Governing boards are dynamic groups of individuals where, sometimes, the whole does not equal the sum of its parts. Presidents want and need their boards to be active, productive and engaged assets for the college, university or state system that they govern. Yet too many boards underperform. We argue that it is not what boards do (or don’t do) but how they do their work that really matters.
Consider these examples of poor board behavior:
The perennially underengaged board asks few questions of the administration and fewer of themselves;
The overly powerful executive committee controls 85 percent of the agenda and excludes other trustees; and,
The impulsive board quickly moves to decisions without divergent or devil’s advocate thinking.
We think that educating boards on what they should do -- their roles and responsibilities -- while important, is insufficient. In actuality, underperforming boards may know their roles but have cultures that limit their effectiveness. Board culture, those patterns of behavior and ways of understanding that are deeply ingrained, reinforced and taught to new trustees, is what demands attention.
Rather than tinker with board structure, such as the size of the board (the large boards wishing they were smaller and the small boards thinking they should be larger), or the number and size of committees, board leaders and presidents should work to ensure a healthy board culture. It has been said that culture eats structure and strategy for lunch, and we agree. But culture is much more elusive and difficult to explain succinctly, making it challenging to expose and act upon.
We have been working with several boards to describe, measure and analyze their cultures and then ask if that culture fits the institution’s environment, current context and the work facing the board. Boards are complex social systems they have norms, expectations and preferred ways of working. Some of the norms are explicit (attendance), and others are implicit (comportment). Such normative elements are the building blocks of board culture. A proverbial fish in water syndrome, culture is difficult to see objectively for those immersed in it. By making the normative behaviors and interaction explicit, we can make culture actionable and create a road map for aligning culture with needs.
In our research, we’ve identified several important dimensions of board culture, such as the extent to which:
influence is consolidated in the hands of a few trustees or widely dispersed across the board,
the board sees itself more as a cheerleader or critic,
the board has an academic mind-set versus a corporate one, and,
the board seeks diverging and diverse views rather than preferring to move quickly to consensus.
These cultural dimensions are continuums with a matched partner at the other end.
Cultural factors such as these and others in our framework have both positive and negative aspects. Think about the classic Myers-Briggs introvert-extrovert scale as a parallel. Being introverted or extroverted, on its face, is neither good nor bad; rather, it depends on the context and the ways in which the strengths and blind spots play themselves out for an individual. Still, it is helpful for individuals to understand their natural tendencies and preferences. We believe that the same is true for boards as they rate themselves on dimensions of culture.
For example, think about a large board, in a highly dynamic situation, where it needs to make decisions quickly. This board, and its president, may be well served by a board culture that has consolidated influence. A few highly respected and good board leaders are able to respond quickly.
But on the flip side, a board that has consolidated influence and needs widespread input to understand novel and complex situations confronting the institution may exclude key members who have much to add. If a small group of trustees dominates all board work, takes up the most airtime during board meetings, shapes all agendas and even talks over other trustees, why would others participate? Consolidated influence may drive trustee disengagement for some boards.
At the same time, however, boards with distributed influence may micromanage. A larger board with a lot of trustees may not have enough substance in their board work, so hungry people are looking for more engagement and can easily cross the murky line into operations.
The one exception we are exploring to the notion of cultural continuums (again, think Myers-Briggs) relates to how board members treat each other, or what we call comportment. For instance, having more trust among board members is better than less, having more respect for one another and one another’s contributions is healthier than animosity, and being more openly deliberative in meetings is more desirable than having off-line conversations or “parking lot meetings” (that occur after the board meeting as trustees head to their cars).
Understanding the cultural explanations of common board problems can be helpful for board leaders and presidents. Some of those problems include:
overly inclusive processes in which boards cannot make decisions (death by discussion). For example, we know of a board that could not move on approval of the tuition increase recommended by the administration because they continued to debate the issue at a series of meeting, putting the tuition-dependent institution at a disadvantage when the freshman recruitment cycle began.
a board that is overly clubby and deferential to the president (the in-the-pocket board).One board found itself in difficulty when the president didn’t share all of the institution’s financial situation; instead some trustees eventually found out about it from faculty with whom they sang in the church choir.
a board that jumps to decisions too quickly (the knee-jerk board) One board found itself with a parcel of real estate in another state that became burdensome because it quickly accepted a gift from a longtime supporter even though there was neither a plan nor purpose for it.
In these cases, knowing better the roles and responsibilities of good governance might not have thwarted the problems. Instead, the culture of the board contributed, allowing these issues to snowball.
Here are some key questions that start to capture board culture:
To what extent does the board have a corporate mind-set or an academic one? Is it mission or market driven?
Is influence consolidated or distributed?
What is the level of trust within the board and between the administration and the board?
Does the board have a disposition toward efficiency or deliberation?
A cultural lens to the work of boards can explain many things. But the real benefit is having the language to make elements of culture visible and thus actionable. Once boards have the means to understand their own culture, the subsequent work should focus on the extent to which the board’s culture is aligned with the demands of the environment in which the institution and the board has to work and the nature of the challenges it faces. The cultural profiles of boards suggest that they may be well suited for some work and some situations but ill prepared for other situations. Knowing these can be extremely important to ensure ongoing board effectiveness. Too many boards get caught by the blind spots and shortcomings of their cultures.
Helping the board and the president understand the board’s strengths and potential vulnerabilities is essential to making culture actionable. They can then have meaningful conversations about the board culture they have and whether or not it is working well in the current (and future) context, think about what changes to culture might be helpful, and develop strategies to act on them. Changing the culture of a board may not be as problematic as changing the culture of an institution. The relatively small size of the board, the ability of the board chair to set new expectations and norms, and the infrequency with which boards meet mean that with attention and intention they can adopt new cultural norms and expectations. In addition, board turnover can be used to advantage, because institutions can cultivate and orient trustees who fit the desired culture.
A board culture profile provides a road map to align board dynamics with the work the board needs to accomplish, the president’s leadership style and the institution’s context. One sample profile from our pilot effort includes the following dimensions along the five continuums. The board:
Has distributed influence across the members of the board;
Seeks to maximize efficiency in how it conducts its work;
Has divergent thinking, prizing multiple perspectives and critical thinking;
Has an academic mind-set in that it understands the academy; and,
Views its role as partnering with the administration.
One potential vulnerability of this board is that for the sake of efficiency, time is not well organized to ensure both sufficient involvement and a breadth of issues. The concern may not be one of time management, but the way in which time is allocated to issues. Does the board address sufficient substance? Could it be covering more issues if it altered its culture and meeting structure? These questions seem to be on the minds of board and administrative leaders at this university as they seek to add substantive discussions to board meetings.
Board culture has been called “the invisible director” for the influence it creates, both positive and negative. The real goal of understanding board culture and its influence on how boards work can put governance on the pathway toward increased effectiveness. It is making sure that invisible director is moving the board in the right and positive direction.
Peter Eckel is a senior fellow and the director of leadership programs at the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy in the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and a trustee at the University of La Verne. Cathy Trower is president of Trower & Trower Inc., a board governance consulting firm, and a trustee at Wheaton College, Mass.
The faculty union at the financially troubled City College of San Francisco is planning a one-day strike today. So the college is shutting down for the day. A statement from CCSF said: "Under these circumstances, closing the school and its 11 locations on Wednesday is the safest and most prudent course of action. Due to the strike, we do not anticipate having the necessary personnel on-site to maintain and operate the buildings."
The California Assembly's Higher Education Committee voted to advance a bill that would authorize the use of state student success funding for emergency aid, which typically are small grants of $300 or less. The use of emergency aid is spreading, thanks in part to research showing that lower-income students often drop out of college because of short-term financial needs, such as car repairs or visiting a sick relative.
The bill introduced by David Chiu, an assemblymember from San Francisco, would allow community college students in California to receive emergency aid from the state Student Success and Support Program.
In a written statement, Chiu said the bill would “help relieve some of the stress students face in the midst of an unexpected financial emergency and keep them on the path to be successful.”
Donald Trump, as the likely nominee of a major political party for the presidency of the United States, raises questions heretofore unimagined. Among them is the question of how and to what degree a college or university president should react to his candidacy.
If any doubt exists about the fact that the Trump situation is unusual, consider that some students viewed the recent chalkings of “Trump 2016” on the Emory University campus -- absent any other language -- as an act of intimidation. And the university’s president, James W. Wagner, observed that “the students with whom I spoke heard a message, not about political process or candidate choice, but instead about values regarding diversity and respect that clash with Emory’s own.” That is, some people considered Trump’s mere name as equivalent to an offensive epithet.
While such sensitivity might in part be a sign of the times in which we live, it is nonetheless true that Trump is more or less a walking violation of the mission statements and codes of conduct at most American colleges. Were he a student at Emory who engaged in some of his characteristic behaviors in a classroom or residence hall, he would likely face severe criticism and even disciplinary action. Few college presidents would hesitate to condemn a member of their community who, for example, clearly appeared to mock a person with a physical disability, insulted more than one religious and ethnic group en masse, and habitually belittled women.
The question, then, is whether Trump’s status as a leading presidential candidate inoculates him against such condemnation. How does an academic leader balance the responsibility to remain “neutral” against the duty to speak in defense of the values that are most central to a place of learning?
Nonprofit colleges and universities are prohibited by law from officially endorsing or opposing particular political candidates; they are compelled by mission to be places where a wide range of views, even those that are unpopular and provocative, can be expressed. For those reasons, college presidents typically, and wisely, steer clear of politics. Although they are, of course, free to speak and act as individual citizens, their leadership roles can blur the line between personal and institutional agency.
The exception, however, is when political matters bear directly upon the work of higher education. Thus, presidents will not hesitate to speak out on such issues as the funding of Pell Grants or the importance of affirmative action, despite the fact that such issues have clear political dimensions. Typically college presidents will be careful to support or oppose a policy and not a person, though it would be disingenuous to insist that their positions have no implications for the candidates and political parties they do or do not endorse.
Trump presents a special challenge because the policies and the personality seem so deeply interwoven and because both the policies and the manner in which they are expressed represent such a clear challenge to the work of higher education. Banning the entry of all Muslims into the United States, for instance, would have a direct impact on many international students and faculty members on campuses across the country. Forced deportation of undocumented residents would remove many students from those same campuses. I might go further and argue that the incitement to violence and the encouragement of fear and anger also undermine the academy’s commitment to civility and rational discourse. Trump is far from the first politician to engage in such tactics, but he is the first, I would argue, to stand so close to the highest office in the republic.
So what, if anything, is a college leader to say about a candidate like Trump? While speaking out about a presidential election can be difficult, for me remaining silent in the face of so much behavior and proposed policy that is antithetical to the mission of higher education is infinitely more difficult and ultimately more dangerous. A higher education president who opposes some of the offensive behavior that Trump engages in or the policies he promotes might run the risk of being too outspoken. But passively observing Trump creates a risk that is in my view much greater: that of failing to speak when the values most important to the institution within one’s care are imperiled.
Brian Rosenberg is president of Macalester College.
A new notice of allegations sent to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Monday from the National Collegiate Athletic Association focused on women's basketball and made no mention of the men's basketball or football teams. Together, the two teams accounted for more than half of all athletes who enrolled in the fraudulent courses at the center of the NCAA's investigation.
For 20 years, some employees at the university knowingly steered about 1,500 athletes toward no-show courses that never met and were not taught by any faculty members, and in which the only work required was a single research paper that received a high grade no matter the content. Following the university's own investigation into the courses, the NCAA sent a notice of allegations to UNC last year.
The notice alleged that the university "provided impermissible benefits to student-athletes that were not generally available to the student body." While the notice did not name any UNC employees connected to the men's basketball or football programs as subjects of its investigation, it did broadly refer to those athletes as participating in the fake courses and receiving impermissible benefits.
In August, the university notified the NCAA that it had found additional information about improper academic assistance being provided to the women's basketball team by an academic counselor, prompting the association to further investigate and then issue the new notice. Though the charges against UNC remain significant, the references to the men's basketball and football teams, as well as the broad language about impermissible benefits for athletes, are all missing from the updated notice of allegations.
Mary Willingham, a former academic counselor who helped bring the scam to light, said Monday that the women's basketball team was complicit in the scam, but that to focus so much on the women's team and not mention men's basketball or football is unfair.
According to the university's report, football players accounted for 51 percent of the athletes taking the phony courses, and twelve percent were men's basketball players. Six percent of athletes taking the courses were women's basketball players.
"The NCAA keeps showing us the truth about them and about their member institutions," Willingham said. "They're going to protect their money. Why would they try to hurt their profits, when they can just hurt the women?"
The new notice charges the university with five violations, including a lack of institutional control and failure to monitor the departments that offered the fraudulent courses. The notice largely focuses on women's basketball and a former academic counselor for the team named Jan Boxill. In a statement, Boxill's lawyer said "there is no legitimate reason for the women's basketball team to be singled out for special scrutiny or punishment."
The amended notice of allegations -- which supersedes and replaces last year's notice -- also narrows the time frame in which the fraudulent courses took place. The university's own report found that the courses began in 1993 and ended in 2011. The original notice of allegations focused on courses beginning in 2002. The new notice describes the classes as starting in 2005, which means its men's basketball team that won a national championship in 2005 -- and accounted for several enrollments in the courses -- is now likely in the clear.
Bubba Cunningham, UNC's athletic director, declined to speculate why the notice no longer mentioned men's basketball and football or why the allegations of impermissible benefits focused only on women's basketball, saying the NCAA determined what charges to bring against UNC by comparing the facts of the case with the association's bylaws. The university has 90 days to respond to the notice.
"Lack of institutional control, failure to monitor, those are significant charges," Cunningham said. "I just want to focus on what we have in front of us."
The faculty union and student government at Eastern Michigan University on Friday urged the university to drop Division I football. In a report presented to the university's Board of Regents, the students and faculty suggested that the team should compete in Division II or Division III instead. They called the move a "moral imperative" that would save students money.
"Culturally and geographically, EMU football will simply never succeed from an attendance and financial standpoint," Howard Bunsis, a faculty member who helped prepare the report, said during the presentation, the Detroit Free Press reported. "It is a losing proposition. Always has been, and always will be. We hardly raise any money for football, and our attendance is the lowest in the country. Some of you believe that we are close to succeeding, if we just throw more money at the situation. This proposition is insane."
Capella Education Co. last week announced the purchase of Hackbright Academy, a nondegree coding boot camp for women, for $18 million. Capella, a publicly traded for-profit chain, said in a written statement that the San Francisco-based Hackbright’s "mission to increase female representation in the tech workforce through education, mentorship and community is a strategic fit with Capella’s focus on providing the most direct path between learning and employment, and Capella’s historic base of largely female students."
The purchase is the fourth major investment by a for-profit in a boot camp, which tend to offer postcollege training in immersive, 12-week sessions that cost around $12,000. Kaplan Inc. two years ago bought Dev Bootcamp. Apollo Education Group made a "significant" investment in the Iron Yard last year. And Strayer Education Inc. bought the New York Code and Design Academy this year.
BMO Capital Markets, which analyzes the for-profit sector, said boot camps could help for-profit chains lessen their reliance on federal financial aid while also reaccelerating the companies' growth.
Goldman Sachs, the investment banking firm, on Monday announced that it would distribute $1 million in competitive grants for nine community colleges around the country. Those grants, which are aimed at community college endowments and will support need-based financial aid, follow $2 million in gifts for LaGuardia Community College, which is located in New York City. The new grants from the firm's Goldman Sachs Gives fund also will be matched with $1 million from donors to the colleges.
U of Chicago coach tells judge that former speaker, about to be sentenced for hiding hush money to cover up charges he molested boys, is "outstanding human being" for taking on U.S. Education Department.