The Board's Role in Institutional Transformation

By Elizabeth D. Holder    //    Volume 25,  Number 2   //    March/April 2017

For more than 125 years,
Agnes Scott College has
been a highly regarded
liberal-arts college for
women. But in a time of
increased public skepticism
about the value of a
liberal-arts education and intense competition
for students from public, private, and
for-profit institutions, we were facing formidable
headwinds. Only a small percentage
of high school girls will even consider
attending a women’s college, and Agnes
Scott lacked a strong national brand or distinctive
market niche.

Confronted with an unsustainable business
model, the board adopted a strategic
financial plan in 2011 that identified six
steps to financial strength, beginning with
a $3 million, 7 percent reduction in annual
operating expenses. But we knew that
cost-cutting by itself was not a workable
strategy. Agnes Scott needed to achieve
significant enrollment and revenue growth
to sustain its mission and come up with a
more compelling answer to the question,
“Why Agnes Scott?”

Over the next three years, the trustees,
in partnership with the president, faculty,
and staff, developed, market-tested,
and launched a bold signature initiative,
It 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.

SUMMIT launched in 2015. While we
still have a long way to go, it has already
had a transformative impact. Agnes Scott
enrolled its largest first-year class two years
in a row, a 21 percent increase over pre-
SUMMIT enrollment, and saw a remarkable
25 percent increase in yield. Last fall, three-quarters
of incoming students reported that
SUMMIT was “very important” or “important”
to their decision to enroll. Retention
also hit an all-time high of 87 percent, with
dramatic increases in student
satisfaction with advising.
Annual revenue from students
is up by $3.4 million over pre-
SUMMIT levels.

Launching SUMMIT
required our board to embrace
transformational change and
then to lead. Trustees contemplating
significant institutional
change should consider these
components, which were key to our success:

Empower the president to innovate.

The board empowered the president to
spearhead the initiative and supported her
throughout the ups and downs of the process.
Her smart approach, positive attitude,
and powers of persuasion ultimately converted
the skeptics.

Promote a collaborative spirit.
on, the board invited key faculty and staff
to off-campus, overnight retreats. Spirited,
frank conversations built trust and mutual
respect while breaking down perceived
silos. Together, we grasped the gravity of
our shared challenges and embraced new
opportunities for the college’s future. These
joint conversations have become regular
aspects of our governance.

Insist on research-driven change.

Our new direction needed to be based
on data and rigorous market research, so
the board hired a consultant to complete
a strategic
positioning study, testing our
ideas in the marketplace.

Be risk savvy.
The board boldly committed
substantial startup investments
from the college’s endowment to launch
SUMMIT. We knew the stakes were high
and were willing to bet on the college’s

Respect faculty ownership.

While the board created
a framework for this new
vision, we respected shared
governance and the role of the
faculty. The faculty, through its
existing committee structure,
designed and implemented the
SUMMIT curriculum.

Ensure accountability.

Once SUMMIT was launched, the board
needed to exercise oversight. We established
a task force to measure quantitative
and qualitative outcomes and evaluate the
return on our startup investment.

Our journey to institutional transformation
required a robust creative partnership
among trustees, president, faculty, and
staff. Each respected shared governance
and, at different times, took significant
“leaps of faith” to move the process forward.
By recognizing and embracing the
need for change and working together, we
accomplished our goal. We created a more
distinctive and compelling answer to the
question, “Why Agnes Scott?”

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