The 2019–2020 Nason Award Winners: Six Boards that Go the Extra Mile Earned AGB’s Laurels

By Christopher Connell    //    Volume 28,  Number 3   //    May/June 2020

A board that reinvented its structure in keeping with one of the nation’s most innovative universities. A second that embraced a community college’s all-out push for greater diversity and higher completion rates. Another that helped its university grab a prime spot in Los Angeles’ hot, new “Silicon Beach” development. One that helped remake the curriculum of a liberal arts college that has sparked an immediate enrollment surge. A fifth board that weathered internal turmoil to guide a former chiropractic college to new heights. And a brand new board helping a regional public university face its challenges.

These are the six winners of the 2019–2020 AGB John W. Nason Award for Board Leadership, an honor for trustees who have demonstrated backbone, foresightedness, and determination in fulfilling their role as the financial stewards of their institutions’ future as well as their current course.

The Nason Award, established in 1992 and presented in partnership with TIAA, invokes the example of its namesake, John Nason (1905–2001), the Swarthmore College president who during World War II led the effort to find places at 600 colleges and universities for nearly 4,000 American students of Japanese ancestry who’d been interned in relocation camps.

The recipients are as follows:

  • Anne Arundel Community College Board of Trustees (MD)
  • Arizona State University (ASU) Enterprise Partners Board of Directors
  • Loyola Marymount University (LMU) Board of Trustees (CA)
  • McDaniel College Board of Trustees (MD)
  • Parker University Board of Trustees (TX)
  • Southern Oregon University (SOU) Board of Trustees

They were selected from more than 30 nominations illustrating the critical work of boards from public and private institutions, statewide systems, and institutionally related foundations. “This award embodies AGB’s vision—by recognizing boards that are strategic partners of their institutions, help to advance student success and well-being, and enhance institutional vitality,” said Henry Stoever, AGB’s president and CEO. Together, what these six boards did to help their institutions rise to challenges serve as exemplars for other boards facing difficulties of their own. Here are their stories.

Anne Arundel Community College Board of Trustees

Anne Arundel Community College (AACC) serves a county of more than a half-million residents that stretches along the Chesapeake Bay with a main campus in Arnold, five miles from the historic capital, Annapolis. It is the third largest of Maryland’s 16 community colleges and offers degrees and job training to more than 40,000 students, nearly half in for-credit courses. Like its peers, it experienced enrollment declines in recent years when the economy was strong and jobs were plentiful, and like many community colleges it faced perennial difficulties with retention and graduation rates. “Too many students were leaving before achieving their educational goals. Data showed that the longer students remained enrolled at AACC, the less likely they were to complete their program of study,” said President Dawn Lindsay, who has led the college since 2012. Even more concerning, “We found at least a 10 percent difference between completion rates for our black and Hispanic students as compared with our white and Asian students.”

The college already had a strategic plan seeking to double by 2020 the number of credentials awarded but that plan did not adequately address closing racial and ethnic gaps in completion. With stalwart support from her board, the college ended the old plan a year early and launched a new one called Engagement Matters: Pathways to Completion that aims to “transform the culture of the institution to ensure equity and to ensure that the college remains student-ready and committed to academic excellence.”

The board’s support was crucial, Lindsay said. It “immersed itself into better understanding pathways, equity, and completion” and went on retreats “unlike any in recent memory” where experts including William Kirwan, former chancellor of the University System of Maryland and AGB consultant, helped them see what the board needed to do to make the transformation happen. “The board realized it had to lead the way by helping provide resources that follow the college’s new strategic vision and values,” the president said.

Larry Ulvila, a board member since 2010 and chair since 2016, said some longtime members “struggled a little with it. Very often their explanation is, ‘We’ve always done it this way. Dawn and I are not believers in ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ You have to go after it.” Now, with three years of improved completion results, they can see “this thing is working. It makes a difference.”

Ulvila owns a large employee benefits consulting firm and serves on several boards. “All my career I’ve built teams. I try to take that experience to board service,” said Ulvila, who earned his first college diploma at Miami-Dade (Community) College. “To me, if you’re going to serve, you’re not going to serve in name only.”

The board approved hiring more advisers to boost completion rates. The ratio of 800 students per adviser is now 650 to one. A higher percentage of students is earning diplomas. The college has won national recognition for creating a dashboard that every faculty, staff, and board members sees on their computer when they log in showing up-to-date statistics on retention, persistence, completion, and other measures, broken down by race and ethnicity.

In the early going, Lindsay said, “there was some pushback from our campus …. The strategy was to bring this in in a non-threatening manner so people could look at the data and come to their own conclusions.”

Lindsay has, in her words, “skin in the game.” Forty percent of her annual evaluation is based on progress toward the Engagement Matters goals.

The 24-member board meets once a month, but Ulvila is “on campus probably three days a week on average. We have up to eight committees and I’m ex officio on every one.” The board reallocated $2.7 million to make the strategic plan work.

The board Ulvila joined in 2010 at times poked its nose into operational matters. “I couldn’t stand that. We had to redefine what this board service was about,” he said. “The board only does two things really: fiscal oversight and policy. That’s what our role is.”

Arizona State University Enterprise Partners Board of Trustees

For the past five years, Arizona State University (ASU) has sat atop U.S. News & World Report‘s ranking in the list of the most innovative American universities, which is a distinction based largely on a survey of presidents, provosts, and admission deans. ASU has grown dramatically in size and academic stature since Michael Crow became president in 2002. Its graduation rate has climbed by 20 points even as enrollment surged to 75,000 in-person students in Tempe and the greater Phoenix area and 45,000 online students.

What was once a traditional philanthropic board for the university has itself embraced structural changes that have broadened its reach, expertise, and impact in directing a new, nimble, and entrepreneurial entity called ASU Enterprise Partners. Its board remains the fundraising arm for ASU, but is now a separate 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation and the parent for five other nonprofits each tasked with identifying new revenue opportunities for the university, not just from donors but arranging real estate projects, patenting professors’ discoveries, securing military, and civilian government contracts and in other ways. ASU Enterprise Partners, launched in 2016, represents “a truly novel model of board governance for institutionally related foundations,” said Rick Shangrew, its architect and chief executive officer until his recent retirement. While the old ASU Foundation handled some of the same transactions, it was on a much smaller scale with fewer staff and less firepower than Enterprise Partners brings to the table.

“You can think of Enterprise Partners as a holding company,” said Bill Post, the board chair and retired CEO of Pinnacle West Capital Corp., which owns Arizona’s largest electric utility. The overall architecture of Enterprise Partners drew on the corporate subsidiary and shared service model that Post helped implement there.

Post joined the original ASU Foundation Board two decades ago and stepped up his activities on behalf of his alma mater after retiring as CEO in 2009. He serves on corporate boards as well and brings that perspective to Enterprise Partners’ work.

“What we’ve done is build a board very similar to corporate boards. If I go back 20 years, volunteers would come and do whatever the university asked them to do, including the fundraising,” he said. “We still do that—[ASU raises $250 million a year]—but we’ve also added the obligation, accountability, and responsibility for being a board member over a separate 501(c)(3) entirely focused on the benefit of ASU with its own legal structure.” Members still have that spirit of volunteerism but also “feel a responsibility to take Enterprise Partners as far as they can in supporting the school,” he said.

Dan Dillon, who succeeded Shangrew as the Enterprise Partners CEO in January 2020, credits Post and his fellow trustees with getting Enterprise Partners off to a flying start. “All of them are very, very accomplished business people in different sectors. We would not be where we are today without them.”

Dillon, formerly ASU’s chief marketing officer and still in charge of university-wide marketing and branding, himself came out of a long career in the corporate world. The trustees’ impact “is significant and probably unmeasurable, both in time and revenue they are helping us generate,” said Dillon. “The Enterprise Partners board and the subsidiary boards operate at a professional level equal to any of the boards I’ve been exposed to in my career.”

Shangrew recalled that when they first began discussing the new governance model, “Post and other members voiced concern that they would lack the expertise, depth, and diversity of thought to provide each enterprise with the most effective leadership.” They needn’t have worried. They consulted with ASU leaders, studied models of foundation and corporate governance, “and spent long hours into the spring of 2016 to develop a transition plan and new model of a university-affiliated enterprise,” Shangrew said.

Each of the subsidiaries has its own board; their chairs sit on the 20-member parent board, which is considerably smaller than the old foundation board. Enterprise Partners has a staff of 350, half doing development work but others working for University Realty LLC, which acquired a building near the White House for the university’s Washington programs; Skysong Innovations, which obtained 129 patents in fiscal 2019; an Enterprise Collaboratory at ASU, which is spawning research projects and partnerships on a global basis, and the other subsidiaries.

The boards all meet quarterly, but Dillon said, “I talk to Bill for an hour every week. He’s there as a sounding board for everything.”

The time obligations vary, said Post. “It’s probably between 20 and 30 hours a month. It’s not a fulltime job. When we have opportunities or are dealing with other things, I can spend a day or two. In between, when everything is going smoothly, I can go 10 days and not do anything.”

For Post, it’s payback. “Frankly, I wouldn’t have had my career without ASU. When I retired from Pinnacle West after 38 years, I wanted to go back and do what I could to help the very place that gave me the opportunity to do what I did,” he said.

Loyola Marymount University Board of Trustees

Perched on a bluff on the west side of Los Angeles not far from the Pacific Ocean, Loyola Marymount University (LMU) is sponsored by three Roman Catholic congregations, the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary (Marymount sisters) and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange. The Loyola Law School has its own, compact, Frank Gehry-designed campus in downtown Los Angeles, and LMU recently planted its flag in Playa Vista where its School of Film and Television now shares a building with Facebook in a neighborhood dubbed LA’s Silicon Beach. With its rich heritage and enviable footprints in the nation’s second largest city, LMU admits fewer than half of applicants and its undergraduate enrollment has risen 14 percent in the past decade to nearly 6,800. It also educates 1,900 graduate and 1,100 law students.

But its journey in recent years has not been without challenges. The law school, like law schools nationwide, experienced a 40 percent drop in applications and 23 percent drop in enrollment from its peak in 2010–2011. The university found itself at the center of a nationally charged debate over whether religiously affiliated institutions could remove “elective” abortion coverage from employee health plans. Unexpectedly, for unrelated personal reasons, both the president in his fifth year and the board chair chose to step down.

The board in 2015 found the new president, Timothy Law Snyder, at a sister Jesuit institution, Loyola University Maryland, where Snyder was vice president for academic affairs. He came with a sense that despite its strengths, LMU was “the best kept secret in Los Angeles.” Snyder, a mathematician and computer scientist, was also keen on LMU’s securing a place in the exciting, high-tech development taking place in Playa Vista right beneath its 142-acre campus on the bluff.

“Our board approached these challenges by first looking inward, committing themselves to a board culture of systematic self-assessment and self-improvement,” said Snyder. It instituted an annual self-study “to encourage an ethos of collective introspection and transparent decision-making” and brought an AGB consultant to its biannual retreat to absorb best practices for effective governance.

When Paul Viviano, president and CEO of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, joined the board 10 years ago, there was no governance committee. He chaired a newly created committee then in 2016 became chair of the full board. Viviano is a prominent figure in California’s health care world, a former CEO of its University of California San Diego Health Systems and associate vice chancellor. Children’s is a teaching hospital as well, with a $1.3 billion annual budget. He tackled the governance challenge with alacrity.

Item one was bringing greater ethnic and gender diversity to the board, but also diversity of professional experiences. “We don’t want all lawyers or all doctors or all professors,” Viviano said. “You want a blending of professional experiences and expertise to bring to bear in the boardroom” along with the voices of more women and underrepresented groups.

“This is the art and science of governance,” said Viviano. “At the end of the day you still need a board that’s highly functioning because we have responsibilities of supporting management, of oversight, that blend of making sure we are providing the resources necessary to our leaders but also holding them accountable for the performance.” Members’ philanthropic capacity is a consideration, but that “is not by any stretch the most important one.”

The increased diversity of the 42-member board, which includes a dozen members of the sponsoring religious organization, “is important to us, not just so we better represent society but because it clearly impacts the quality of our work,” said Snyder. “We see diversity as the fount of creativity. The more diverse we are, the more likely we are to come up with solutions to some of society’s vexing problems. As we work to diversify our student body and staff, the diversity of the board itself is important with its being front and center in terms of visibility.”

Snyder, the university’s second lay president, credits Viviano with retooling board meetings to spotlight the committees’ functions and “allow members to participate more directly and share their wisdom and experience more intentionally.” They instituted a “deep dive” reporting format at each quarterly meeting where a committee is given a chance to explain and explore issues under its purview, from information security to new programs at the law school to investment strategies for the $500 million endowment.

The deep dive discussions include dividing into small groups and throwing ideas around before reassembling and bringing the best before the full board.

Snyder said for the endowment exercise, “we put $500 million in fake money onto each table, with beautifully decorated cans representing various type investments into which they could put the money. It got board members talking about risk in ways they might not have considered before.”

“Our board has also begun to play a more active role in large-scale university strategic decision-making and goal setting,” said Snyder. He credits the board with pushing the administration to “go big” on the Playa Vista initiative and “waving us away from strategies unlikely to be successful,” including the idea of purchasing a large hotel complex on the periphery of Silicon Beach, and instead making connections that “helped us obtain a best deal” on its 50,000-square foot Playa Vista campus. Now, in addition to the film school, LMU is landing internships with tech firms that abound in Playa Vista.

The board endorsed a creative plan to resolve the health insurance crisis by providing a third-party option for alternative coverage for employees’ seeking abortion coverage. The board’s fingerprints are also on a new branding initiative. Undergraduate applications reached an all-time high, the law school began new programs, the university was granted a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, and it moved two steps up in the Carnegie classifications to a R2 “high research activity” institution.

Snyder said his board models “what higher education boards should be doing across the country: engaging in discernment about their institutional aims and commitments, clarifying their roles and responsibilities, and maximizing their impact within that more clearly defined scope.”

Viviano stressed the importance of a “respectful boundary” between the board’s work and that of management. “There are many times where I’ve said in the board room, ‘I’m sure President Snyder appreciates the input, but at the end of the day, it’s his call. His decision. We make sure he has the resources to support that decision.’” Trouble awaits “where that boundary gets blurry.”

Despite the demands of running one of the nation’s top pediatric hospitals and a workday that begins at 6 a.m. (“to beat the LA traffic”), Viviano carves out ample time for his board duties. “I’m there a lot, probably 12 times in the last month. Not all day, but for meetings and various activities,” he said. “You make the time for things that are important to you.”

McDaniel College Board of Trustees

McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland, has a proud history. The liberal arts college was founded in 1867 as Western Maryland College. It is featured in the influential guide, Colleges That Change Lives, places a strong emphasis on experiential learning and study abroad, and has a branch campus in Budapest, Hungary. It has 1,600 undergraduate and 1,400 graduate students.

But like many liberal arts campuses, McDaniel has faced difficult decisions about its course for the future. Last year, with the full support of its 43-member Board of Trustees, it made the wrenching decision to eliminate a half-dozen majors while launching eight and eventually nine new ones. There were demonstrations and impassioned debates, and at one point students raised a racket during a board meeting by going to the floor above and stomping their feet. But early evidence suggests President Roger N. Casey, the faculty, and board steered McDaniel in the right direction. Last fall the college welcomed the largest freshman class in its history, 580 students or 100 above its previous high.

Casey, who chairs the National Association of Independent College and Universities and sits on the American Council on Education board, said, “What our students wanted out of college 10 years ago is not what prospective students are looking for now. Our board recognized the changing market and that we needed to change, too, if we were going to remain competitive.”

The process started in 2018 with the board, under its then-long-time chair Martin Hill, setting forth a charge to the administration to “complete a thorough and immediate assessment of our curriculum to identify and highlight successful programs, restructure or eliminate weaker and/or unsustainable offerings, and investigate and implement new curricula which could lead to enrollment and/or net-revenue growth.”

A faculty-led “Strategic Thinking Group on Pedagogical Values” spearheaded the evaluation. It amassed 1,000 pages of data to evaluate programs, conferred with department chairs, and made their curricular recommendations. Casey and Provost and Dean of the Faculty Julia Jasken then met with each department identified for restructuring or elimination, listened to their concerns, and gave them 30 days to develop a plan to revitalize their department before the president and provost took their proposals to the Academic Affairs Committee of the Board of Trustees, where they passed muster.

Eighty percent of the trustees are alumni, some with close connections to professors in the majors facing elimination—art history, religious studies, French, German, and music—as well as two minors. But the full board voted unanimously to make the cuts and reallocate funds into new majors.

The trustees “fully understood the complexity of the issue and the possible consequences of their decision,” said Casey, but they also had reviewed the data “and knew what the future held if they chose not to act.”

The news “hit campus hard,” the president said, and criticism rained down on him and board members for months. Instead of backing off the decision, the Board “signed a letter to the campus community stating their unanimous support of the recommendations and their excitement for the future of the college,” he said.

“There was never any thought of backing off,” said Martin Hill, a trustee since 1993 and board chair from 2007 until 2019. “That was not out of arrogance but just because (it) was handled so openly, so transparently. We were kept in the loop and involved in everything, and the faculty were behind this.”

Otto Guenther, a retired Army lieutenant general who succeeded Hill as chair in July 2019, said, “I read every document and every page. What most impressed me was the major effort to ensure buy-in by every element of the college.”

“There was total solidarity,” said Guenther, a 1963 alumnus and trustee since 2006 who served as the Army’s first chief information officer. “What was needed strategically was to do the right thing for the college.”

Not all faculty positions were axed, since the college is still offering courses in music and the other subjects. New majors, in addition to criminal justice, include health science, biomedicine, biochemistry, marketing and accounting, now separate from economics. The math major was retooled into separate applied math and actuarial science, and deaf studies became a major in American Sign Language.

Casey said he is now fielding calls from other college presidents asking about the experience and how he made it through. “My response is always the same: I had an incredibly supportive and strong board standing alongside me.”

Parker University Board of Trustees

The F3 tornado with a frightening funnel cloud that struck north Dallas, Texas, on the night of October 20, 2019, left parts of the campus of Parker University in ruins, destroying seven buildings and inflicting $40 million in damages but injuring no one. Parker, a chiropractic college that became a full university in 2011 with additional health sciences, business, and technology degrees, was back up and running in a week for its 1,500 students.

William Morgan credits quick action by the Board of Trustees with making that possible. Oliver Smith, the board chair, canceled business meetings, and flew up from El Paso to inspect the damage and the board held an emergency meeting to free up capital resources and keep students on course to graduate.

Due to the board’s agile response, Parker was able to shift to online classes for a week, clean up a monumental volume of debris, build temporary office space, and relocate and restore all student services, said Morgan, a former chiropractic consultant to Congress and founder of the first chiropractic clinic at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

Morgan actually had nominated his board for a Nason leadership award five weeks before the tornado based upon how it navigated a complicated and messy governance crisis. In his frank letter, Morgan said that when he arrived in 2016, he was Parker’s third president in five years and had heard rumors of dysfunction on a board some of whose members “had inserted themselves into the operations of the institution.” Eventually, under Smith’s leadership, eight of 19 trustees resigned. Now there are 11, all focused on Parker’s new strategic plan.

The situation “was and is unusual,” said Morgan in an interview. “What happened through this disturbance was that Dr. Smith used all the tools at his disposal as a chairman and in proper governance to resolve problems.”

Instead of allowing board discussions to disintegrate into arguments over internal conflicts, the president said, “he worked this out methodically over time using all the tools of good governance in the documents we’ve used and read from AGB.” Smith also helped bring new blood to the board, with new members with expertise in finances, governance, higher education compliance, healthcare, and marketing.

Smith, a son and father of chiropractors, said that some of the former trustees “had difficulties accepting what a board really should do and how it should focus on more visionary type issues. That led to a number of resignations and a lot of frustration.”

Now, between the resignations and addition of new members, Smith said, “the board became mission driven and very visionary and strategic in its efforts,” so much so that even a tornado could not drive the university off course. “Instead of hunkering down and thinking of this as tragic, we looked at it as an opportunity to make some changes in our campus, expand our footprint and get us set up for the next 20 years,” he added. Parker quickly acquired a nearby, second campus that was available.

It was already the fourth fastest growing college in Texas, according to the Dallas Business Journal with 1,600 students in 29 degree programs including degrees in cybersecurity, neurosciences, health sciences, and management in addition to chiropractic and massage therapy.1 It enrolled 1,000 back when it was a college of chiropractic only.

While the board meets quarterly, Morgan and Smith converse each week and text back and forth almost daily. “We’re a very healthy board now, focused on success for the student,” said Smith, a non-alumnus who was recruited to the board by a member who was a classmate from another chiropractic college.

“It’s good for us to problem-solve together,” said Morgan, and “good for Dr. Smith to know what steps we’re taking and how the rebuilding and recruitment is coming. Ironically, we’re growing even though half our campus was destroyed.

“My job is to make sure we focus on the strategic plan,” said Smith. Some chiropractic institutions have struggled because they were solely dependent on their chiropractic tuition. Becoming a university with a multitude of programs “has helped us tremendously.”

The strategic plan “has inspired a spirit of adventure and exploration at the university …. Virtually everyone who hears our vision ‘wants in,’” said Morgan, and “that sets us apart for the next 20 years.”

Southern Oregon University Board of Trustees

After several years of dwindling support for higher education, the Oregon legislature voted in 2013 to give its public universities more autonomy and their own boards of trustees. On July 1, 2015, governance transferred from the Oregon University System and the now-defunct State Board of Higher Education to individual boards of trustees overseen by the new Higher Education Coordinating Commission.

The newly hatched Board of Trustees of Southern Oregon University (SOU) was still appointed by the governor, but had much closer ties to its community and region. It also had a lot on its plate. SOU was functioning with an interim president and without a strategic plan. Twice in the past decade it had endured fiscal emergencies that resulted in budget cuts, furloughs, and reorganizations of departments. In 2013, majors in physics, German, and geology were axed.

As Board Chair Lyn Hennion put it, “At that time, the university was merely trying to stay alive.”

The board also did not have a free hand. Before disbanding, the Oregon University System had imposed strict fiscal constraints and set targets SOU had to meet before it would be allowed independence. It included maintaining a reserve equal to 10 percent of annual expenditures; SOU’s sat at 3.5 percent.

Morale was low on campus and off, Hennion recalled. “The campus did not know the board or how we would govern …. We talked to a lot of people and listened more than we talked.” It also quickly undertook a search for a new president, whom it found in less than six months: Linda Schott, then-president of the University of Maine at Presque Isle. Schott, an authority on higher education administration, said, “I thought it was a great chance to work with a board that did not have a firmly entrenched culture so that we could together grow and develop a healthy system of governance for our campus.” Formulating a strategic plan was the first objectives.

Hennion came from the financial world and welcomed the opportunity to help SOU get its finances in order. The board and its committees met 60 times that first year and 15 the next. The fund balance reached nearly 12 percent and the state commission “took the training wheels off and let us move forward,” she said.

“We had to be bold in saying, ‘We need to make investments in our future. We can’t keep cutting and scraping along and cutting until we cut out the very heart and soul of this university,’” said Hennion.

The state funding formula remains a struggle, with SOU getting the lowest percentage of state funding “even though our outcomes are better than some of our peer institutions,” said Schott.

“We need equitable funding, but we also know we need to do a lot of things on our end,” said Schott. “We’re not just asking them to bail us out. The strategic plan is our roadmap toward transforming our curriculum and pedagogy. … We’re very aware of the demographic changes. We need to make sure we know how to teach the new majority” of more diverse students with greater financial need.

The board embraced AGB’s Guardians Initiative, lobbying legislators and speaking at economic forums at every opportunity, Hennion said.

“Part of our challenge as a board is to make sure we help get the message out about what is happening and all the good things that have come about,” said Hennion, including new degrees in digital arts and outdoor leadership management.

“I tell everybody I have a great board,” said Schott. “What makes them so great is the high level of commitment, the hours they put in and their willingness to engage with these tough issues. But they do not micromanage …. They give me a lot of trust and that’s probably the best thing a president could ask for.”

Endnote

1. Schneider, Rob, “The Fastest-Growing Colleges in Texas, Dallas Business Journal, October, 11, 2019, https://www.bizjournals.com/dallas/news/2019/10/10/texas-colleges-fast-est.html.

Christopher Connell is an independent journalist and former education writer for the Associated Press.

 

 

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