John W. Nason Award for Board Leadership in 2015 to recognize and honor boards who are exemplars of innovation, creativity, and exceptional leadership. The award is named after a higher education leader who served as a pioneer on behalf of the importance and centrality of eŽ ective good governance. He began his professional life as a philosophy professor and moved on to become president of Swarthmore College, Carleton College, and the Foreign Policy Association. His contributions to AGB include two seminal texts on the role and responsibilities of college and university board members. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was serving as chairman of the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council during World War II. In this role, he negotiated the release of interned Japanese-American students and persuaded higher education institutions to allow them to continue their studies. In his honor, AGB selected five outstanding governing boards to receive the 2017 John W. Nason Award for Board Leadership, exclusively sponsored by TIAA. A summary of their winning entries follows


Faced with the dual challenges of increased public skepticism about the value of a liberal-arts education and the difficulties facing women’s-only colleges, the board of Agnes Scott College created a strategic financial plan in 2011 to redesign the institution’s business model. The Roadmap to 2020 included a 7 percent reduction in annual operating costs to be accomplished over the next two years. Recognizing that cost-cutting measures would not be wholly sufficient, the board needed to find a way to achieve significant enrollment and revenue growth to keep the institution sustainable. The trustees—in partnership with faculty, staff, and the president—developed a bold and innovative signature initiative, SUMMIT, which reinvents a liberal arts education for the 21st century by providing every student, regardless of her major, with a robust focus on global learning and leadership development supported by a personal board of advisors. The board embraced the need for transformational change and helped lead that change. The institution already is reaping the benefits of that action. In SUMMIT’s first two years, Agnes Scott enrolled its largest first-year class in history two years in a row, and retention hit an all-time high of 87 percent. Revenue from students also increased significantly and was up by $3.4 million over pre-SUMMIT levels.


The 2012-13 academic year began with an unexpected enrollment shortfall at Augsburg University, resulting in budget and staffing cuts that exacerbated an already adversarial relationship developing between the faculty senate and administration. the board of regents developed a strategic plan to reposition the institution. The board launched and directly led a shared governance taskforce to address head-on the tension and mistrust on campus, a comprehensive five-year strategic planning effort, and a bold turnaround of Augsburg’s largest-ever capital campaign. The board’s exceptional leadership from 2012 to 2017 heralded achievement at the nexus of shared governance, integrated planning, and stewardship. Facing a complex array of interrelated tensions, the board responded with efforts that challenged the university to a new level of foundational strength. A newfound sense of achievement and confidence is pervasive—evidence that the ultimate impact of the board’s exemplary performance is far greater than the sum of even these remarkable accomplishments.


The California State University (CSU) system—with its 23 campuses, 479,000 students, and more than 3.4 million alumni—is uniquely positioned to produce a bachelor’s degree-educated workforce in the state. This need proved to be a key motivator for the system’s board of trustees and leadership in developing the Graduation Initiative 2025. The board, along with faculty and leadership, established ambitious and attainable goals to increase graduation rates and close achievement gaps by race and socioeconomic factors. Early results seem promising. More than one year into the initiative, data indicate that CSU is advancing toward its goals, with a record high number of students earning their baccalaureate degree in the 2016-17 academic year. This increase was accomplished while sustaining academic quality and rigor and continuing trends of increasing campus diversity. The board’s ongoing leadership and advocacy will further bolster the impact of this university-wide effort, and its continued decision-making and persistent monitoring will help close the 1.1-million-degree gap California is experiencing.


In 2004, the board of trustees of Ohio University adopted the mission of being “the nation’s best transformative learning community.” Several issues have confronted the board in the pursuit of realizing this mission, including financial pressures caused by decreased state support and the challenges of deferred maintenance. Enhancing affordability and access without compromising quality and student successes were viewed together as a strategic priority. In response, the board encouraged senior leadership to develop and implement a financial model that would offer a “cost stabilization” feature. The resulting plan is called The OHIO Guarantee™, which offers struggling families a single, fixed rate that covers tuition, room and meal plan, and fees for four years at Ohio’s Athens campus. The OHIO Guarantee ™ embodies the sustained conviction of the board and creative thinking and perseverance of senior administrators. Ohio also capitalized a central bank with a focused mission to use the revenues to fund deferred maintenance. The board insisted on establishing a $7 million fund to ensure payment of a $250 million principal in 2114 and creating a guiding principles document to govern the funds. The document will be shared annually with future university boards and executive leadership, showing a distinct respect for principles of shared governance at Ohio University.


In the early 2010s, Unity College’s board of trustees faced the question of how to use the institution’s effective environmental curriculum and committed faculty, staff, and students as a springboard to mitigate internal limitations and overcome challenging externalities. Their solution? To work with leadership in developing a new strategic plan for the college that would further commit to the school’s environmental mission and student-centric approach while preparing the college to flourish against a backdrop of industry fluctuation. In 2014, the board adopted “Building a Beacon: The Unity College Strategic Plan.” The plan called for an infrastructure build-out to diversify revenue and national visibility, as well as a comprehensive redesign of the first two years of college and a comprehensive strategic branding initiative. The board did the hard work of reimagining and engaging in a four-year, fully immersive branding study, positioning itself for the future of the college, its students, and small, private institutions.