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Silhouette person in front of a chart trending upward stands before boardroom of stylized silhouettes of people around a table

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Boards are restless and anxious. And restless and anxious boards create added stress for presidents and their senior teams. With the most disruptive elements of the pandemic behind us, but with numerous challenges facing academic institutions, boards are now asking a host of questions about the future: “Where will students come from? What does this and the next generation of students want? What do employers need and how relevant are our programs? What is the future of faculty work? How can we create new financial models, and can we make real progress on affordability? What’s happening regarding diversity and inclusion? How do we address unconstructive political discourse? What is going on with college athletics and how do we get ahead of the curve?”

Boards are shifting their focus from the immediate to the longer term. Thus, presidents and their administrative teams should consider developing intentional ways to help the board concentrate most effectively on the future—which means to help it concentrate on strategy.

We conceptualize board work around three domains: oversight, problem-solving and strategy. Oversight means ensuring that the institution advances its mission, operates lawfully and makes concerted progress on institutional goals. Problem-solving is working in conjunction with the president, the administration and faculty leaders to address immediate challenges. The third area—where boards want to spend more time—is the future-oriented strategy work where they look ahead, frame issues, and foretell problems and opportunities. Each type of work requires a different mindset: analytic for oversight, inquisitive for problem-solving, and exploratory for strategy and the future.

That boards desire an increased focus on strategy is understandable, but how to do it constructively is nuanced. This shift toward strategy in the boardroom is easier said than done. Overly involved boards risk micromanaging and getting ahead of administrators and the faculty; overly distant boards miss opportunities to lend real value. What is the right approach, and how do presidents constructively engage their boards?

Strategy in the Boardroom

The strategy work of boards can be linked to institutional strategic planning efforts, which are typically on five-year cycles. But such an approach is too limiting—presidents should engage their boards in strategy conversations more than twice a decade. Furthermore, not all institutional strategic plans are about strategy. They tend toward operational matters instead of raising important questions about the future, and they frequently don’t lead to meaningful change.

Instead, when it comes to strategy, as opposed to strategic plans, presidents should value and capitalize on the informed-but-outsider perspective of board members. Trustees spend their time outside of academe, so they have ideas and perspectives from other sectors that can be transferred and translated into the higher education context. Trustees deal with many parallel, if not similar, challenges: evolving markets and customer expectations, shifting policy contexts, the impact of social media, changing notions of competition, advancing technology and AI, and changing relationships with employees. Their perspectives might help campus leaders frame questions differently, open up new lines of inquiry, and challenge unstated and unexplored assumptions about the future.

That said, presidents need to remind board members, who often have a corporate mindset, that strategy is a collective effort in its framing and implementation. The desired end state—the strategy to be implemented—requires, in most instances, the meaningful involvement of essential institutional stakeholders, including and especially the faculty. Most colleges and universities, and even state systems, have shared governance bodies whose scope of work centers on academic and institutional policy. Boards have a key role and the final say given their fiduciary roles, but they are not the only voice.

Moreover, while trustees bring a wealth of knowledge, experience and foresight into the boardroom from their professional lives, presidents need to help guide them in applying that knowledge in ways that benefit the college or university. They must encourage board members to use their knowledge—yet do so wisely and intentionally.

Ways to Explore the Future With the Board

One way to begin exploring the institution’s future with the board is for the president and administrative team to ask board members to reflect on the trends, issues and strategy conversations they are having in their professional worlds. Then they should help the board translate and transfer those insights into the higher education and institutional contexts.

For example, one board created a panel of trustees who were CEOs from healthcare, hospitality, the food and beverage industry, and high tech to talk about trends they are seeing regarding consumer and employee behaviors. How are changing patterns of use shaping their corporate experiences? What trends are they most concerned about? The board then translated those insights into the institutional context with a focus on students and faculty and staff members as end-users. Other boards have picked themes, such as the Great Resignation, and applied their corporate insights to the institutional context.

Conversations about strategy and the future are best supported by information, rather than speculation. The president and their team should present intentional and focused trend data, commentaries, thought pieces and briefings to help the board have informed discussions. National and local think tanks and policy organizations, chambers of commerce, economic development agencies, social agencies and foundations, and state and local governments can be ready sources of well-written and focused information for boards to discuss.

Too often, boards receive reports but don’t know what to look for or how to think about the content, so guiding questions can be extremely helpful. For example, in a conversation about workforce needs of the region, the top administrators at one university provided two reports. One report predicted a shortage of college-educated workers. The second focused on the rise of jobs in the region that paid above median family income and only required a certificate, not a four-year degree. The questions posed to the board included: “How do you reconcile these two reports that seem to be at odds with one another? If we adhere to one report, what might that mean for the types of programs we offer, and if we look at the second report, what might that mean? What might the college do in both the short term (18 to 36 months) and the long term (four to five years)?”

Below, we outline some other ways that presidents can encourage their boards to think strategically.

Grouping issues. Typically, board discussions focus on one topic at a time, however, more interesting, generative and fruitful conversations can occur by talking about the intersections of key issues. At one institution, small groups of trustees identified two out of the following five topics and discussed their intersection and what that might mean for the future of the university.

  1. Technology (AI, social media, big data, wearables)
  2. Demographics (socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, gender, immigration/migration, age)
  3. Economy and workforce needs (growth/decline and shifts
  4. The world of work (WFH; gig work, unions)
  5. Climate and the environment (global warming, food insecurity, erosion, energy)

This list also became a litmus test for the board to see which topics it gravitated toward, and thus were easier to discuss, and which it struggled to frame. Most of the discussion focused on technology and the workforce. The board realized it needed to broaden its conversations to other more challenging and not as easily discussed topics.

Parsing issues. Another effective technique is to go the other way by dividing complex issues into smaller components. One board that was focusing on technology narrowed that focus first to AI as it impacts teaching, then to AI as an area of focus for research and corporate partnerships, and finally to AI and ethics. The three substantive conversations each yielded key insights rather than a generic focus on technology or even AI.

Building future scenarios. The point is not to guess what the future will hold (impossible), but to create possible and maybe even probable scenarios to help think about the future. The task is for trustees to envision what the university will be like, or what a day in the life of a typical undergraduate will be like, in 10 to 15 years. A liberal arts college board imagined what sorts of programs and college experiences 18-year-olds in 2038 will want. The idea wasn’t to be accurate, but to see how trustees think, expose embedded assumptions and biases, and spawn creativity.

Develop competing—even diametrically opposed—scenarios. Two possible likelihoods can generate debate, surface assumptions and contradictions, and engage often overly analytic boards in creative thinking. For example, led by the president, one college board imagined growth over the next five years and whether the institution would experience more of it or instead more contraction and consolidation. Neither would be “right” or “wrong,” and either could happen.

Not Boards Alone

Strategy conversations with the board should be part of a broader inclusive series of discussions across campus. A potentially powerful approach is for the president to ask the board to frame the questions, even uncomfortable ones, that the institution should examine in its strategy work. This works well in launching strategic planning efforts as it can provide a focus to the work being done on the campus.

The fact is that, because boards are anxious about the future, a sound approach is for presidents to engage them directly in the issues. But it’s crucial to be careful and intentional about how to frame the conversations, when and how to structure them, and how to ensure the board is well-informed and prepared for the task at hand. As presidents know, they must serve as an active bridge between the board and the campus (and the campus and the board), so translating board conversations into campus strategy work is a leadership opportunity. Bridging two worlds—both strongly committed to the institution and its trajectory—provides rich opportunities for forward progress.

Peter Eckel serves as senior fellow and director of the Global Higher Education Management program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. Cathy Trower is president of Trower & Trower, Inc., a governance consulting firm. Together they wrote the book Practical Wisdom: Thinking Differently about College and University Governance.

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