The latest accoutrement of world-class universities, or those aspiring to world-class status, is an international advisory group. The useful goals of such committees, which meet on an occasional basis to review and evaluate the institution’s plans and performance, include bringing new ideas and analysis from the experience of academe beyond the borders and especially from the pinnacles of higher education globally, and hopefully assist the institution to understand itself and to improve. The committee members have a continuing relationship with the university and, presumably, a commitment to its welfare and improvement. They can be called on for occasional advice, generally on a pro bono basis. Prestige is part of the game. It can’t do any harm to have a Nobel Prize winner or two, prominent university rectors, and other luminaries associated with the university.
Advisory committee members have many motivations to serve. They generally focus on service to overseas colleagues and assisting other universities. Many enjoy a bit of academic tourism, and some wish to learn some useful lessons from the university or committee colleagues. Few, if any, are able to devote a significant amount of time to the enterprise.
Members must not only be committed to the university but also be knowledgeable about the institution and its challenges. Thus, they must be provided in advance with appropriate documentation and be committed to preparing well before arriving to the actual meeting. An advantage of the committee is a continuing relationship with the university, and thus trust and insights are built up over time. Committee members need some hands-on experience at the host institution—through conversations with professors, students, and other key stakeholders plus interactions with top management.
The topics discussed at committee meetings must be relevant and within the purview of expertise of the members. These policies might involve long- and medium-term institutional strategy, proposed polices relating to governance, the academic profession, new curriculum plans, internationalization, and other macro issues. Detailed administrative actions, specific personnel policies—the promotion of academics for example—and other detailed management and academic decisions are not the purview of advisory committees—although policies concerning promotion and evaluation of academic staff might be.
The meetings themselves must be carefully prepared, with sufficient time allocated to different themes so that the discussion can be effectively organized. Lengthy presentations by university administrators must be avoided. A good balance between providing information on the one hand and allowing for in-depth discussion on the other is of basic significance.
Unlike a formal university board of trustees or governors, which exercises statutory supervisory responsibilities that sometimes place university leaders and board members in an antagonistic relationship, a major benefit of an international advisory board is that it can provide a non-threatening platform for candid feedback on the host university’s performance and for sharing relevant experiences to inform the university’s strategy and new projects.
In a globalized world, advisory committees can provide ideas from international “best practice,” insights from the accomplishments and failures of academic institutions elsewhere, and an element of prestige as well. If poorly organized, they can be a waste of both time and resources.