From the moment that college and university trustees assume their seats at the board table, they need to be knowledgeable about their institution, understand their role and responsibilities, and recognize that they can only be a high-performing board if they work effectively as a group. But we have found that a number of today’s trustees believe that their institution’s orientation sessions and board-developmentprograms do not adequately prepare them for the job.
How do board members learn of the intricacies of their institution? How do those who have been appointed or elected to these positions comprehend how to work effectively as a group in what may be, for many, a foreign environment? What are some of the best board-development activities that institutions can provide their board members?
Those were the questions that one of us, Bill Griffin, vice chair of the board at the College of Lake County and a business professor at Triton College, asked as part of his research for a dissertation, “Board of Trustees: The Whole Is Greater than the Sum of the Individual Parts,” at National Louis University in Chicago. Rebecca Lake, a former vice-president at a community college and director of the Community College Leadership doctoral program, served as his dissertation chair. The purpose of the study was to identify the adequacy and availability of board-development activities that help trustees become stronger contributors when overseeing colleges and universities. What we learned may be helpful for institutions of all types when working with their boards.
The research focused on board members from four institutions in three Midwestern states. To gather the most in-depth data from a wide perspective, we interviewed at length a group of seasoned trustees who had served more than one term on the board and then a second group of new trustees serving in their first term. The participants described their roles and responsibilities, how they influenced policy, the type of board-development they received, and what was lacking as they prepared to take their seats as governing board members.
When asked what content a board-development program should have for them to do their jobs as trustees well, not surprisingly, all participants described such topics as how the budget was organized and the board’s role in strategic planning and policy formation. Other key subjects were an understanding of the procedural processes of a formal board meeting, and clarification of their overall roles and responsibilities as board members. All the participants indicated a desire for educational activities that prepared them to be immediately effective in their roles.
New board members in particular commented that board-development activities should focus on a number of operational areas including the college’s finances, accreditation, and unions. They also said an understanding of existing policies and procedures, political issues within the state, and employee contract cycles were important. In addition, new board members stressed their desire to better understand their own role in helping the college to fulfill its mission.
In the study, however, we found new board members overwhelmingly said that the board-development activities coordinated by their institutions were inadequate, both in content and usefulness. They frequently noted that the single orientation day at the beginning of their term was overwhelming and confusing—and that the orientation process should be much more than a metaphorical carousel ride around the institution with stops at the different functional areas of the college.
The trustees often commented that, while they had information regarding students, faculty, operations, and functional areas of the administration, as well as the higher education system, the relevancy of this information and how it related to the responsibilities of the board was lacking. Both new and seasoned trustees indicated that if the board-development information was not contextualized and made relevant to their specific roles at the institution, they found it difficult to comprehend.
Study participants emphasized that board-development activities should be offered consistently, even quarterly throughout the year. They also stressed the advantages of attending meetings of state and national associations to expand their knowledge—that such meetings opened their eyes to the larger context from which to view their new roles and allowed them to compare notes about vital issues with trustees at other institutions.
The study suggests that whether trustee information programs are labeled as board-development activities, orientation, or training is of no consequence. In general, such programs should focus on the following elements: (1) growth in the individual’s understanding of trusteeship, (2) knowledge and understanding of the operation of the institution and the constituents it serves, (3) awareness of state and federal policies and trends relevant to higher education institutions, and (4) development of the board as a cohesive, high-performing group.
In addition, we also have concluded that paying particular attention and adhering to adult learning principles while crafting the program presentation can be beneficial for the trustees and, in turn, for the institution. Most learning theorists generally accept that adults learn differently than people under the age of 18 years. Malcolm S. Knowles, a former professor at Boston University and executive director of the Adult Education Association of the United States—and probably the leading adult-learning scholar—has put forth some key tenets, among them that adults need to know why they are learning something (i.e., its relevancy to the situation) and then how to apply this knowledge. This relevancy-oriented requirement of adult learners is very pertinent to trustees because they must understand in a short period of time massive amounts of college-related data and information. According to Knowles, contextualization of information also helps people to create meaning by linking new ideas or concepts to prior knowledge or experiences.
Thus, based on the study findings, we recommend that institutions:
- Provide regularly scheduled board-development activities for board members. Adults learn by repetition. Rarely is anything new learned effectively with only one exposure to the information.
- Offer real-world examples and connect the relevance of the data and information to the decisions, policies, and strategic plans needed to benefit the college.
- Add context: Connect the content of orientation and education programs to the board members’ knowledge/experiences.
Those with whom we spoke reinforced the notion that the quality of board-development activities board members receive before assuming their seats and throughout their tenure is of paramount importance to each institution. One might say that a predictor of the board’s effectiveness tomorrow is the regularity and quality of the board-development activities provided today.
Read “Welcoming New Board Members: 15 Tips for Better Orientations” by Stephen G. Pelletier