Advice for ensuring boards are prepared to deal with what's ahead (essay)

“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future,” said Niels Bohr, Nobel laureate in physics. While he wasn’t speaking specifically about governing boards, his quotation is apt. How well prepared is your board for the future, predictable or not?

Boards must work concurrently across three points of time: past, present and future. The oversight work of boards by definition is historical. Boards look to the past to understand how well the college, university or state system is performing against plans and goals. Events happen in the past that the board reviews. Did we meet our institutional objectives this past year? How accurate was the budget projection, or were there shortfalls or overages? Did the institution hit its enrollment goals?

Boards also live in the present. How is the university responding to a crisis, such as student protests, or how well is it addressing pressing issues, such as the employment conditions of adjunct faculty? What are the financial costs of a new tuition and aid policy?

Finally, boards must work in the future. They approve a five-year strategic plan, for example. But they also are stewards of the university and long-term guardians of its mission, looking well into the future. It is this third area that is most difficult, given the flux in which most colleges, universities and state systems find themselves.

While it is impossible to “futureproof” a board, assessing its strengths and potential vulnerabilities can go a long way toward ensuring that it is prepared for what’s ahead. Such assessments give board leaders and the administrators a sense of the board’s strengths and the areas where it is potentially vulnerable, and can provide a road map for improvement.

We know that boards vary in their level of functioning, in the scope of their work and in their level of sophistication. Governance is rarely uniform, and different boards will find some approaches resonate more with them than others. But here are some general ideas you might consider to help your board be prepared for the future.

Baseline Fundamentals

Certain key fundamentals support governance, and most boards should already have these in place. But some boards lack these elements and, without a firm foundation, will struggle to address future challenges.

The board chair and institutional president should easily answer the following questions, which are intended to help a board determine a baseline of its effectiveness.

  • Are there written expectations for trustees?
  • Are there mechanisms for orienting new board members?
  • Are board members asked to prepare for board meetings so they can contribute to the discourse? (For example, are key documents sent out 10 to 14 days in advance?) Do board members actually prepare for meetings?
  • Do board members physically attend all meetings, with rare exceptions? How many join by phone? And how many simply don’t show up?
  • Is it possible to tell what is most important for the institution by looking at the board agenda?
  • Does the board have a set agenda, and is it designed to promote discussion and debate about the most pressing issues?
  • Has the board (or a board subcommittee) reviewed the board bylaws within the last five years?


Boards need to know where they are performing well, where they have blind spots and where they might need to improve. As they discuss their ability to navigate the whitewater ahead, boards may wish to consider the following:

  • Time spent on meaningful issues. There are many complex issues to address and time is limited, so a board must spend it effectively and efficiently. Does the board have clear goals and objectives for each meeting? To what extent do discussions allow it to explore complicated topics? Is the meeting efficient? Does the board take the necessary time to deliberate important issues? Does it have the information it needs to govern well?
  • The use of board member talent and knowledge. Board members should be intentionally selected or invited to participate based on their talents, skill sets, knowledge and ability to work well together. To what extent is the board composed of diverse thinkers? Are the areas of expertise that the institution needs reflected in the various members of the board? How well does the board tap into the collective wisdom of its members? Does the board work together as a high-performing team? Does the board add value?
  • The relationship between the board and the president. The board-president relationship is complex, in part because of the multiple roles involved: the board oversees the president as boss, serves as a strategic thought partner and is also a coach. Does the board play these three roles well, or is it predisposed to one type of work over the others? Does the board regularly and effectively evaluate the president? Does the board listen to the president? Is there mutual trust, respect and accountability? Is there open, two-way communication and transparency?
  • Board integrity. The board should evaluate its sense of integrity as well as that of the president and college, university or system. Does the board have the capacity to ensure that both it and the institution or system it oversees are operating within the boundaries of applicable laws? Does the board have and uphold a conflict-of-interest policy? How transparent is the board in its decision making? Does the board maintain confidentiality?
  • Board member satisfaction. It is important to understand the extent to which board members believe their work has a positive impact, their level of overall satisfaction with the board, and the degree to which they find the experience rewarding. After all, these roles are voluntary. And boards want to ensure they are getting the most from their volunteers.

Other categories of possible assessment include the participation and engagement of board members, the effectiveness of board education, and the depth of board knowledge.

Furthermore, boards can assess performance in a number of ways. One approach is to look at simple yet potentially powerful questions as presented in a two-by-two matrix defined by frequency and value or impact.


Finally, to understand how well it is prepared for the future, the board should assess its culture. While it is important to understand if the board carries out its functions effectively, it is equally important to ask how the board does what it does. Its beliefs and ways of working and engaging are passed on to new trustees and can become deeply engrained, often without examination. The group itself becomes the “invisible director,” as Clayton Alderfer astutely noted 30 years ago (Harvard Business Review, Nov.-Dec. 1986) of the influence it can exert.

Effective governance demands that board members ask two questions: To what extent do we have the right board culture, given: 1) the work we have to do, and 2) the context in which we are working?

A board must also confront two challenges when assessing group culture. The first is to make something that is often invisible to those people immersed in it observable (“fish don’t know they’re in water”). The second is to find a shared language to describe culture in ways that can become actionable. This is difficult work and something with which boards and other groups have long struggled. We have designed a board culture self-assessment that accomplishes both of these. For more information, see the Penn AHEAD or Trower & Trower websites. Organizational culture is a complex phenomenon and difficult to describe succinctly and consistently. Without agreement about what one is seeking and a strategy to do that, boards will struggle on this dimension.

While it is important to assess the dimensions described here at the board level, board leaders should also identify variances within a board, because understanding the differences that exist across board members may be even more telling. How cohesive is the board and its culture? Do people have vastly different assessments of their experience, the board culture or how well the board is working? Do those differences vary by a trustee’s length of service, gender, race/ethnicity or membership on a specific committee?

Finally, boards can conduct the assessments themselves, but they may be better served by having outside experts help craft questions and make sense of the results. People with fresh eyes who are able to call things as they see them can help surface assumptions and keep blind spots in check. (Remember that reference to the fish and water?)

“The future ain’t what it used to be,” said Yogi Berra. Ensuring that your board is ready for that future begins with an understanding of where it is today.

Peter Eckel is a senior fellow and the director of leadership 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. Matt Hartley, associate dean and professor in Penn’s Graduate School of Education and a trustee at Widener University, also contributed to the ideas in this article.

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Outrage at Xavier U Over Racist Images

Students and administrators at Xavier University in Ohio are denouncing two racist images linked to students at Xavier and circulating on social media. One shows a woman in blackface with the tagline "who needs white when black lives matter." The other appears to show an African garment over a skeleton next to a banner supporting Donald Trump.

The Reverend Michael J. Graham posted a statement on Twitter in which he said, in part, "I am outraged and deeply troubled by recent racist images connected to Xavier students. Racist actions are unacceptable on our campus, and we have mechanisms to respond in a responsible and thoughtful manner. When one of us falls short, we all fall short." He added that "many of our students, of all races, are in pain" over the images.

The images in question follow.

Southern Idaho Pays $650K to Settle Ex-VP's Bias Suit

The College of Southern Idaho has agreed to pay $650,000 to settle a lawsuit in which a former vice president claimed she faced discrimination as a woman and an immigrant. Edit Szanto was placed on involuntary leave from Southern Idaho in 2014 after a total of 17 years at the institution, most recently as vice president for student services. She claimed in complaints to state and federal agencies and eventually in a federal lawsuit that the university treated her unfairly because of her gender and because she was foreign born.

In a statement, Idaho State said the settlement -- which was paid by its insurer -- did not admit any wrongdoing and would "limit the costs and distraction associated with lengthy litigation." (Note: This article has been corrected to identify the College of Southern Idaho as the institution in the settlement.)

Quick Departure for President of Jackson State

The board of Mississippi's public colleges on Tuesday announced that Carolyn Meyers was resigning as president of Jackson State University, effective Nov. 1. The board statement did not offer a reason for the sudden shift, but The Clarion-Ledger noted that the change comes amid scrutiny of the university's finances. In the last five years, cash reserves have dropped 89 percent, to $4.2 million.

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Survey finds ongoing budget issues in IT offices following financial crisis

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Campus Computing Survey finds lingering IT budget issues dating to the financial crisis colliding with demands for new technology and services.

Intercollegiate athletics should be assessed for their educational impact (essay)

Assessing students’ learning against desired outcomes in their degree programs -- that is, determining what students can actually do at the end of their studies -- is a controversial but established practice at most, if not all, colleges and universities today. Armed with such data, faculty members and administrators can work together to make changes they hope will improve student success.

Given how universities thus operate today, it makes sense that intercollegiate athletics programs, which are only justifiable on our campuses if they can offer significant learning experiences, should also be assessed for their educational impact beyond students’ grade point averages, academic progress rates and graduation success rates. Doing so would be consistent with the written mission statements of our institutions and the National Collegiate Athletic Association. As in the rest of academe, it seems important to discover where athletics programs are successful, or not, in order to identify problems and implement possible solutions.

How would colleges and universities go about this? Well, first, of course, they would need to clearly specify the intended learning outcomes resulting from students participating in intercollegiate athletics. To do this, an institution might begin by looking for performance improvements on outcome variables traditionally cited as reasons for offering students participation opportunities in sports. For example, an institution might choose to measure the extent that athletics builds and teaches character; good sportsmanship; teamwork; health, physical fitness and safety; social skills; the necessity of hard work and perseverance to achieve success; and so on. All of these should be guided, in principle, by the university’s educational mission, as embodied in its formal mission statement.

Once the institution identifies the best possible student learning outcomes, faculty members and administrators could then devise the soundest possible methods to measure how student-athletes perform vis-à-vis the specified learning outcomes. They would also, of course, have to make decisions about how often to measure students’ performance other than at the beginning and end of the program.

After the students’ learning outcomes have been measured, the institution should then implement any necessary changes to the program to generate higher achievement. For example, if the outcomes data signal that students’ performance against intentions is poor, it would then need to devise and implement changes to increase students’ success.

Now, to help make the point here, and just for discussion purposes, let’s imagine that a sampling of the final learning outcomes data for student-athletes at your university indicate that:

  • A significant number of them were recruited having a strong sense of exaggerated entitlement that was reinforced and perhaps strengthened during the time they were athletes at the university. An example of how this possible learning outcome has been measured is the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s survey research on student-athlete social environments.
  • A large and possibly systemic graduation gap exists between certain demographic groups of student-athletes. Outcomes on this issue have been measured and widely reported, in summary and by university, in a study conducted by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.
  • Student-athletes have maintained completely unrealistic expectations about a possible future professional athletic career. An example of how data on this outcome variable have been collected would be the NCAA’s sponsored GOALS Study of the Student-Athlete Experience.
  • Coaches have taught them by example that a “my way or the highway” style of leadership is the best way to work with, manage and control people. To measure this imagined outcome, personal interviews with athletes, coaches and administrators or surveys might provide insight into what participants have learned about leadership and leading from their coaches. Surveys that might be used or adapted for these purposes already exist in the social sciences.
  • Experience has taught them to act as though the ends (e.g., athletic directors and coaches who lose enough games will certainly get fired, and winning is thus the only thing that matters) fully justify the means (e.g., performance-enhancing drug use and other forms of breaking and bending the rules are OK, even sometimes necessary for winning, as long as one doesn’t get caught). As in the previous example, carefully designed personal interviews or surveys can offer insight into student-athletes’, coaches’ and administrators’ values and ethics as they prepared for winning intercollegiate athletics competitions.
  • A significant percentage of students had suffered predictable brain injuries and potential long-term brain damage in the course of their participation in college football. To provide measurement on these outcome variables, there is a great deal of data collection underway, and a number of studies now getting published, that are asking tough questions about the nature and effects of being concussed, as well as the effects of repeated nonconcussive body blows on brain health. The results of this growing body of research are increasingly troublesome.

Obviously, no institution would be happy about receiving such imagined, and in some cases unconscionable, results -- particularly if it is clear, and feels strongly enough about, what educational benefits it intends for the students who are competing as athletes in its name and is committed to its mission.

Perhaps it is thus time that our colleges and universities, concerned about their integrity and responsibilities as educational institutions, begin to formally and transparently assess what students are actually learning and otherwise gaining as participants in the sports programs offered by our athletics departments -- this, of course, within the larger realities of the current intercollegiate athletics system. That system, largely driven by dollars at the all-important business level these days, and the desire to earn or keep an athletic scholarship or develop the abilities to play professionally at the student level, also includes and inspires sports programs for prospective athletes beginning in their youth and continuing through high school.

In this effort, assessing the educational benefits of student participation in intercollegiate athletics should prove to be a natural extension of the assessment policies and procedures already in place to meet the various accreditation and other (e.g., current and potential NCAA) mandates. I would hope that all universities would be willing to take on this additional work because, first, that will correct a significant oversight by assessing what student-athletes learn by participating in their sports and then by “closing the loop” to improve student learning. Second, it will allow institutions to recognize the urgent need to limit or eliminate, to the extent possible, very tangible threats to their integrity. Such threats have been made all too real by the commercial risks and excesses, academic scandals, Title IX issues, and other concerns associated with intercollegiate athletics programs.

It thus seems, at least to me, that as institutionally sponsored avocational educational activities, college sports, within the larger context of student-athletes’ more important nonsports academic work, clearly need to be subject to the same rigorous assessment processes as all of our other academic programs.

We should fully appreciate and consider our students’ participation in intercollegiate athletics as an extracurricular educational activity, and as such an important part of their collegiate learning and growth experiences. If we do so, our institutions, the athletics conferences and the NCAA might then be willing to accept whatever difficult changes faculty members and administrators, working together, decide need to be made to the system to bring our athletics programs into better compliance with our foundational educational missions -- and ultimately the public trust we serve.

Michael G. Bowen is a member of the marketing department faculty at the University of South Florida and serves as chair of the steering committee for the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, an organization representing elected faculty governance bodies in activities related to the administration and governance of intercollegiate athletics. 

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Political Science Group's Report Examines Inequality

Political science has faced criticism as a discipline for not paying enough attention to the causes and consequences of inequality, beyond rising income inequality and its effect on political representation. A major new report from the American Political Science Association, under the direction of Rodney Hero, association president and professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, begins to address some of those concerns.

The Double Bind: The Politics of Racial and Class Inequalities in the Americas” examines the how race and class shape inequalities throughout the Americas and how countries respond to them, for better or worse. A major finding is that racial and ethnic minorities struggle to translate their demographic potential and political activity into meaningful socioeconomic gains due to low socioeconomic status, along with political party incentives. That’s true even in countries where minorities make up a large proportion of the active voters, according to the report.

“The report provides us with an excellent framework for thinking critically about the ways in which the racial and economic inequalities that we currently see in the Americas are the legacies of settler colonialism, slavery and the exclusionary politics that shaped the development of the entire region,” said Alvin J. Tillery Jr., associate professor of political science at Northwestern University and co-chair of the report task force, said in a statement. “It also shows that governments can develop policies to begin to ameliorate these inequalities under the right mix of conditions.” Report chapters include “Race, Partisanship and the Rise of Income Inequality in the United States” and “Learning From Ferguson: Welfare, Criminal Justice and the Political Science of Race and Class,” as well as several on Latin America and Canada.

New presidents or provosts: Albany APUS Cambridge Coast Mount St. Mary's Rock Valley Wilmington

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  • LaVerne Harmon, executive vice president at Wilmington University, in Delaware, has been named president there.
  • Douglas J. Jensen, president of the Alabama Technology Network, has been chosen as president of Rock Valley College, in Illinois.

At Knight Commission meeting, worries over spending and stability of Football Bowl Subdivision

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At meeting of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, sports leaders express concern about "out of control" spending among top conferences. So far, colleges don't appear to be trying to reverse course.

Morehouse Criticized for Housing Requirement

Morehouse College is facing criticism over its recent decision to require students to live on campus for at least three years. The change would require sophomores and juniors to pay the historically black college an additional $13,000 in mandatory room and board fees, in addition to the $26,700 the students already pay per year in tuition. An online petition is calling for the college's president, John Wilson, to be fired. A spokeswoman for the college told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the change was not related to finances but was an attempt to encourage more student interaction, which she said is critical to the "Morehouse mystique."

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