Out of the Quagmire

To avoid mediocrity, governing boards should never be quite satisfied with their performance, write Cathy Trower and Peter Eckel.

February 9, 2016

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.

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