administrators

The wrong questions that boards ask themselves (essay)

Boards and presidents expect a lot from governance, and many know that they are underperforming and could and should do more. As we’ve written in the past, boards need a certain positive restlessness that keeps them striving to do better. Asking thoughtful, informed questions is important to that continued improvement.

In fact, this past year, we fielded many calls from presidents and board leaders in America and abroad seeking to improve governance. Those calls typically included a set of questions about which institutional leaders seek answers. While we applaud the interest and the endeavor, many of the most commonly asked questions seem to be the wrong ones. Here are a few:

How large should the board be? This question often comes up early in the conversations, particularly from presidents or board leaders at independent institutions with large boards. Our answer: “Just big enough.” That response channels a faculty member in our doctoral program, who, when asked how long papers should be, said, “Just long enough” (much to the frustration of the students in our class).

A board should be large enough to address the work the institution faces, but not so large that governance becomes unwieldy. Ideally, the board is of a size that ensures a variety of perspectives on an increasingly large number of complex topics, stimulates a positive culture and camaraderie among board members, and allows the board to work effectively and efficiently. Size is less relevant to effectiveness than other factors, which we will describe below.

How often should boards meet? The answer to this well-intentioned but not really useful question parallels the one above: just often enough to get the needed work done. Rather than fixate on a set number, boards should consider the work they need to accomplish over the next 12 to 18 months and then determine the best way to structure board engagement to ensure it can address both planned issues and those yet to emerge.

We recognize that board and committee meetings require staff time, the focused attention of busy leaders and the time commitment of trustees. But too many meetings result in make-work or a lot of long, detailed (and sometimes boring) presentations by senior staff or show-and-tell sessions involving students and faculty members. Overly frequent meetings may also open the door for micromanaging, as the board members may be looking for work and take their focus beyond governance into management or operations.

Too few meetings also create challenges: board agendas become overly full, and board members have little time to discuss complex issues and are too distanced from the institution and the factors that should shape those discussions. Further, the foundation of trustee collaboration and trust may need to be re-established if the time between meetings is too long. Too few meetings is often a recipe for disengagement.

Finally, where is it written that boards must meet in person to engage in governance -- except in some by-laws that might need revisiting? Some governance work must be conducted face-to-face in committee or full board meetings, but certainly not all. Votes on more routine matters can take place via virtual meeting technology (think almost virtual consent agendas), as can less scheduled but needed interactions among board members.

Do we have the right committees and the right number of committees? Many presidents and board leaders worry about their committee structure, and they often ask these questions in comparison to other boards. Some presidents wonder if they have too many committees. The largest we’d heard of was 18 committees on a board of 30 or so trustees. Each trustee on that board was expected to serve on at least three, if not four, committees. Trustees went to a lot of meetings, and sometimes committees had only one or two trustees present given the demands on trustee time.

Other presidents and board members wonder if they need more committees: Do we need a technology committee? A risk committee? An enrollment committee? What about civic engagement? Should academic affairs and student affairs be combined or remain separate?

Our answer: committees matter only in light of the work you are doing. What are the strategic and fiduciary issues the board needs to address? Where will those issues be given attention? How can you ensure key issues do not fall through the gaps between committees or that multiple committees aren’t discussing the same issues, creating redundancy?

In addition, comparing boards is difficult, as many factors shape boards and board committees. Some boards at similar institutions look very different in their size and committee structures. Conversely, some very different institutions have similar boards. A complex university with a larger board may function at a higher level than a similarly complex university with a smaller board. Given all of the factors that shape board effectiveness, the committee structure might actually contribute little.

Should faculty or students serve on the board? It’s important to ensure that many perspectives are voiced in the boardroom. Boards make better decisions with more complete information, and sometimes students and faculty members can best provide that information directly.

However, voice should not equate with vote. Current employees of the institution as well as enrolled students (or even parents of students) can too easily adopt a stakeholder mind-set rather than a fiduciary one. We are reminded of a quotation attributed to Harvard sociologist David Riesman: “The role of the board is to protect the future from the demands of the present.” Stakeholders are often mostly concerned with the present.

You can ensure a larger number of voices, rather than allocate what might be a single board seat to a representative of one group or another, by having faculty leaders serve on select board committees. You can also organize open forums with faculty members or create ad hoc task forces that include key campus individuals.

These questions, although somewhat off target, are well intended. What we think these questions are really asking are the following, which are important:

  • How can boards develop robust formats to accomplish all of their work?
  • Through what approaches can boards ensure that time is well spent on meaningful issues that demand attention, even when the amount of meeting time is limited?
  • How can boards guarantee the right voices, perspectives and expertise exist on the board and are heard in the boardroom?
  • How should the board organize itself to accomplish meaningful governance?

At their heart, these questions are concerned with key elements of governance: Who governs, what are they governing and how should governance be conducted? How one frames the questions is essential to finding good answers. As iconic designer at General Motors, Charles Kettering, once said, “A problem well stated is a problem half solved.”

While boards should ask many questions about governance, they should prioritize four.

How well is the board performing? Great boards have the capacity to look in the collective mirror, understand with intentionality how well they are working and think critically about the value their efforts are bringing to the college, university or state system. Boards should put in place robust assessment processes, collect data about themselves as a group and about individual board member performance, and use the findings to continuously improve. That should be the responsibility of the governance or trusteeship committee, or it can be done through the executive committee. A small group of trustees must take ownership of board performance, make it regular board work, ensure that the board receives feedback, and develop strategies to act upon that feedback.

To whom is the board accountable, and how can it demonstrate its accountability? A criticism of too many boards is that they lack accountability. The board has the ultimate legal and fiduciary responsibility for the institution it holds in the public’s trust. Being transparent in its deliberations, using data well, engaging stakeholders and having high ethical standards are important to that greater sense of board accountability. Once a board loses trust with key stakeholders, it is difficult and time-consuming to recapture.

Bottom line: Accountability is ultimately a legal threshold, but boards are responsible for ensuring that the views of stakeholders are heard and considered, and that the board and administration act in the best interests of the institution.

To what extent is the board spending its time on the right issues? Given the numerous and complex issues facing higher education today, boards must understand and focus their work on the strategic priorities of their institutions and the fiduciary responsibilities of governance. Since those priorities, as well as the external environment, will change, what is important next year may be less important five years from now. Boards with the ability to adapt, respond and pivot will outperform those mired in nostalgic conversations about yesterday’s topics.

Relevant boards will need the structures and capacities to allow for flexibility and adaptation. That may mean fewer standing committees and more ad hoc task forces or a committee structure that can flex to align with the changing priorities of the institution or system. For example, a board might align its work around key issues such as financial sustainability; compliance, risk and accountability; the student experience; academic excellence; economic impact and relevance; and other issues specific to the university, such as academic health centers or mission. The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter how the board is organized or who sits on it if the board doesn’t know what it should be doing or where its primary focus should be.

To what extent does the board have the right culture? Too often boards that seek improvement focus on changing structures -- either the organizational structure or the meeting structure. However, what might be more meaningful to alter, and surely more challenging, is the culture of the board. Culture is that often invisible set of behaviors and beliefs that shapes board dynamics such as who speaks, about what issues, with what effect. It is taught to new generations of trustees, sometimes intentionally, but other times not.

A positive culture that promotes inclusivity of people and ideas, reflection and discussion, constructive disagreement and a strong sense of purpose can help boards leap ahead. At the same time, a dysfunctional culture of backroom decision making, poor engagement, fervent convictions and personal agendas, and incivility between board members or between the board and the administration can set governance back light-years. Poor culture is poor culture, and it prevents effective governance, period.

One of the essential traits of highly successful boards is that they learn how to ask meaningful and focused questions, a skill that can be difficult to master. But it is those boards and presidents who stop asking questions that worry us most. Boards can and should develop the capacity to ask good questions and to recognize when those questions add value rather than move the board in an unconstructive direction. Indeed, trustees should practice the art of asking questions rather than simply asserting opinions. Great questions lead to meaningful conversations, which in turn result in better governance.

Peter Eckel is a senior fellow and the director of leadership programs at the University of Pennsylvania’s Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy 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 in Massachusetts.

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Fears on Possible Choice to Lead Kennesaw State

Two Georgia publications on Tuesday reported that the Board of Regents plans to pick or is highly likely to pick that state's attorney general, Sam Olens, as the next president of Kennesaw State University. State officials aren't commenting on the reports, which follow weeks of rumors that the job would go to Olens. As those reports have grown, so has the concern of faculty leaders, who have been pointing out the lack of a national search and Olens’s lack of higher education job experience.

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Author discusses his new book, 'The Political Economy of Higher Education Finance'

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Author discusses his new book on the politics of tuition policies in OECD countries.

Nebraska President Defends Athletes' Protest

University of Nebraska President Hank Bounds on Tuesday defended the rights of three football players on the University of Nebraska at Lincoln team who dropped to their knees during the playing of the national anthem on Saturday. Bounds said that he "completely opposes" any limits on the athletes' right to protest, The Lincoln Journal-Star reported. The athletes joined in a growing national protest in which athletes do not stand for the national anthem as a protest over police shootings of unarmed black men. Since Saturday's game, a member of the university's Board of Regents has criticized the protest and suggested that those who joined should not be on the football team. Governor Pete Ricketts, a Republican, has called the protest "disgraceful and disrespectful" but said that the players had the right to protest.

Michael Rose-Ivey (right), one of the football players, spoke about his decision, and Omaha.com published a transcript of his remarks, in which he responded to the backlash against the protest.

"As we looked at what's been going on in this country, the injustices that have been taking place primarily against people of color, we all realized that there is a systemic problem in America that needs to be addressed. We felt it was our duty to step up and join the chorus of athletes in the NFL, WNBA, college and high school using their platforms to highlight these issues," he said. "We did this understanding the implications of these actions, but what we didn't expect was the enormous amount of hateful, racially motivated comments we received from friends, peers, fans, members of the media and others about the method of protest. While you may disagree with the method, these reactions further underscore the need for this protest and give us just a small glimpse into the persistent problem of racism in this country and the divisive mentality of some Americans. To make it clear, I am not anti-police, I am not anti-military, nor am I anti-American. I love my country deeply and I appreciate the freedoms it professes to afford me."

Federal Court Blocks Penn State U Hospital Merger

A federal appeals court this week overruled another court's ruling that would have allowed a merger between the Penn State Hershey Medical Center and PinnacleHealth System, a private hospital operator. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission and Pennsylvania's attorney general have opposed the merger, citing monopolistic concerns. A district court had denied the FTC and the AG's office's request for a preliminary injunction to block the merger, saying the legal challenge failed to properly define the relative geographic market the merged hospitals would serve. The appeals court, however, reversed that decision, saying an injunction would be in the public interest.

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No Punishment for 'Run Them Down' Tweet

The University of Tennessee at Knoxville will not punish a professor of law and well-known conservative blogger for his controversial tweet about the recent Charlotte, N.C., protests. Melanie D. Wilson, dean of Tennessee’s law school, said last week that she was investigating Glenn Reynolds's suggestion that motorists “run down” protesters blocking traffic. In a statement Tuesday, Wilson said she'd wrapped up that investigation, via “an examination of the facts, policies in the university’s Faculty Handbook and the law.” Wilson also discussed the tweet with Reynolds, university leaders and Tennessee’s general counsel, and sought feedback from faculty members, staff students and alumni, she said, before determining that “no disciplinary action will be taken.”

While Reynolds's tweet was widely criticized as inciting violence, many free speech advocates argued that an investigation that could result in a sanction was unwarranted.

“The tweet was an exercise of [Reynolds’s] First Amendment rights,” Wilson said. “Nevertheless, the tweet offended many members of our community and beyond, and I understand the hurt and frustration they feel. … We will now move forward to rebuild our law school community and refocus on our primary purpose: educating future lawyers and leaders.” She added, “Only by coming together as a community in thoughtful and constructive dialogue can we ensure that [the law school] -- and the university overall -- is a supportive, collegial community of scholars and lifelong learners.”

Reynolds, Beauchamp Brogan Distinguished Professor of Law at Tennessee and moderator of Instapundit, responded last week to a tweet from a local news station about protesters blocking traffic with the words “Run them down.” He issued a separate apology Tuesday to the law school. One “of my 580,000 tweets blew up,” Reynolds wrote. “I try to be careful and precise in my language. I didn’t do that this time, and I unfortunately made a lot of people in the law school community sad or angry, something I certainly didn’t mean to do, and feel bad about.”

Reynolds said he was “following the riots in Charlotte, against a background of reports of violence, which seemed to be getting worse.” While the words “run them down” can “be taken as encouragement of drivers going out of their way to run down protesters,” he said, “I meant no such thing, and I’m sorry it seemed to many that I did. What I meant was that drivers who feel their lives are in danger from a violent mob should not stop their vehicles. … My tweet should have said, ‘Keep driving,’ or ‘Don’t stop.’ I was upset, and it was a bad tweet.”

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Parents More Optimistic About Paying for College

More parents are saving money for college, according to the latest installment of a national survey conducted by Sallie Mae, the student lender. They're also saving more money and are more confident about their ability to pay for college, the survey found. For example, 55 percent of parents say they are confident they can meet the future price of their children's college education, up from 42 percent last year. Parents on average have saved $6,000 more for college, with an average of $16,380, compared to $10,040 last year.

Millennial parents (defined as age 35 or younger) are more committed to saving for college. The survey found that more millennial parents are saving more for college than their Generation X and baby boomer peers. They also are more likely to say that parents should be solely responsible for paying for college (38 percent of the survey's respondents) compared to 26 percent of Gen Xers and 18 percent of baby boomers.

Redesigning college processes with the student in mind (essay)

Even the most well-intentioned colleges and universities have a hard time figuring out where to start on the path to improving student success and completion. Financial incentives that keep students on track toward graduation have, in many cases, proven effective, but they often don’t scale in an era of tight budgets. Emerging technologies promise transformation, but they can fall short in a world where financial or organizational challenges tend to stymie implementation.

As it turns out, the road to innovation is lined with real-world hurdles. Initiative fatigue abounds. And all too often, fiscal and organizational barriers can win the day when colleges and universities consider doing something new.

But what if colleges and universities flipped that model on its head? What if the most successful initiatives started with doing less, not more? Can colleges and universities drive outsize gains without spending any money or imposing new responsibilities on faculty and staff members?

Savvy colleges and universities are doing just that, by embracing basic engineering strategies like design thinking or process mapping. Process mapping, as the name suggests, entails mapping out an institutional process from start to finish. The goal is to understand processes from the perspective of the person encountering a product or service -- in the case of higher education, students. It requires institutional leaders to ask, “How does a student engage with our college or university when trying to do X?”

The exercise is inherently empathetic -- it demands that administrators and faculty members put themselves in students’ shoes. And it guarantees, at the very least, greater self-awareness and knowledge of pain points and hurdles that students experience and that need to be removed.

Underlying this approach is a somewhat controversial premise: colleges and universities were not, historically, designed around the needs of students. Like those in charge of many organizations that evolve to meet new demands, well-meaning administrators and faculty members have put processes into place with an imperfect understanding of the user experience. Most campuses have unintentionally put the onus on the students to navigate the complexity of a college campus. When you start looking at problems from that perspective, design flaws leap out.

As consumers, we expect that retailers or service providers have designed the experience around the customer. We become frustrated when things are counterintuitive, bureaucratic, slow, difficult or painful. So why should we tolerate flawed processes that frustrate our students? If colleges and universities really want students to complete their degrees, why is it up to students to let the university know when they are ready to graduate? And why should the students then have to apply to graduate -- and often pay a fee?

Process mapping allows the university to identify and confront the roadblocks for students and then work to remove them, yet it also reveals where faculty members, advisers and administrators are encountering inefficiencies and unnecessary work.

In fact, some of my favorite examples of campus transformation began with process mapping.

Georgia State University has used process mapping to better understand how the university communicates with students, mapping out every email, letter and call that students receives from dozens of offices across campus from the time that students first apply through the end of their first semester. The results of the exercise -- showing an overwhelming stream of often repetitive, conflicting and uncoordinated messages -- inspired the university to better organize how it orients news students and how it explains the choices that they face.

Those insights, in turn, led to more substantive changes -- changes that helped them transform the institution into a national model for student success, eliminating race and income as a predictor of academic outcomes. For instance, university administrators saw how freshmen immediately upon enrolling were expected to make a choice between dozens and dozens of majors, an overwhelming and stressful experience with students too often feeling pressure to make ill-informed decisions. Instead, they paired down the initial choice into seven “metamajors,” or broader-themed categories of study, to give students an opportunity to explore and discover during their first year of college. That small shift has led to a decline of more than 30 percent in the number of changes in major among students at Georgia State -- saving students both time and money in earning their degrees.

Georgia State’s success inspired Michigan State University to bring together representatives from across the campus to map all the ways the university interacted with students from the time they were admitted to the end of the first semester. They discovered that each new student was being barraged with about 400 emails from admissions, financial aid, the registrar’s office, student life, housing and residence life, academic advisers, the student accounts office, academic colleges, and more. The process mapping team found messages that were redundant, that could have been delivered in a different format or that could have been delayed so that other, more critical communications would get noticed.

The campus was overwhelming new students with noise during the time when they really needed clear and thoughtful guidance. That was especially problematic for first-generation and low-income students, who often lack external support in navigating university processes.

The team at Michigan State immediately started work on identifying ways to streamline, prioritize and redesign their interaction with students to be particularly sensitive to the needs of low-income and first-generation students. Financial aid communications now take priority for new students, while notices about extracurricular activities like intramural sports or clubs can wait until students arrive on the campus.

In the past, students who ended up on academic probation at the end of their first semester would receive four different emails from four different people. Now, Michigan State sends one email with clear information about how the student should seek academic advising help and get financial aid questions answered. Viewing the institution through the eyes of the students has allowed Michigan State to find new ways to help students who are at risk of going off track just out of the gates.

Most higher education institutions can benefit from a similar exercise. I have never found a campus that is too self-aware of how they impact their students, faculty members and administrators. Process mapping takes very little time and no additional financial outlay. The team at Michigan State, for example, was able to convene over the course of a day to map out the various communications students were receiving and, in the following weeks, agree upon which messages would be prioritized in the admissions-to-enrollment process.

Process mapping isn’t limited to enrollment and admissions. Colleges and universities can also use process mapping to examine a wide variety of operational challenges, such as course scheduling bottlenecks, barriers to graduation or the delivery of nonacademic student support services. Process mapping can also help the university ensure that students from diverse backgrounds feel welcome and supported on the campus.

Change doesn’t have to be complicated. The harder we make it to change, the less likely it is to happen. If you are asking yourself where to start working to improve student success, a simple exercise like process mapping is the right answer.

Bridget Burns is the executive director of the University Innovation Alliance, a national consortium of large public research universities collaborating to improve outcomes for students across the socioeconomic spectrum through innovation, scale and diffusion of best practices.

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University of Colorado regent election could have major impact

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The University of Colorado's board hangs in the balance as candidates debate funding, climate change and academic freedom in hopes of winning election.

New film aims to portray fraternity in realistic -- and disturbing -- fashion

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The film Goat depicts fraternity hazing at its most brutal, raising hopes that there could be cultural shift away from making light of the behavior. 

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