New Faces in the Boardroom

A firm known for placing presidents now wants to help universities find trustees, too.

April 16, 2012

Most major universities have a line around the block of wealthy, engaged donors itching for a seat on the university’s governing board.

But are those people what boards really need these days? Witt/Kieffer, one of the country’s largest executive search firms, which specializes in finding leaders for nonprofit institutions such as universities and hospitals, is betting that boards need more.

The firm, known in higher education primarily for helping governing boards select presidents and chancellors, announced last week that it is launching a practice to help boards recruit new members to fill their own ranks and develop succession plans. It will be the first large search firm to formally enter that field, and, if it is successful, it could transform the way that boards find new members and the types of skills that are sought.

The firm’s leadership said the role of boards is changing and becoming more demanding, with some high-profile examples in recent months of boards making major leadership decisions, such as those that took place at Penn State University and the University of Illinois. A new breed of trustees is required, they say.

“What we’re doing is a strategic response to what has been graphically illustrated over the past few years,” said John K. Thornburgh, senior vice president and co-leader of Witt/Kieffer’s education practice. “Today’s boards are no longer the nice, cozy, four-times-a-year meeting environment that they used to be. They really require people who are equipped with the right experience and in it for the right reasons.”

But at a time when universities are facing increased criticism from staff, faculty members, and the public about administrative expenses, paying a search firm to help boards bring in new members – particularly when demand for seats is high – might rub people the wrong way.

The firm did not give estimates for its pricing, but said its charges will vary based on the level of engagement. The firm typically charges up-front startup and evaluation costs, and will charge a nominal fee per board member placed. While the firm has informally worked with boards to help them determine who might make for good board members, the firm has not yet formally advised any institutions on selecting trustees, Thornburgh said.

In the current recruitment model, sitting board members at private colleges and universities often fill vacancies by looking through lists of engaged alumni and other high-profile donors, such as local community members and business leaders. Seats on public university boards are often filled through gubernatorial and legislative appointments and tend to have political ties, although many governors pick board members from among individuals who are alumni or have strong connections to the institutions.

But that can sometimes result in homogeneity of experience and viewpoints among trustees, said Thornburgh and James W. Gauss, who will chair the firm’s board services practice.

Thornburgh said a third party such as Witt/Kieffer could provide an outside viewpoint that could help reach out to and cultivate prospects, evaluate candidates’ qualifications independent of existing board politics, and provide perspective about what a board might lack.

Gauss said that after decades of executive searches and working with boards, the firm has developed a good sense of what makes for a good board. He said he hopes the new practice will be an outlet to provide service based on that knowledge. He also said he hopes the board practice can help the firm maintain its edge in thought leadership on the topic. “In many respects a lot of what we learn we leave on the table, in respect to what’s going on in the boardroom,” he said. He added that the firm plans to do survey work related to succession, diversity, and other board issues.

In some instances, the firm's representatives said, it might benefit a board to go outside the traditional pool. Individuals who are not alumni might be more willing to challenge sacred cows at any given institution, such as an undergraduate curriculum that was popular among alumni. And in some cases, that's what a board needs more than people with a deep connection to the institution.

Richard Chait, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education who studies governing boards and university governance, cautioned against departing too much from the traditional model of recruiting board members. “We have done a lot of research that indicates that the most effective boards are comprised of individuals who love the institution, and who serve the institution because they love what it stands for,” said he said. “It’s probably not a good idea to appoint someone to a board and hope that individual will become affectionately attached to the institution.”

But Chait said there’s probably a limited market for firms to go in, evaluate a board to discover what it might lack, and help the board go out and find those individuals. He said knowledge in areas such as real estate, marketing, finance, construction, and investment management are often hard to come by, particularly for institutions with a low profile who might not attract the same kinds of prospects as large universities.

Witt/Kieffer's executives said the search process for finding potential board members will be different from how the firm searches for presidents and chancellors. For executive searches, the firm tends to look at the national talent market, in which it has rich connections built over years of work. Firms are usually retained for several months over the course of a search.

There might be isolated cases where pulling a specific person from the national market could be desirable, such as if that person is experienced in an area the board hopes to address in the near term, such as fund-raising and program development. But Gauss and Thornburgh both agreed that often the best board members are those individuals who are already engaged with the institution.

Gauss said the board’s work might not focus on selecting individual prospects, but rather helping boards develop plans to cultivate prospective members in the long term. “Networks are going to be cultivated on more of an individual, institution-specific basis,” Thornburgh said. The firm's engagement might stretch out over a longer time frame as they assist boards in cultivating prospects.

Thornburgh and Gauss said they think the new service will most likely appeal to large, complex institutions that need trustees with a more diverse set of skills and experiences, which can often be hard to find. Often boards want individuals with previous board experience, either in higher education or elsewhere, so they’re not surprised by the kinds of issues that arise over the course of their service. “These boards aren’t training grounds,” Thornburgh said.

While these boards might have numerous prospects, boards and institutional politics might get in the way of them picking the best candidates. Having consultants present can help avoid that pitfall, Thornburgh said.

Chait said large research universities can often find the full complement of skill sets that makes for a good board, but there are many institutions that are facing a much more pressing need for strong leadership. Many smaller institutions struggle at populating the board, not only with diverse skill sets, but also with people who can elevate the quality of the institution. They often end up with people who become disengaged, which is bad for the institution in the long run.

He said consulting firms might be able to help make trusteeship a more attractive opportunity at such institutions, which could help improve them in the long run. The problem, however, is that those institutions are already facing financial challenges. Paying one more consultant might be a cost they can’t bear.

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