The Role of the Board in Transformation

By David G. Turner    //    Volume 24,  Number 3   //    May/June 2016

Transformation is becoming a popular word, bouncing around college and university boardrooms across the world. The question is, what exactly does transformation mean? That the business model no longer works? That funding sources have dried up and new ones are required? Does it mean that the instructional model is changing to suit the millennial generation, with its different ways of learning and adapting? Or does it mean that the ideology of how we govern is also evolving, requiring leadership from the boardroom to direct this change while engaging in shared governance that aligns the board with the administration and faculty to achieve institutional mission?

In the boardroom, we are often called upon to make insightful decisions, trade-offs, and investment moves with limited resources and time, frequently with imperfect information but always with expectations of good or even transformative outcomes. We must make these choices based on the analytics and data at our disposal. The process begins with transparency and clear goals, key performance indicators (KPIs), and shared insights.

Institutional dashboards can focus the attention of the board and the administration on what’s important—investment dollars, resources, strategic priorities—enabling us to move towards a performance- based culture. As the saying goes, “what gets measured gets done.”

Any effort at transformation must align around the strategic priorities that are most important for the institution. Key strategic themes, such as student success and sustainability of the business model, have emerged as common priorities for universities. Student success is attracting and retaining the right students, getting them to graduation in four years, and giving them the tools to find gainful, purposeful employment. This is job number one for our institutions, and it entails refocusing from the global to the individual student. New and effective tools, such as early alerts for academic, financial, and social issues affecting individual students and heightened advisory support, demonstrate institutional commitment to ensuring the student is successful and represent a new way of thinking and a new way of governing.

Sustainability is one of the most critical areas impacting the higher education community. Business models are shifting, funding sources are unpredictable, and learning channels are evolving; therefore, institutions must evolve and adapt in order to survive and thrive in the days ahead. We must review our operating costs and academic programs and make difficult decisions, in both the short and long term. We must develop the assets that we have stewardship over, such as research, intellectual property, and incubator space. It is essential to leverage our brilliant faculty members, students, and board (who often have great corporate experience) to produce economic development, products, and services that can be consumed in the global marketplace. Corporate America is looking for groundbreaking research and well-trained students and certified faculty who can help them solve real problems in different ways.

To achieve success and transform their institutions into ones that can continue to compete globally in the 21st century, boards must have vision and the discipline to execute institutional strategy as informed by goals, KPIs, and dashboards. They must believe in the value of shared governance to transform the university into one that both breaks new ground and produces predictable and repeatable outcomes for students. This is a journey that must be thoughtfully conceived and carried out with focus, beginning with careful selection of board members whose skills and experiences contribute to the mission, through the creation and maintenance of the appropriate committee structure, to a full embrace of the broad range of fiduciary responsibility. Ultimately, this will determine how an institution transforms itself, and into what.

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