The Role of Governing Boards in Ensuring Educational Quality

Overseeing the Value of Degrees for Graduates, Employers, and the Community

By Barbara Brittingham and James H. Page    //    Volume 32,  Number 2   //    March/April 2024

  • Ensuring the quality of education in and beyond the classroom is a fundamental fiduciary duty of governing boards.
  • Indicators of educational quality stand relative to institutional mission and context.
  • Because student success is the most important measure of institutional success, and because student success is affirmed by what the student does post-completion, how the institution prepares the student for life after completion is a critical aspect of educational quality.
  • A board’s role in ensuring educational quality in difficult cases often has as much do with ensuring its institutional values are upheld as it does on ensuring its policies and priorities are being followed.

Consider Ashley and Abigail. They are twins who enroll in the same college, have the same major, and by some miracle, take the same required classes in which they earn the same excellent grades. Ashley spends her spare time hanging out with her friends and participating in social media; she becomes an influencer. Abigail participates in the honors program, studies abroad one summer, is elected to student government, joins the student theater group, has two internships, works on campus during the academic year, volunteers for first-year orientation, and takes full advantage of the career services office. Did they have the same quality of education? For basic academic requirements, yes. But Abigail graduates much better prepared to enter the workforce, pursue her interests, and become civically engaged. The academic quality may be the same; the educational quality was not.

A governing board has no greater fiduciary responsibility than ensuring the quality of education provided to its institution’s students. We begin our discussion by surveying the core components that go into creating a quality educational experience and by reviewing how the board properly engages with these components. We then discuss how several major challenges facing colleges and universities are issues of educational quality, concluding that boards have a major and, in fact, inescapable role in resolving these issues.1

Educational Quality and Institutional Mission

We draw a distinction between academic quality (AQ) which speaks to the quality of the classroom or laboratory experience, and a broader sense of educational quality (EQ) which encompasses AQ but also includes student activities and services that directly support and enrich students’ education as they pursue and often broaden their educational goals. AQ encompasses the traditional academic categories: faculty composition and credentials, pedagogy and teaching effectiveness, curricula and program array, academic advising, and program-required professional placements. EQ includes AQ but also student activities such as elective experiential learning, study abroad, and athletics, as well as student support services such as health and career counseling. Because student success is the most important measure of institutional success, and because student success includes what students do post-completion, how the institution prepares students for their post-completion life is also a critical educational quality issue. In addressing the quality of a student’s educational experience, we mean educational quality in this fully expanded sense.

While many elements of EQ are common to all higher education institutions—for example, having a productive classroom experience—these elements also stand relative to the institution’s mission, student body, resources, and the larger context within which that institution operates. For example, what counts as delivering quality programs at a small, modestly resourced, rural community college focused on local workforce development differs from what counts as delivering quality programs needed for cutting-edge research at national or international institutions. Both institutions must provide quality experiences but, rhetoric aside, what counts as quality by necessity, will depend on the institution’s purpose and resources. Another way of making this point is that educational quality stands relative to mission.

A board’s first step, therefore, in assessing EQ is to consider the institution’s mission. We recommend focusing on the mission statement as it should be the clearest distillation of what the institution does. Does that statement clearly and accurately reflect what the institution does? Does it guide decisions and actions? If the answer to either of those questions is less than a resounding “yes,” then there is work to be done in clarifying what exactly the institution’s mission is and how it drives decisions from that mission. Without that clarity, it will be very difficult to assess its educational quality.

EQ Roles and Responsibilities

Every campus stakeholder, and some beyond, has a role ensuring EQ. Three groups, however, have primary responsibility: faculty, administration, and board. We will look briefly at the first two but focus on the role of the board.

The faculty has front-line responsibility for ensuring AQ. Under the usual strictures of shared governance, for example, the faculty “own” the curricula.2 If there is to be a biology program, the faculty determine its content and pedagogy. Primary responsibility for other AQ areas such as maintaining a qualified faculty rests with the faculty and academic administration. The administration, of course, has operational responsibility for all student programs and services, but not all of those EQ areas fall to the faculty or even the academic administration. For example, responsibility for athletics, career counseling, or experiential learning typically falls to a non-academic office or offices. We have not tried to list every program, office, or area involved in EQ—institutions vary too much. So, another board task in ensuring EQ is to obtain a comprehensive list of all those programs and services its institution offers that fall under EQ and which offices are operationally responsible for them.

However these operational responsibilities for EQ-related activities are divided up administratively, the board has final responsibility for all of them. This responsibility generally centers on three activities:

  1. Setting or confirming those strategic priorities and initiatives that advance the student experience and student success (and ensuring that the relevant supporting policies are in place);
  2. Making sure resources are available and appropriately allocated to support these policies and initiatives; and
  3. Auditing the results, setting expectations for improvements or corrections as necessary, and holding the president accountable.

Continuing with the earlier example, while the faculty determines the content of a biology program, whether or not the institution is to have a biology program is determined by the board, working closely with the administration, and making its decision in accordance with the institution’s mission and reflecting priority use of its institutional resources. Since what programs an institution offers and how well those programs are resourced is a key part of any AQ assessment, the board’s decisions in this case of the biology program directly impact the institution’s EQ.

Extra consideration must be given to the board’s audit or oversight function. While board attention is often and quite rightly centered on financial and policy matters, it’s worth remembering that both finance and policy are, in the end, tools for delivering on mission. Once an initiative has been approved with well-defined success metrics and adequate resources apportioned, the board’s major role in ensuring EQ regarding that effort is to make sure its success metrics have been met.

A board may approach these tasks as a whole or use a committee structure with chartered responsibilities and a reporting mechanism to the whole board. Where the board oversees a system, all the usual areas of responsibilities hold, but the board’s role is more complex as it must balance a variety of institutional missions and priorities with available resources.

Other groups provide critical input to help ensure EQ. Students play an obvious role by providing direct feedback about their experiences and outcomes via course evaluations, capstone projects, surveys, and exit interviews. Alumni surveys and interviews play a similar role but with the benefit of hindsight and experience. Where workforce development is important to the institution’s mission, employer input as to what knowledge and skills are needed by their industries, as well as feedback as to how the institution’s graduates perform regarding these needs, is also critical. The accreditation process is another important source of quality assurance for the board, as well as an opportunity for institutional improvement.

One of the most important responsibilities of the board is selecting, supporting, and assessing the president. In determining needed experience and qualifications, setting goals, establishing metrics, and assessing performance, student success and educational quality should be prominent considerations. Not all leadership decisions needed to bring about institutional improvement will be popular. Board support for the president in such times can be critical to long-term success. Ensuring that the whole board, including members of the finance committee and presidential assessment committee, understands educational quality is a worthwhile board development activity.

Board EQ Challenges

Three areas of board engagement are essential to ensuring EQ: faculty, tenure, and the curriculum; the student experience and student success; and governance and values. Issues in each area carry major challenges that we believe are often questions of educational quality. We outline a few representative ones and show how each involves EQ and the board.

Faculty, Tenure, and the Curriculum

The quality of the faculty and curriculum is central to EQ and especially to AQ. Much of the controversy in these areas as it relates to board engagement centers on tenure. In institutions with a tenure system, the board is typically tasked with approving tenure for faculty who have progressed to a favorable tenure recommendation or for faculty who are recommended for tenure upon hire.3 Because of the continuing employment assurances that come with tenure, this decision is a major element in ensuring long-term AQ and therefore EQ. But here a conundrum arises. A board does not have sufficient expertise in the candidate’s area of specialization to render a competent judgment about that candidate’s academic fitness for tenure and, even if it did, that is the role of the assessing faculty as confirmed by the administration. Yet as the institution’s highest level of authority, the board has a responsibility to engage. What role should it therefore play?

The answer is that the board has at least two EQ roles in assessing tenure. First, it is responsible for ensuring that tenure policies and processes are appropriate to the institution. Tenure standards vary dramatically depending on institutional mission. Research requirements for tenure at an internationally ranked research-intensive institution, for example, are generally so strong that if they were applied at a small rural comprehensive college, few faculty might ever be tenured. Therefore, a board must ensure its tenure policies, standards, and processes reflect its institution’s mission. Second, as the highest level of institutional authority, the board is the final court of appeal (short of a legal case) if a party believes those policies or processes have been misapplied or misused. Should the board find a deficiency in the process, it should normally return the case to the administration for correction.

There is another more complicated type of case. What is a board’s proper course of action when a prospective tenure decision concerns an individual who the board believes is egregiously out of line with its institution’s mission or values? Two high profile examples of this are Steven Salaita’s 2012 “unhiring” by the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign and the 2021 initial refusal by the University of North Carolina’s board of trustees to grant tenure as part of the hiring offer to Nikole Hannah-Jones.4 Here there are two questions: Does the board have the authority to act in these ways and, if it does, under what conditions should it exercise that authority?

In almost every instance the answer to the first question is that a board has the authority as documented in its statutes or charters, bylaws, and policies. The answer to the second question is more complicated. If a board does not have a history of evaluating tenure cases, then first doing so when considering difficult cases looks ad hoc or ad hominem and will inevitably and perhaps rightly draw criticism. One lesson to draw is that the board should articulate a position reflected both in policy and practice that makes clear its attention to, and authority over, these matters, and then make sure it applies those policies and practices consistently and transparently.

The board should establish a history regarding review of tenure decisions. If a board must act before it has established that baseline, then it must be prepared to articulate the principles that form the basis for its current actions. Often these criteria involve principles of value. We’ll return to values in the section on governance.

Board issues concerning the curricula can also be complex. Central to understanding this complexity is shared governance. In its most basic form, shared governance can be expressed using our earlier example: whether or not an institution offers a biology program is up to the board, but if there is to be a biology program, then the pedagogy and curricula belong to the faculty. Many claims have been made that test this boundary.

To take a recent example, in 2023 the University of California System’s faculty senate barred the offering of fully online degrees. The administration and regents, however, have challenged that decision, in part because it limits student access.5 The pandemic also challenged our assumptions about decisions on instructional delivery. Among other issues, this controversy involves the gray area of who controls the pedagogy when a whole method of delivery is in question. If one thinks of the question as akin to the decision, say, to open a new campus, the decision falls naturally to the board. But if it’s primarily a question of pedagogical method, then it falls to the faculty. The example, which clearly is central to EQ, calls for discussion and negotiation involving the faculty. But as the institution’s sole fiduciary, the board has the final responsibility to approve whatever these discussions yield.

Periodic review of each academic program is a best practice important to maintaining EQ (and is often an accreditation requirement). While program reviews normally fall to a combination of faculty and academic administration, there is also a key role for the board. As noted previously, it is the board’s responsibility to approve adoption and, if necessary, closure of an academic program. In addition to its simple governing authority, the board has the executive experience required to evaluate whether a program advances the institution’s mission or whether because of factors such as enrollment, budgetary requirements, or endemic quality deficiencies, it no longer does.

The administration may also propose a strategic change in its academic or service offerings. Examples include adding degrees, adding programming outside the institution’s normal scope of offerings (such as, adding health programs at a liberal arts college), severely restricting or closing certain services, or creating a new satellite campus. Such changes require boards to affirm that the proposal advances the institutional mission, thereby enhancing EQ related to that mission, in addition to being financially sound with major risks identified.

The Student Experience and Student Success

As we have noted, the student experience encompasses a large number of activities and services extending well beyond the classroom. One board challenge is that evaluating their quality and effectiveness is too often structurally scattershot at the board level, leaving the board poorly positioned to evaluate EQ in a comprehensive way. By “comprehensive,” we mean in a way that maps the elements contributing to the student experience as well as student outcomes to particular programs, services, and initiatives in a measurable and actionable way. Academic program reviews, for example, are typically audited at the board level by an academic affairs committee, but how those programs contribute to workforce development may not be covered by that committee, if that perspective is covered at all. The same is often true of experiential learning. Student health services, which are increasingly central to student success, typically are reviewed, if at all, by the board’s student affairs committee which in turn may or may not be part of or coordinate with the academic affairs committee. A further step in evaluating how the board addresses the student experience is to inventory the elements that are part of the student experience and map where each element is reviewed by the board, (re)organizing the board as necessary to ensure a comprehensive and effective EQ assessment process.

Measuring student success involves familiar criteria: retention, persistence, and completion, all of which are, or should be, part of the board’s regular agenda. For many institutions an emerging consideration is how programs and services contribute to students’ post-completion success. Community colleges have always had this focus, as have many four-year institutions, but it has become an issue for all institutions, especially since the 2008 recession. This expansion of focus means that in considering educational quality, due attention must be paid to assessing how every EQ element contributes to post-completion success.

The increasing emphasis on experiential learning is a good example, with many institutions now requiring an experiential component be included in every major. This often requires a change of outlook by the faculty and administration because they must look beyond the campus boundaries and beyond graduation to take factors such as employment needs and requirements into account when building their programs—and in developing external partnerships at a deeper level of engagement. Relevant post-completion outcomes can be tracked using a variety of data: employment/licensure/graduate admissions outcomes sorted by program or demographic features, as well as institutional, industrial, or governmental longitudinal studies. These lagging indicators require a long view. As previously noted, there is no substitute for direct institutional engagement with the employer base. The board must understand and take this expansion to heart and assist the institution in successfully navigating these new waters.

Through all these considerations, what really counts is the student achieving their own educational goals (which increasingly may not involve the traditional two- or four-year degree), as a step toward achieving post-completion personal and career goals. Here, a comprehensive approach to student services and especially comprehensive advising is critical. This goes well beyond traditional academic advising to encompass financial advising, health support, and especially career counseling. It stretches from assisting with experiential opportunities, to internships, to job placement support. This kind of advising is a professional-level service requiring strategic commitment and significant resources. If an institution goes in this direction, the board will need to ensure these services are treated as an essential EQ element, are adequately resourced, and that they perform as intended.

A best practice when measuring institutional performance related to EQ is to hear directly from students using, for example, student-generated evaluations, reports, and satisfaction surveys, as well as student learning assessments—the practice of determining what students know and are able to do based on the learning goals for a course, program, or degree by the time they graduate. The challenge for the board is what to do with the results, especially if they signal a need for major changes. Most results are best addressed by the faculty or administration. Yet systemic deficiencies can signal the need for wholesale correction under board direction.

An equity lens in evaluating institutional performance can reveal who succeeds at an institution and patterns in challenges in serving student populations. Disaggregated data on key metrics, establishing goals, and holding the administration accountable are all part of this work for the board. Is advising available and accessible for working students? Are drop/fail/withdraw (DFW) rates in certain programs excessive? Who leaves during or after the freshman year? What essential services are needed to enhance EQ for students?

These student-generated data are important for ethical as well as practical reasons. The practical ones are obvious; the ethical ones are no less important. Students and their families invest their time, their aspirations, and their treasure to achieve their educational goals. Any institution that fails to offer a quality return on that investment has no business being in education.

Governance Values

A board is responsible for ensuring its institution delivers a quality educational experience to its students. Central to this work is responsiveness to institutional mission. Woven throughout considerations of quality and mission, however, are questions of institutional values: education is a value-laden enterprise. A commitment to quality expresses a value. The current higher education landscape is replete with controversial situations, many of which rest on questions of values centered on educational quality. In this brief final section, we look at a current board issue that requires reference to institutional values.

A board’s responsibility to ensure educational quality does not differ significantly for private or public boards. There is, however, a mission-centered responsibility that public sector boards have that private ones do not, or that they take on voluntarily and to a lesser extent. Acting under state auspices and as recipients of taxpayer funding, boards of public institutions have a responsibility to act on behalf of their state’s (or district’s) citizens as well as its students. Arguably, therefore, their fiduciary responsibilities are as much to the public as to their institution. They are trustees, after all, acting on behalf of the public. It is therefore incumbent that public boards pay particularly close attention to how their institutions’ programs and services impact external stakeholders, including employers and communities beyond campus borders.

One consequence of this expanded responsibility to the public is a duty to refrain from political partisanship, not just at the board level, but at the institutional level as well. Here one must distinguish between the positions espoused by the institution’s students, or the often value-infused conclusions reached as the result of scholarly research and debate, and what we might describe as the higher-order values (i.e., values about values) held by the institution itself. One such higher-order value is a commitment to free inquiry—the ability of institutional members to engage in the free investigation and exchange of ideas. Higher education is and must be a bastion for free inquiry. There is no greater measure of quality; the entire educational mission depends on it, and the board’s role in these matters is essential.

Consider a recent case. Free inquiry requires the freedom to voice controversial views and perspectives. Recently, much attention has been given to the alleged harm that can follow from the expression of certain views and opinions. Yet these two perspectives are fundamentally at odds, and boards have quite properly become the central players in this debate. An example of the underlying inconsistency is encoding certain speech as hate speech, the use of which can even constitute “violence,” while other equally or more problematic speech is characterized as “context dependent.” The most recent and well-publicized cases are those involving executive leadership at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University that clearly illustrate the complex relations between executive leadership, institutional values, and board responsibilities. Recall that in the final analysis, only their respective boards could resolve the value- and quality-laden issues at hand and that the reasons they gave for their decision-making are reasons of values.

Those last examples point out another way boards exercise critical oversight, and that is by ensuring the right executive leadership is in place and held accountable for outcomes. The chief executive is the person most accountable operationally for EQ. But part of that responsibility that until recently was largely implicit was that the president should be the institution’s chief expositor and defender of institutional values.


College graduation has clear benefits for individuals and for society at large. College graduates are more likely to be employed, earn more, and live longer than non-college graduates. Further, college graduates are more than twice as likely to volunteer, contribute 3.5 times more money to charity, and are half again as likely to vote than non-college graduates.6 Yet public confidence in higher education is eroding.7 Regaining that confidence entails institutions led by their boards demonstrating their commitment to educational quality.

We have recommended a number of EQ-centered steps a board can take to assist with this work. Understand and be prepared to use the board’s authority in all matters relating to educational quality. Be clear about EQ’s broad scope, including its implications that extend beyond the campus boundaries and beyond completion. Be sure the institution’s mission clearly and accurately reflects what the institution does and that it acts as a reliable guide to drive and assess educational quality. Have a clear map of who has operational responsibility for each of the areas that are EQ-evaluable and make sure they integrate in a way that optimizes impact. Understand how these areas are covered at the board level, ensuring that nothing is overlooked and that the various groups or committees responsible for oversight are communicating effectively with one another. Be prepared to talk about mission, context, and values, and to use them in driving decisions. A board should then be in position to pursue the often hard but always necessary work of ensuring mission-centered educational quality.

Barbara Brittingham, PhD, is president emerita of the New England Commission of Higher Education and serves on public and private sector boards. A national and international consultant on higher education, she can be reached at

James H. Page, PhD, is chancellor emeritus of the University of Maine System and serves on public and private sector boards. A national and international higher education consultant, he can be reached at


1. Association of Governing Boards, “Oversight of Educational Quality,” (Washington DC: AGB, 2011); AGB Board of Directors’ Statement on Board Responsibility for the Oversight of College Completion (Washington DC: AGB, 2016).

2. Association of Governing Boards, AGB Board of Directors’ Statement on Shared Governance (Washington, DC: AGB, 2017) provides a general discussion of shared governance.

3. Frederick P. Schaffer, “A Guide to Academic Freedom,” (Washington, DC: AGB, 2011) provides a history of tenure in the United States as well as a very useful introduction to issues concerning tenure.

4. Colleen Flaherty, “Settling with Salaita,” Inside Higher Ed, November 12, 2015,; Scott Jaschik, “Hannah-Jones Turns Down UNC Offer,” Inside Higher Ed, July 6, 2021,

5. Lauren Coffey, “University of California Takes Another Look at Online Education,” Inside Higher Ed, January 9, 2024,

6. Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, “How do College Graduates Benefit Society at Large?” retrieved January 18, 2024,,less%20likely%20to%20be%20imprisoned.

7. Douglas Belkin, “Why Americans Have Lost Faith in the Value of College” Wall Street Journal, January 19, 2024,

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