A Question For Philip N. Bredesen

Why do we need a National Commission on College and University Board Governance?

By AGB    //    Volume 21,  Number 5   //    September/October 2013

The recently formed National Commission on College and University Board Governance will be meeting for the first time in October to begin the important work of reviewing current governance practices and recommending changes it believes could help boards better meet the financial, educational, and legal challenges that confront higher education today. Philip Bredesen, former governor of Tennessee, is chairing the commission and answers questions about its scope and purpose.

Why is a national commission important and why now?

Much has changed in higher education in the last several decades, yet we have yet to really rethink boards as part of that. Between changing finances and delivery, boards are being drawn into decisions about academic program models and spending that are new territory for many of them. State legislatures and the federal government are becoming more active and willing to assert their authority over institutional direction and use of funds. Evolving expectations for boards are not confined to higher education: New regulatory and compliance responsibilities are driving change in corporate and other nonprofit boards elsewhere in our society. This will probably be the case with higher education, as well.

With the pace of change likely to continue in the years ahead, there is a clear need to step back and take a fresh look at the effectiveness of institutional governance in this new world for higher education. Governance will be a key factor in the ability of any institution to adapt. In my estimation, AGB is the appropriate body to foster this review. One of the great strengths of higher education in America is its independence and its governance model; college and university leaders should ensure that that independence is preserved by getting ahead of these issues and not waiting for an external political or legal process to do it for them.

What prompted your interest in leading the commission?

I have a deep-seated belief in the importance of higher education to the future of our country. As a governor, and the ex-officio chair of the boards of our two systems of higher education, I saw how rapidly the environment in which higher education operated was changing, and I watched the boards grapple with how to respond thoughtfully. The challenges that higher education faces—the financial ones, for example—are not all bad; they force institutions to rethink old assumptions and ingrained ways of doing things. This reevaluation and reinvention process starts with board members; they are ultimately responsible for the final results.

We’re fortunate in our country to have a great many successful and thoughtful people serving on the boards of our public and independent institutions. To benefit from them will require the framework of a responsive approach to governance, one that is prepared to meet the challenges of heightened public expectations. I am no expert, but the commission has a large and diverse group of members with real expertise and direct experience. My job is simply to help focus and organize the thoughts of these real experts.

What kinds of issues will the commission be addressing?

One of the first things that we’ll spend time on at our first meeting will be identifying the issues that our commission members find to be most important. Just as asking the right question is the key to solving a complex problem, identifying the right issues will be the key to the commission’s success. Our members bring very different experiences and expertise to the table, and I expect we’ll be able to build a rich and thoughtful list. My role will be to steer a process that is collaborative and makes the best use of the knowledge and experience of the people on the commission. Our work will be effective if it is credible, well-reasoned, and focused on the most important topics where new thinking is needed.

How might governance have to change to meet the challenges facing higher ed?

That’s what the commission will be trying to determine. If we can do so in a way that is respectful of what has already been accomplished and has enough specificity and bite to be meaningful, we’ll have done our job.

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