What Kind of Board Member Are You?

By Marla J. Bobowick    //    Volume 29,  Number 3   //    May/June 2021
Trusteeship May/June 2021 Cover

During a year-long process, AGB developed and published the Principles of Trusteeship—a set of nine principles designed to enhance the effectiveness of individual board members. It is AGB’s hope that board members will adopt these principles as bedrock and then apply them to their needs and circumstances throughout their board service.

Your college or university faces daunting demands for change in the midst of great uncertainty, societal ruptures, and unprecedented fiscal pressures. You and your fellow board members hold the institution in trust for current and future generations. How is the board responding to these challenges? What are you doing as a trustee?

Boards must govern better and differently to recover from the pandemic and to overcome the underlying conditions of disruption and governance failures in higher education. Now is the time for every trustee to step up in support of good governance and the academic enterprise for which they are responsible.

To help board members rise to this challenge, AGB has developed a set of guiding principles of trusteeship. Over the course of a year, AGB engaged thought leaders and members in defining the attitudes and behaviors of highly effective trustees. We distilled them into a set of principles that are foundational to good governance. They build upon the work of the board, and they speak to the work of individual trustees.

What Do We Know for Sure?

The value of the board should be greater than the sum of its parts. We focused on individual board members because the quality of governance depends on the caliber and commitment of the individuals involved. Without great trustees, boards will not have the strength and stamina to do the hard work needed to ensure vitality to our colleges and universities.

Governance is a team sport. Most governance guidance focuses on the work of the board—hiring the president, providing financial oversight, and setting policy. These responsibilities are essential and collective, but they lack clear and compelling guidance about what individual trustees should do and how to share leadership with other partners in governance. Board work is, at its heart, a collective effort and everyone has a vital role to play.

Trusteeship is about serving—not sitting—on the board. It requires much more than showing up at board meetings. It’s also about what happens between them. When asked to describe their best board members, trustees, presidents, and board professionals shared examples of individuals who were deeply engaged in the most important issues, at the right time, and in the right way.

What Can You Do?

On the surface, it seems simple: understand governance, think strategically, and lead by example. In practice, it’s not so easy. Good governance depends on clarity, communication, and collaboration. It requires real time and concerted effort. It changes as players and circumstances change. The core remains constant. To make it more accessible, we have broken it down into nine principles and nested them within the three fundamental functions: understand governance, think strategically, and lead by example.

Understand Governance 

Being a great trustee begins with knowing what your job is and what it isn’t. For starters, you should have received a statement of board responsibilities during orientation. But board work often feels unfamiliar. In our personal and professional lives, we’re usually tasked with deciding what to do and then doing it. Governance bifurcates these functions and disperses them across committees, the administration, and the faculty, as well as foundations and/or systems in public enterprises. Seek to understand how this plays out at your institution.

Putting the Principles into Practice

Leading an academic enterprise that changes the lives of individuals, communities, and our world should be exhilarating. But it isn’t easy. How would you handle these situations?

Reading Committee Reports Closely

The board packet included an update from the student affairs committee about campus health and safety. The backup report noted that during the past 10 years the college’s student population had increased by 48 percent and the number of students seen by the counseling center had increased by 176 percent. This reminded one of the new trustees of a post she saw on a social media group for parents: “My son’s really struggling with anxiety this semester due to his heavy class load. Can anyone recommend a local therapist?” Several parents chimed in with similar stories. During the board meeting, the trustee asked how the college was responding to mental health issues. The director of student affairs explained that the college had a student hotline, an online self-help program, and 1.5 new staff in the counseling center. When the trustee asked what else the college might do, the finance committee chair jumped in, “We’ll have to wait until the next budget because we’re under a hiring freeze this year.”

Crossing the Line

The advancement committee chair emailed the university president, “Our chief development officer has been absolutely terrific on the capital campaign this year. I think a significant raise plus a sizable bonus would be in order when we set compensation for the upcoming year.” The president responded, “Thanks for the positive feedback. It’s so great when a regent recognizes the hard work of our leadership team.” What the president didn’t know was that, separately, the committee chair had asked the vice president for human resources to provide compensation data for chief development officers at 10 peer institutions.

Responding to Public Pushback

A community member cornered a board member at the local supermarket to complain about a recent controversial board decision that made the front page of the newspaper. The board member responded, “Thanks for your concern. I’ll share this with the president and the board.” The board had agonized over the issue and the vote was not unanimous, but board members all agreed that the process had been thorough. Rather than being defensive or off-putting, this board member listened and responded without making any promises on behalf of the university. He also sent a quick note to the president and board chair to let them know about this encounter.

Sharing Subject Matter Expertise

A new board member with extensive experience in public financing shared that his organization had issued a century bond, which was a highly unusual business strategy at the time. The university CFO and most board members dismissed the idea at first. After considerable research, the board concluded that this approach made sense given that the university was likely to exist for another 100 years and given historically low interest rates. The board would not have pursued this option without a board member who had the experience and the patience to help the finance committee and then the board work through their concerns.

The Principles of Trusteeship

The nine Principles of Trusteeship are designed to empower individual trustees to serve as partners in governance and leadership with their boards and presidents. This table unpacks the attitudes and actions of a highly effective board member. Board service extends beyond the board meeting, and trustees wear multiple hats:

  • As a fiduciary, each trustee is responsible for the sustainability of the whole Fiduciary work is tied to shared responsibility and collective action.
  • As a member of a team, a trustee works alongside fellow board members and the administration. Everyone is expected to come prepared, participate productively, and support the will of the
  • As an individual, a trustee brings unique expertise and experience, time and This happens inside and outside the boardroom as each person contributes and collaborates in personal ways.

Being a great trustee is about sharing leadership with fellow trustees, the president and administration, and the faculty. More often than not, the heavy lifting is done by others who have more subject matter expertise and frontline responsibility. Then the board explores the issues and considers the recommendations. This hand-off requires the board to respect subject matter experts but does not require unconditional acceptance. It does not excuse or exclude trustees from governing; rather, it depends on information sharing from the administration and due diligence by board members. Follow guidance from your partners in governance, and make thoughtful and informed decisions.

Being a great trustee requires respecting the boundaries between the board and the administration. These boundaries can be blurry. Sometimes, it’s about making informed decisions, but more often it’s about informing decisions. Board work has always included updating investment policies and reviewing pending lawsuits. These days, it also includes tough calls about room-and- board refunds and reductions in workforce. Remember that trustees provide insight and oversight but don’t manage or implement.

Think Strategically 

Being a great trustee means keeping an eye on the horizon. It’s easier to pay attention to the recent past and pressing present. It’s harder to keep the big picture and future in focus—especially in the aftermath of a global crisis. As the board approves plans for the near term, trustees need to also keep in mind what matters to long-term sustainability. How will demands for hybrid learning and accelerated programs affect campus life? What are the implications of declining birthrates and income inequality on our business model?

Being a great trustee means asking the right questions. For board members, this can be challenging because higher education is an unfamiliar industry and academic enterprises are complex. Trustees need support from the administration in the form of good information and honest conversations. For their part, trustees need to do their homework and bring an inquisitive, open mind to their work. Institutional success is more likely when trustees serve not as rubber stamps but as strategic thought partners with the president to determine the best path forward. Come prepared to frame the issues and wrestle with the solutions together with the administration.

Lead by Example

Being a great trustee requires impeccable integrity. Because the board sits at the top of the hierarchy in an academic enterprise, trustees must model the institution’s ethics and values. As a board member, you not only have to put the interests of the institution first, you also have to hold the institution accountable to those standards. If you see something, say something. Board members who look the other way about questionable business partners or unethical behavior put the institution’s reputation at risk. Use your board’s code of conduct and your institution’s values statements as a touchstone when making decisions.

Being a great trustee requires independent thinking and collective action. Thinking independently happens inside the boardroom when trustees ask questions, probe for more information, and challenge assumptions. This may be uncomfortable and unpopular with fellow trustees, the administration, or other stakeholders, but used constructively, it leads to robust discussion and better solutions. Acting collectively happens outside the boardroom, where the board speaks with a singular voice and trustees stand united behind decisions. Respect that the president is the spokesperson for the institution, and the chair is the spokesperson for the board.

What Will You Do?

Your academic enterprise needs you, now! Better governance happens one trustee at a time. To help you bring your best, most prepared self to your board, set aside some time for reflection. Read the Principles of Trusteeship: How to Become a Highly Effective Board Member, which can be downloaded from www.agb. org. Reflect on how you can contribute to great governance. Talk about it with fellow trustees to bolster your board’s culture and camaraderie.

Trusteeship is not an easy endeavor for the faint of heart. But it is a calling for those who want to make a difference. Leading an academic enterprise that changes the lives of individuals, communities, and our world should be an exhilarating experience. Now is the time to step up in support of good governance and the academic enterprise for which you are responsible.

Marla J. Bobowick, is a governance consultant who served as the project director for the AGB Principles of Trusteeship project. 

Takeaways

  • The Principles of Trusteeship lays out a vision for more effective boards based on more effective board members. To help individual board members become more effective, AGB developed a set of nine principles nested within three core functions: understand governance, lead by example, and think strategically.
  • Being a great trustee begins with knowing what your job is, and what it isn’t. It is about sharing leadership with fellow trustees, the president and administration, and the faculty—but it also requires respecting the boundaries between the board and the administration.
  • Trusteeship is about the future. It means keeping an eye on the horizon and thinking about the enterprise as a whole. It is also about listening and learning. It means asking the right questions.
  • Trusteeship requires impeccable integrity. Because the board sits at the top of the hierarchy in an academic enterprise, trustees must model the institution’s ethics and values.
  • Trusteeship is not about sitting on the board; it is about serving on the board. It is a calling for those who want to make a difference in a number of ways.

 

Related Resources

Principles of Trusteeship: How to Become a Highly Effective Board Member for Colleges, Universities, and Foundations 

AGB Board of Directors’ Statement on the Fiduciary Duties of Governing Board Members 

Highly Effective Boards FAQ