View from the Board Chair: The Benefits of a Cross-Constituency Approach

By Elizabeth Eveillard    //    Volume 21,  Number 2   //    March/April 2013

In this era of new economic and pedagogical challenges, boards are well served by creating opportunities for dialogue with faculty, staff, and student leaders. In doing so, all members of the academic community can gain a common understanding of the key planning questions facing their institution and the tradeoffs involved when choices need to be made among competing priorities.

Major financial decisions are rightly the purview of boards, and the challenges we now face are going to change the way we manage our institutions. If faculty members do not understand the financial implications of these challenges and boards do not understand the educational impact, then our decisions could create divisions on campus and may not be properly implemented.

Establishing a shared knowledge base about the workings of the budget and financial priorities is particularly important. An understanding across the institution of the “levers” that affect the economic model can help frame a planning process based on appreciation for differing points of view. What are the implications of spreading new investments or budget reductions across five years versus 10? What values should inform the allocation of our financial-aid budget? How do we define intergenerational equity? The purpose of dialogue is not necessarily to arrive at conclusions; rather it should provide a guide—for boards as well as campus leaders—to the implications of different financial-planning decisions.

In recent years, Smith’s board has engaged in increased dialogue with campus constituencies. For example, we instituted the Futures Initiative, a year-long strategic thinking project to explore the new realities facing higher education and to develop a framework to guide the college in responding to risks and opportunities in the coming decades. Board and faculty members, students, and staff engaged in scenario planning through small-group discussions, a format that allowed for debate of differing views in an atmosphere of collegiality and trust. (For more on the Futures Initiative, see the March/April 2012 issue of Trusteeship.)

The success of that project gave us the incentive to use a similar approach in this year’s annual board retreat. We invited the members of key campus committees to participate in an intensive discussion of high-level financial planning considerations, informed by in-depth modeling and economic analysis. We have also taken this cross-constituency approach in developing our information-technology strategic plan.

Feedback from these endeavors has helped us understand what contributes to successful board-campus collaborations. Informing a retreat or meeting with a provocative outside speaker or panel can be helpful, we have learned; it sets a broader landscape for discussion. Further, when faculty members hear board members ask questions—and vice versa—it fosters learning and trust, underscoring that no single person or group has all the answers. More important, although a retreat or strategic-thinking project isn’t necessarily a place for decision making, the agenda must be meaningful and consequential if trust is to be maintained and advanced.

After every meeting, we solicit feedback from participants. “I appreciated the opportunity to have these discussions with other decision-making groups so that I can go back to my committee work more aware of a broader array of considerations and perspectives,” said one campus constituent. A comment from a board member reflected a key goal of campus-board engagement: “I thought I knew the answers … but now I understand more about the complexities involved.”

Traditionally, it was assumed that the board and the faculty see issues from vastly different perspectives. Boards are cast as champions of financial restraint while faculty, staff, and students call for expansion. Working together more directly, boards and campus constituencies can bridge this perceived divide. By asking relevant questions about the challenges facing higher education and providing a framework for assessing the complex implications of budget decisions, boards and the campus community gain deeper knowledge of the core values of an institution and can learn to better advance them within financial-planning parameters. As boards discuss financial and strategic issues, this knowledge is invaluable.

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