Despite their affinity for the colleges and universities that they govern, too many boards have not found ways to add important and consistent value. As we wrote in a previous article for Inside Higher Ed, they are mired in mediocrity.
The good news is that we have seen a continued increase in the number of boards that recognize they can and should be better. To do this they must: (1) recognize how average they currently are (no small feat), (2) have the will or desire to improve and (3) chart a path forward. What follows are strategies that have proven successful for many boards with which we have worked.
Look in the mirror. The first step is recognition. Boards must focus attention on themselves and how they govern. Possibly because they are composed of volunteers, many boards don’t see themselves as sufficiently knowledgeable about governance or believe they lack the time or expertise. Thus, they are not prone to asking themselves questions in any intentional and systematic way about how well they are governing. Without a first step of looking in the metaphorical mirror, they’re stuck.
Gather some data and do something with it. Boards expect their college or university to make decisions based on data. They should demand the same of themselves. It’s important to ascertain how trustees view their experiences serving on the board. That can be done using short and simple surveys or full-blown assessments conducted internally or with outside experts. The key is to discuss the results of the data and act upon them.
Here is a simple strategy to get started: ask board members to (anonymously) provide a letter grade for the board’s overall performance. Calculate the GPA and display the range. Then ask, “If you could only do one thing to improve that grade, what would it be?” You can also ask, “What do you find most fulfilling about serving on this board?” and “What do you find most frustrating?” (Again, you should ask anonymously, so people can be forthright.) Discuss what trustees say and how to build on what’s fulfilling and fix what’s frustrating: “What would success look like? How might we close the gaps between where we are now and where we want to be?”
Talk about governance expectations. Boards can benefit tremendously by talking not only about their committee structures and the number and length of the meetings but also about the fundamental values that guide their work. How well does the board value participation, preparation, transparency, teamwork and accountability? What are the important and often unstated values that should shape its governance work? How closely do they match reality? For example, some boards say they value participation, yet they have a history of barely making a quorum.
A good practice is to create a Statement of Mutual Expectations for serving on the board: what the institution can expect from trustees, what trustees can expect from the institution and what trustees can expect from one another. Such a statement may list trustee guidelines for comportment, attendance, philanthropy and confidentiality. It may also include an institutional commitment to ensuring appropriate and timely information, as well as transparency about crucial incidents on the campus, the student and faculty experience, and financial documentation.
Intellectually engage the brains. A goal of all boards is to tap the collective brainpower sitting around the table. Those brains are best engaged when the work is intellectually challenging -- which might not be the case often enough. As one of us, Cathy Trower, wrote in the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges’ Trusteeship magazine (March-April 2015), “Send trustees a reading or two along with questions they should think about as they read. This way, trustees arrive at the meeting having done some critical thinking and prepared to discuss matters appropriately and thoughtfully.” Such work requires presidents and board leaders to think hard about the agenda and its content to ensure its relevance and level of engagement.
Good questions to go along with reading materials and reports might include: About what are you most optimistic? What has you most concerned? Are essential elements of the issue not addressed in the reading? What assumptions underlie the reading’s conclusions?
Good questions must be important and require thought. Posed in advance, they keep the focus on what matters most, help trustees think critically and ensure that they add value as thought partners with the administration.
Develop governance experiments. While boards share much in common, they also vary tremendously in size, structure and, more important, their cultures. Thus, boards should experiment with what practices work well for them given their current contexts and agendas.
Boards should develop experiments in good governance and see if they work. For example, you can increase the number and frequency of joint committee meetings on key topics (such as enrollment and finance or academic affairs and facilities or technology). Or you might develop new task forces on emerging strategic challenges or opportunities and invite nontrustees to participate. Start and end each session with an executive session to put key issues on the table. Disallow rote committee reports and instead have trustees read reports or meeting summaries prior to attending the board meeting. Set up the boardroom with round tables that seat six to eight trustees each instead of a huge table that doesn’t allow good line of sight.
In some instances, these strategies work well; in other situations, they have limited positive effects. Try something and test it; try something else and test that, too. Figure out what works for your board.
Ensure that board leaders lead. One of the contributors to mediocrity is when presidents believe they cannot invest the time in board improvement. Sometimes this happens when presidents feel they need to lead both the institution and the board because board leaders are overcommitted or don’t understand their leadership roles. Presidents cannot fulfill both roles effectively for very long. Board leaders need to demonstrate that they can and will lead the board and invest the time in doing so. Effective board leadership, particularly the chair, is essential to progress.
Create continuity and bridges between meetings. The episodic nature of board meetings significantly influences board performance. For many independent institutions, trustees show up on campus three times a year in order to “govern,” too often with little institutional contact in between.
A good practice is for the board chair, a committee chair or an administrator who is in front of the board to remind trustees of what happened at the last meeting and inform them of what’s happened since. Then toward the end of the meeting, the board chair should take a few minutes to summarize what occurred (and ask, “Did I get that right?”), discuss implications and describe what trustees can expect next.
Some boards are experimenting with having a conference call between regularly scheduled meetings for the purposes of updating trustees on what’s happening on the campus and to keep them engaged between meetings. In addition, many boards hold committee meetings via teleconference between regular board meetings to work on vital matters.
In conclusion, boards mired in mediocrity too often are satisfied and fall far short of effectiveness. In contrast, boards that add value continue to evolve. They grow tired of the status quo. They understand that governance as usual will not help propel their institutions forward. Boards should develop what management experts Jim Collins and Jerry Porras call a “positive restlessness” -- and be never quite satisfied with their performance.
After all, the world is complex and ever changing. Like the institutions that they serve, boards must ask questions, learn from experience, adapt to changing conditions and continually improve.
Cathy Trower is president of Trower & Trower, Inc., a board governance consulting firm. Peter Eckel is a senior fellow and the director of leadership programs at the University of Pennsylvania’s Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy.
Policy makers, politicians and the general public have been doing a lot of hand-wringing over the idea that liberal arts programs are fatally out of touch with the job market. But, in fact, liberal arts majors are not as badly prepared as people fear -- and graduates with other majors may be less prepared than they believe.
It is true that recent liberal arts graduates have consistently had a higher unemployment rate than other bachelor's degree holders: 8.4 percent compared to 7.5 percent for college graduates overall, according to a 2015 study by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. Yet the core skills that liberal arts students acquire have never been more relevant to the job market. And those students can, in fact, virtually double their current employability with relatively little additional effort.
Job postings provide a view of the skills employers value most -- and of those that have been hardest for businesses to find. Across the full spectrum of jobs, what employers seem to call for, above all else, are foundational skills like writing, research, analysis, critical thinking and creativity. An analysis of job ads by my company, Burning Glass Technologies, which studies the job market, shows that fully one-third of all skill requirements listed are foundational -- even in technical fields like IT. And the data indicate that employers are coming up short when it comes to identifying people with these skills. The most consistent, cross-cutting skill shortage in the job market today is for one of the most basic abilities: writing.
Or consider this: across the labor market, many of the jobs that are both fastest growing and in highest demand are those that bring together different skill sets, like marketing and data analysis, or graphic design and programming. Such positions, which have grown by 53 percent over the last four years alone, are often hard to fill because technically oriented training programs tend to be tightly focused. By contrast, these “hybrid jobs” require people who can bridge domains and synthesize ideas.
Liberal arts graduates may not have direct training in those domains, but the liberal arts live within the core framework of interdisciplinary synthesis and critical evaluation. That’s a world apart from more technically oriented programs that dispatch their graduates into the workforce with a fixed portfolio of skills that, while marketable, may be of fleeting currency. In fact, even within a given occupation, the core work activities can evolve quickly, rendering a “practical” program obsolete. In the fast-growing field of data analysis, the entire skill set has shifted over just a three-year span away from pure statistical computation to place much more emphasis on visualization and business analysis.
Doubling the Open Positions
So why aren’t employers fighting over liberal arts graduates the way they compete for STEM majors? The problem is that, while employers need the capabilities students accrue in the humanities, they also expect their hires to have the specific technical skills to be productive from day one. That may seem like an unresolvable conflict, but arming students with both foundational and practical skills may be more feasible than one might think.
As things stand now, Burning Glass research shows that only one-quarter of all entry level jobs requesting a B.A., or roughly one million positions, are likely to be open to liberal arts graduates. They include positions like recruiters, administrative assistants, store managers, account representatives and others that may not measure up to the ambitions students or their families may have had for their college investment.
Now compare that with the options for a liberal arts graduate who has also acquired some specific technical skills, such as marketing, sales, business, social media, graphic design, data analysis or IT networking -- skills that can be picked up without a full degree. They can be learned in nondepartmental classes, a minor, an internship or a noncredit program outside of college.
With these skills, the number of jobs open to liberal arts majors nearly doubles, from 25 percent to 48 percent of entry-level bachelor’s positions. On top of that, the incremental jobs pay on average $6,000 more. Not only are more jobs available but also our research shows employers actually prefer the combination of broad knowledge and specific technical skills -- when they can get it. Even IT departments need people who can write.
Taken as a whole, this paints a picture of the liberal arts that doesn’t look at all like a discipline in crisis. Rather, it looks like a discipline that hasn’t acted on an easy solution.
The reason higher education hasn’t focused on that easy solution is because it’s been consumed by a lazy debate about whether students should pursue liberal arts or whether they should be channeled into more vocational majors. We end up arguing about the value of truth and beauty pitted against technology and commerce or about how closely educators and employers should work together. The subject is so prickly that some academics dismiss the argument that liberal arts graduates possess skills of value to the market as demeaning to the discipline.
Doubling the number of jobs open to liberal arts graduates would go a long way toward ending this lazy debate. They certainly do have value, and employers know it. It’s just that liberal arts have twice as much value when combined with some specific technical skills.
Seizing this opportunity, however, does mean that colleges have to relate to students in a different way. Fortunately, several practical strategies have emerged for making this transformation:
Give students a road map to a career. Most academic advising is focused on getting students the courses they need to graduate in their major. In some cases, such as pre-med, advising is built around getting into a graduate school. But rarely is it built around what students need to make successful transition from college to career.
For example, one of the most bankable skills in the workforce is also one of the most mundane: using spreadsheets, particularly Microsoft Excel. Even among high-skill jobs, a whopping 83 percent require knowledge of Excel. But how often do students majoring in programs like anthropology, English literature or political science hear this from their advisers?
The fact is most advisers are themselves academics, so expecting them to be able to dispense detailed career advice may be unrealistic. This is where technology can help. Career applications can tell students what kinds of jobs will be accessible to them and what skills they will need to get there, enabling them to pick courses on the periphery of their liberal arts degree that will give them the practical tools to achieve good career outcomes.
Far from threatening the liberal arts, such an approach empowers students to take intellectual risks. Studying anthropology or the classics may not seem so impractical when there’s a road map showing students what other courses will ensure their employability.
Package courses around skill sets. Higher education already thinks in these terms: concentrations, specializations, certificates and other ways of bundling course work together in a meaningful way. Such packaging can provide useful signposts for liberal arts students thinking about the future -- and for employers looking for relevant talent. And it’s a way for students to try out different fields to see if they fit. In many cases, the necessary courses already exist. It is only a question of pulling the threads together.
That requires a certain amount of interdepartmental cooperation, traditionally not the strong suit at many institutions. Want to go into human resources? The sociology department’s organizational theory course, plus the political science department’s survey research course, plus the history department’s industrial relations course, plus the economics department’s introductory stats course would be a compelling cluster. Here, too, starting with an awareness of demand -- which jobs represent compelling targets and which technical skill bundles do they require -- can be useful in ensuring that there is a governing logic to the catalog of certificates that the institution curates.
That also requires being open to new ways of packaging skills. To go back to our earlier example of a career signpost, everything from full-semester courses to one-day training sessions on spreadsheets is available. The right approach for a particular student is going to depend on the career she is likely to pursue and how the course offering is structured.
Remember that when students reach the job market, skills are everything. Departments that are technically or professionally oriented already know this. Just as college faculty members expect students to show up ready to learn, employers expect new hires to show up ready to work.
You can see this in employer postings for entry-level jobs and even internships, where companies are quite specific about the skills students need to even be considered. Perhaps it’s no surprise that internships in IT and related fields demand knowledge of SQL or C++. But even in fields like finance, communications and design -- the kinds of careers to which many liberal arts students aspire -- employers call for interns and fresh graduates to have specific knowledge of social media, particular accounting software, Adobe Creative Suite and the like.
Faculty members in career-oriented departments make sure to build those skills into their courses. It’s hard to imagine a student getting through a design program without knowing Photoshop. And while it’s unreasonable to expect that the history department will similarly align its instruction to the demands of the market, liberal arts programs owe it to their students at least to point them in the right directions.
The most striking thing about the employment challenge facing the liberal arts is that the solution lies so close within the academy’s grasp. Indeed, providing students with a career map that leads through the liberal arts can only strengthen their appeal.
How many business students would be majoring in humanities if they felt confident they could still have a career in business after graduation? This approach requires no major curricular overhaul, no fundamental change to how colleges teach the arts, humanities and social sciences. It should not be a distraction from the fundamental role of these fields: to explore the connections across knowledge and evaluate ideas critically.
The lazy debate between art and commerce, in the end, will advance neither one. If employers truly value skills like writing and critical thinking -- and the evidence clearly says they do -- then abandoning America’s liberal arts heritage will only make a skills gap worse. And if the liberal arts become a luxury item, pursued only by those willing to make a financial sacrifice, then their influence in the fabric of American intellectual life will wither as well. The good news is that this lazy debate can be ended. It just requires an acceptance that a fulfilling career is as much a part of a life well lived as broad knowledge for its own sake -- and a new approach to making both accessible for students.
Matthew Sigelman is chief executive officer of Burning Glass Technologies, which delivers job market analytics to empower employers, workers and educators to make data-driven decisions.
Liberal arts education is often thought of in terms of a balance of knowledge across a range of fields and disciplines. Such an approach results, so the story goes, in the well-rounded individual who has an appreciation for the sciences and the humanities, who can work, at turns, with raw data and with subtle hermeneutics, and who understands history as well as the complexities and nuances of the contemporary moment.
This understanding is relatively accurate as a zoomed-out view of how the liberal arts work. But then there are other parts of a liberal arts education. Smaller parts.
David Foster Wallace, in his Kenyon College graduation speech, talked about some of the more weighty benefits of liberal arts, such as learning to recognize the difference between cultivating awareness and sensitivity, on the one hand, and sliding into the mindless mode of the rat race, on the other. But I’m not talking about this sort of heaviness.
When I think back on my own liberal arts education, I realize that many small things contributed to my overall experience. Those things weren’t necessarily planned in advance nor did they show up on my transcript. But they were absolutely meaningful for me.
For instance, I recall when my English professor drove me up to Ann Arbor, Mich., to hear poet and essayist Gary Snyder read some of his new work. Our little college was about 45 minutes south of the University of Michigan, and we were far less likely to get a speaker like Snyder.
Another English professor, an early modernist, took sympathy on me for my lack of curricular planning. She agreed to do an independent study on Shakespeare and nature so I could satisfy a certain graduation requirement.
Then there was the time a favorite philosophy professor went along with a gaggle of us students to see the film The Matrix when it first hit theaters. We saw the movie and then went to a pub to discuss the film in relation to various readings and class discussions we’d had.
In the spring when the weather turned nice, my Latin professor would take us outside with a big bucket of colorful chalk, and we’d do our translations on sidewalks around the quad, in garish pinks, yellows and blues. That may seem entirely whimsical, but it made some pedagogical sense, too: changing the context of learning to make the lessons stick.
Doubtless, many other small things shaped my education, as well -- but I’m focusing here on the ones that involved my professors. As a professor myself now, I often find myself thinking about all the aspects of the position that go unremunerated but that are also immeasurably part of the job.
This might be a last-minute, unplanned “office hour” with a student that ends up being a walk through the park on my way home. Or it might be helping with a senior thesis, which is a voluntary overload credit in terms of a teaching assignment but which ends up (usually, hopefully) as a student’s capstone experience, reflecting in unpredictable ways the sum total of her or his education thus far. Or it can simply be a coffee or a beer that I buy for a student over an impromptu session of giving life advice or calming near-graduation trepidation.
Such small things add up in at least two ways: they are the uncompensated and incalculable parts of the job, and they are also the things that can result in lifelong memories for students. They are the aspects that can make the whole enterprise seem worth it -- when you actually help someone make a good decision or at least avoid a bad one.
As my own university goes through a prolonged and at times painful financial equilibrium process, dovetailing with a general assessment phase, I am trying to keep all this in mind. I do that both in terms of being aware of the small things I do (and trying not to overextend myself) and in terms of simply remembering that such small things make my position meaningful -- especially during salary freezes or threats of across-the-board cuts.
It is an economic paradox of sorts that the parts of this job that are about uncompensated giving are also those parts that give back -- and that these things might also be the very measures by which we defend this model of education. If we are truly interested in educating the whole person, then we have to be whole people, too -- knowing that this sometimes means delayed gratification and generosity beyond calculation.
Being a professor is still a great job for so many reasons. And a lot of those reasons will always necessarily remain unquantifiable. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work hard to be fairly compensated or to try to find ways to recognize much of what we all do.
But it means that we should also acknowledge that many things we do on our campuses (and off) for our students will always fall through the cracks of assessment and reimbursement. Yet they will nevertheless benefit our students in inestimable ways. It’s the small things that count.
Christopher Schaberg is associate professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans.