Some Reflections

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

As he prepares for retirement at the end of June following 14 years as AGB’s president and chief executive officer and 36 years of service to AGB, Richard D. Legon speaks with Rich Novak, an AGB senior fellow who during his 21-year career at AGB served as the senior vice president for programs and research and executive director of the Ingram Center, on the state of higher education today and on AGB’s accomplishments and its future.

NOVAK: Before I ask you, specifically, about governance I want to ask about higher education. You’re aware of the oft-cited critiques: It costs too much, it’s too liberal, too elitist, it has lost the public’s trust. What do you think about higher education in American society today?

LEGON: I think higher education is perhaps the greatest resource that we have in this country. When you travel the world as I’ve been fortunate to do, among the things one hears—at least with the leaders I’ve met with—is the respect, maybe even envy, that leaders across the world have for American higher education. While our institutions—both public and private—are facing challenges and some substantial disruption, at the end of the day our higher education system is built around the purpose of providing opportunity. We should recognize our higher education’s fragility while ensuring that the debates we’re having about it don’t undermine it. We can engage in serious debate about higher education and we should, but we shouldn’t unpack it to the point where we weaken it beyond recognition.

NOVAK: What are your greatest concerns about what higher education is facing today?

LEGON: We can’t afford a tepid response to our sector’s challenges. We will not fix the affordability and graduation issues without a strong and sustained national commitment to higher ed. It goes beyond the values proposition debate—which is more of an intellectual discussion than a call to action. The United States needs to be intentional about a renewed commitment to higher education. Perhaps we need something comparable to the Truman Commission, which produced the landmark 1947 report Higher Education for American Democracy. Truman established the President’s Commission on Higher Education to examine the system of higher education in our democracy not only in terms of its objectives, methods, and facilities, but also in terms of the social role it plays in advancing our democratic values. We need something equivalent to that today—a national commitment to higher education that is analogous to a national commitment to invest in our infrastructure. And we need board members to serve as advocates for such a discussion, beginning in their own board rooms, that ultimately leads to a renewed emphasis in the United States on the value—on the importance—of higher education.

I’m not saying that the criticisms of our sector are necessarily unfair. I think the major concerns around affordability versus the realities of the cost and debt debate require a sensible and deliberate national conversation while at the same time doing the best we can to run a more efficient system. So the question becomes: What is the fundamental purpose of higher education in this country? Let’s settle that one and then invest to meet those objectives.

NOVAK: Would you like to speak to the scandals plaguing higher education—in particular the admissions debacle at a number of elite institutions that has clearly attracted the public’s attention?

LEGON: It’s unfortunate how frequently we’ve been addressing high-profile institutional failures and scandals in recent years—many of them (actually too many of them) in some way linked to college sports programs.  And all too often those failures or scandals have been connected in some way to failures in board governance—less due to commission than to omission.  This recent criminal activity related to athletics admissions in a number of elite institutions is a stain not only on those institutions that are directly linked to the criminal behavior but also on the reputation of the entire sector.

All institutions are being asked probing questions about admissions policies and practices. Perhaps because of the specific institutions or the names of some prominent people wrapped up in this most recent situation, the outrage has been palpable.  And while the media coverage and public outcry will likely wane, the public’s ongoing concerns about the merits and credibility of the higher ed sector will have been exacerbated.  I worry about how institutional behavior connects to higher education’s overall reputation—especially in a moment when the value proposition of the sector is being questioned.  Why do we continue to throw chum in the water for our harsh-est critics?  Ultimately, it is our governing boards that need to recognize the link between their accountability and institutional ethical behavior and reputation. Boards need to demand transparency and ask the probing questions—they need to be part of conversations about “risk.” Scandal is detrimental to both our institutions and our students.

NOVAK: Let’s now turn to governance. Throughout your presidency you’ve championed best practices and often said, “We’ve got to get governance right.” What do you mean by that?

LEGON: We have the world’s most unique model of higher education governance—one based on independent governing boards supporting autonomous institutions. While there are other countries that have aspects of citizen governing boards, it is the standard of independent boards that is among the defining characteristics of American higher education. In many ways higher education board governance is a reflection of our democratic values: board members—volunteers—who are ultimately responsible for the mission of the institutions they serve. We ask a lot of mostly external volunteers who are selected or appointed to our college and university governing boards. Ours is a complex sector—a business, but not in the traditional sense. We want our board members to be aware and engaged, to learn the business of higher education, to link institutional mission to actual results, to understand the quality of academic programs while remaining appropriately distant from the shaping and delivery of the business’s primary product, and we need boards to be confident that their students are receiving the education they are paying for in today’s highly competitive market. My urgings about getting governance right are a reminder to boards and institution leaders that effective and productive governance requires attention, personal and corporate commitment, and constancy. Getting governance right takes work at the board and at the administrative levels.

NOVAK: In that regard how does AGB help members “get governance right”?

LEGON: We’ve addressed some tough and complex issues—some encouraging governance best practice and others that remind boards that the scope of their account-ability requires a level of understanding about higher education challenges. AGB has also demonstrated a symbolic reminder to boards of the importance of their work. AGB is an organization that supports individual board members in meeting their responsibilities and raises their consciousness about the issues and about their legal responsibilities as fiduciaries.

NOVAK: Do you see any major difference in the governance of the public and private sectors? Are there any governance issues you see as especially problematic or as areas
of opportunity?

LEGON: I’ve been impressed by the fact that most if not all board members share a commitment to add value to their institutions and to higher education. It can’t be denied that the way boards are selected or politically appointed—or elected, as some are—does have an impact on how boards understand and address their responsibilities. Public sector board members play an especially instrumental role in advocating with state policy leaders. However, facing unique challenges applies to all boards regardless of sector.

NOVAK: Talk a little bit about board accountability. To whom are boards accountable?

LEGON: Boards that accept their scope of accountability have a clearer sense as to whom and for what they are responsible. As fiduciaries, boards and board members must work within a basic set of legal expectations, but when you break it down a board should be able to understand their legal and ethical responsibilities to their students, to their internal and external stakeholders, to the general public, to donors—to a broad array of constituents. Boards need to under-stand the scope of their accountability for their institution’s finances and business model; the quality of their institution’s academic programs; the well-being of their students, faculty, and staff; and their commitment to the public’s interest.

NOVAK: Let’s turn a bit to AGB. A mutual friend of ours had an observation about AGB. He said that the association has transitioned from an organization that studied governance, wrote about best practices, and hosted meetings into a much more proactive organization that defines and advocates on behalf of good governance, conducts its own research, urges boards to be engaged on the key issues to a far greater extent than previously, and encourages strengthened and collaborative partnerships between boards and chief executives. It’s also an association that’s willing to take risks. Do you think that’s an accurate description of how AGB has evolved?

LEGON: There’s been a bit of a sea change in how institution CEOs view their relationship with their governing bodies. I appreciate the recognition that AGB has received, and the strong support from our board of directors to take risks and to become an innovative organization. Increasingly, we see presidents—especially newer presidents—recognize that their success is going to be linked to how effectively they work in collaboration with their board. So AGB has advanced a more proactive set of recommendations on what governance best practices are, and how to implement them and encourage a more value-added level of board engagement. Policy leaders and board members increasingly respect AGB’s efforts to strengthen and protect the country’s unique governance model.

I’m proud that over the last number of years AGB has received a heightened degree of trust from among our members. I don’t think there’s any greater compliment that we could get from our members than the fact that we are seen as “the” trusted resource in higher education governance.

NOVAK: What do you think have been the most significant AGB initiatives during your tenure as president?

LEGON: Interesting question. I think we established some new ways to think about board engagement—we’ve helped boards move from a more historically passive role to one that is more consistent with actual board accountability; we set a higher bar for how boards should view their responsibilities. Our several national commissions during the last 14 years—perhaps highlighted by the report of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education Governance, Consequential Boards, which captured the attention of boards and presidents—were especially important. And our work on intercollegiate athletics, which remains a conundrum for many governing boards, was important, as were our initiatives on board conflict of interest, academic quality, shared governance, and our study on the challenges confronting presidents in the 21st century—as a call for collaborative governance.

The reality is that we considered the most challenging risks to the sector and determined how boards should be engaged while not moving to a level of engagement that bordered on micromanagement. We helped presidents value the rich resource that their board could offer.

NOVAK: In terms of public policy AGB has taken on a more significant role at the state and federal levels. How did that come about?

LEGON: AGB has moved into a more substantial level of engagement in public policy matters. There have been some interesting issues over the years, and where the voices of board members can add value I’m proud to say that AGB’s have made a difference. We’re not a lobbying organization, we are an educational association. So as policy initiatives at the federal level and perhaps even more so at the state level have been advanced that impact governance—directly or indirectly—we have attempted to educate policymakers by voicing our concerns and advocating on behalf of independent board governance. And there have been some especially egregious efforts that would have dramatically impacted our governance model. However, with the strong support of the AGB board of directors—men and women who are, for the most part, active board members of governing boards—we have weighed in and argued on behalf of sound governance models.

We can have our voice heard by virtue of the fact that the men and women who are serving on governing boards are often influential citizens—corporate leaders, professionals, and former public policy leaders—many of whom offer a unique perspective to the voice of higher education. That’s been the strategy and the value of AGB being engaged in public policy.

At the federal level, some of the work we have done relates to the current challenges associated with the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Some of the questions that are being considered at the federal level surround the future of regional accreditation, Title IX, the future of the definition of credit hours, the future of state authorization issues—an array of issues that at the end of the day have a direct impact on the business model of these institutions and bear directly on board responsibilities. So we assert the concern of and connection to board members and governance.

Several years ago, you and I both spent a substantial amount of time advocating with the SEC about a proposed regulation being considered as part of the Dodd-Frank Act that would have required all governing board members to register as Municipal Advisors. AGB spent more than a couple of years, alone among the higher ed organizations, advocating for and ultimately receiving a carve-out from the SEC-proposed regulation, enabling board members to remain as fiduciaries rather than be designated as Municipal Advisors. I’m very pleased about how that fundamental threat to board governance turned out, but it was a bit of a lonely slog.

As I said earlier, we have a unique model of institutional governance, and we need to protect and make better this fragile system of governance that goes back more than 350 years. It’s important that we continue to cultivate this model and fend off legislative and regulatory efforts that could compromise it.

NOVAK: In the same vein, AGB launched the Guardians Initiative a couple of years ago. Tell us a bit about the initiative—where it is, where it’s going, and what you see as its likely outcome.

LEGON: The Guardians Initiative is among AGB’s more recent undertakings. It relates to one of your first questions regarding concern about the public’s trust and the overall question of higher education’s value proposition. What distinguishes our system of higher education is the voice of the volunteer, and these voices are at the heart of this nationwide initiative to engage the roughly 50,000 board members of American universities and colleges as advocates for the enduring societal value of higher education. We recognize that while they are legally the fiduciaries of their institution, they can play a larger role as stewards and storytellers of higher education in this country.

The Guardians effort deploys board members across their communities and beyond to talk about the value of higher education—to respond to criticism and to bring clarity to the broad values of our sector. I’ve been very encouraged by the support of the AGB board and the support of some external funders for this effort. We have been able to implement a fruitful initiative built upon awareness, education, and advocacy—brought into the public arena through the voices of higher education’s board volunteers.

We’ve seen through social media and other forms of direct engagement by trustees the benefits of messaging com-ing directly from board members championing the value proposition of higher education. It is working, and we are proud of this initiative. The Guardians, however, is but one example of turning the dial of public perception about higher education. As I indicated earlier, it is time for a serious national discussion about the value and importance of higher education.

NOVAK: When you look back how would you define your overall legacy?

LEGON: It was about innovation and risk; and we never forgot the AGB business model—having an impact and building a strong brand. We built two subsidiaries: a search business, AGB Search, which is doing quite well; and we built AGB Institutional Strategies—AGBIS—which was initially operated as a separate nonprofit organization. Its focus is on helping institutions improve and refine their business models. I hope our sector sees AGB as an organization willing to ask the hard questions and to engage in important issues facing the sector.

NOVAK: AGB is rapidly approaching its 100th anniversary. Going back, if a person was to read a history of AGB what would be their overall impression?

LEGON: I hope their impression would be that throughout the last century AGB has been seen as an organization willing to change to meet the times and the needs of the individuals it serves. It listens. That would be good enough.

NOVAK: As you step down from your presidency what’s next for Rick Legon?

LEGON: I hope that I can take a deep breath. I’ve been working at AGB for 36 years, and I’ve worked nonstop for well over 50 years. I’d like to just take a breath and reflect on what’s next, both at our home in Washington, D.C., and in our adopted state of Montana. I hope that I can enjoy retirement while exploring other ways to add value.

NOVAK: Anything you’ll miss most about your time at AGB?

LEGON: I’ll miss the individuals with whom I’ve worked: staff, AGB’s directors, our consultants, and everyone who has engaged with us and advanced our mission. But most of all I’ll miss working directly with boards. That is where the action is.

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