Mired in Mediocrity

At a time when colleges and universities face unprecedented challenges, boards are not adding the value that is crucial to institutional success, write Cathy Trower and Peter Eckel.

January 25, 2016

Harvard Business School professor Dutch Leonard once said, “The central challenge for nonprofit leadership is that mediocrity is survivable.” His observation was sad, but true -- and one that could easily apply to many college and university governing boards. However, the difference today given the challenges facing higher education is that mediocrity might not be survivable. At a recent conference of presidents, the key thread of the conversation was about the dangers of mediocre governance.

We observe that too many boards seem to be mired in mediocrity. During numerous board assessments that we’ve conducted over the years, we’ve asked trustees to provide a letter grade to their board’s overall performance. On average, trustees give a C-plus grade. And when we ask why they give this grade, trustees say such things as:

  • “We’re a good, but not great, board.”
  • “I’ve been on worse boards.”
  • “I suspect we’re better in our own minds than in the minds of the senior staff.”
  • “We never discuss our performance; our focus is on the administration’s performance.”
  • “We love this institution, but I’m not sure we really know how to govern well.”

Not very encouraging responses.

Why do college and university boards underperform?

The boards in the headlines are often those that are dysfunctional (think Penn State or the University of Virginia). While they may well deserve their negative spotlight, most boards are not dysfunctional -- they simply can do more to add more value and be an asset to the institution they govern. Boards do not add as much value as they should for many reasons. Some of the more common ones that we have come across include:

The focus is on the “pretty ponies.” One trustee we know remarked, “Our board meetings are dog and pony shows, but the administration only trots out the pretty ponies.” If all the trustees hear is how great everything is going, they tend to assume that everything really is great, and they may become complacent. Similarly, too often boards only learn about issues after they have already been decided, either by an overly powerful executive committee or the administration.

Brainpower goes untapped. Too often trustees do not bring their A game when it comes to board work. In some instances, the administration does not involve the board in important and meaty matters. And other times, trustees do not do their homework prior to meetings that would allow them to engage fully. Regardless of cause, when trustees check out mentally, they provide no value.

That can lead to apathy that not only affects the board’s performance at meetings but also can result in lackluster philanthropic support. Furthermore, if the right people are on the board, the institution is missing a key opportunity for their input.

The one-issue trustee reigns. On one board that we worked with, the answer to every institutional problem was “women’s golf.” They didn’t have a team, and one trustee clearly wanted one. The institution needed to increase enrollment and posed that issue to the board. “Invest in women’s golf” came the solution from the often vocal trustee. The institution wanted to engage alumni more effectively. “Women’s golf,” that same trustee urged a few hours later in the meeting, contending, “Women golfers will be dedicated alumnae.” During discussions about increasing auxiliary revenue, he jumped in with, “Well, you know, we should consider improving the golf course and creating a women’s golf team.” And so it goes.

Congeniality is not collegiality. Many boards suffer from being overly polite and deferential -- both of which result in mediocrity. In contrast, the best colleagues take each other on, pushing each other’s thinking and debating ideas, all in the spirit of advancing the common good.

High-performing boards do not shy away from difficult conversations and conflicting views and ideas. Instead, they understand that such messy, if not uncomfortable, dialogues are essential to understanding complex issues and eventually lead to better decisions. And at the end of the day (or board meeting), those trustees are able to put aside their differences and move ahead.

Good (enough) is the enemy of great. Too often we hear that the board is pretty good -- in fact, good enough. Why push harder for more? Many boards believe that behaviors that worked sufficiently in the past will continue to serve the board and the institution today and into the future. But given the increasing and changing demands on higher education institutions and their leaders, governance that was once good enough no longer is.

Many boards do not take the time to assess themselves or their meetings meaningfully. And often those that do ask questions of themselves rarely yield constructive insights. Rather, they make comments such as, “I liked the pace of the meeting,” or “We had good attendance.”

Boards don’t know otherwise. Administrators and faculty members have deep and extensive professional networks to help them not only find solutions to problems but also provide a set of benchmarks. But the fact is that most trustees have neither, as they rarely see another academic institution’s board in action. They assume that as their board goes, so do all other boards. This is clearly not the case. Too often boards look only to their own histories and practices as a guide for the future rather than looking at the practices of high-performing boards.

Presidents perpetuate the problems. There are four reasons presidents may not lead boards away from mediocrity. First, some presidents simply believe that boards do not have the knowledge to help in meaningful ways. And depending on who sits on the board, that unfortunately might be true.

Second, some presidents worry that once trustees are invited to engage in more substantive work, they’ll never get out of the details. In this case, the potential downside of micromanagement is not worth the reward. Third, presidents may not believe they have the requisite time to devote to governance. The demands on time are great, and a board that is good enough (rather than great) allows for time to be spent elsewhere.

Finally, presidents simply are inexperienced working effectively with boards. A study of presidents that one of us conducted and that was summarized in the Association of Governing Boards’ magazine Trusteeship found that approximately 25 percent of presidents had no experience working with boards prior to ascending to the presidency.

Governance structure contributes. Boards get mired in mediocrity related to the work and structure of governance for three primary reasons. First, because board work is episodic -- with infrequent meetings -- boards do not benefit from repetition and practice or from an easy continuity between meetings.

Second, on many boards, the executive committee has undue influence. That imbalance of influence may cause the rest of the group to check out, leaving a lot of complex work in the hands of too few trustees.

Third, the mind-set of trustees matters. Some trustees feel that they serve on the board to be decisive, which means to make decisions -- not to explore and understand issues, regardless of uncertainty and ambiguity about various paths forward.

Board culture is misaligned. Finally, boards may not have the right cultures for the work that they are facing or the environment in which their institution finds itself. Does the board perpetuate divergent thinking or convergent thinking? Which is needed?

Do board leaders need to maximize efficiency or deliberation? Do they bring a corporate or academic mind-set to decisions? All of these points, and others, add up to shape board culture. But the real questions are: To what extent does board culture match what the institution needs, and how might that vary over time?

In a follow-up Inside Higher Ed article, we will provide recommendations for how boards can avoid becoming mired in mediocrity. Please don’t get us wrong. Many boards have dedicated and hardworking trustees. Our point is not to belittle governance or trusteeship, but to point out its all too common shortfalls. Given the pressures facing many (if not most) colleges and universities, they need to be able to draw on all of their assets, including effective boards. Many, if not most, boards could and should be doing much more to add value as partners in the leadership of very complex institutions.


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.

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