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A recent article about the influence of politics on governing boards of public colleges and universities noted that “Not since 1918 … has the fate of human life been so visibly entwined with the effectiveness and legitimacy of college trusteeship.” Even if the board of your particular college or university isn’t in the news for allowing politics to steer the institution, the pandemic has generally decreased the role of faculty in shared governance. Now more than ever, faculty should engage with their boards to make sure their voice remains—or becomes—strong in determining the path forward.

Unfortunately, however, a cultural gap can exist between the trustees and faculty members. Faculty dismay at the perceived corporatization of colleges and universities can make us suspicious of trustees from the for-profit world who are empowered to decide the fate of our academic institutions, which we fear they don’t understand. (A trustee comparing colleges to manufacturing plants doesn’t help.)

Having spent 21 years as a faculty member at one private institution and 12 years as a trustee of another, I have participated in the board member–faculty relationship from both sides. Rather than tell you myself how to decode the businesspeople on your board, though, I have gone straight to the source. Yvonne Hao served 12 years as a trustee on the same board I did and has worked in the for-profit world as a CEO, COO, CFO, board member and investor. I interviewed her to get her perspective on what businesspeople really think and her advice on how faculty members can form productive relationships with them. While Yvonne and I served together as trustees of a private, four-year college, our experience may hold some relevance to faculty members no matter where they work.

Different Goals, Processes and Stakeholders

Most of the for-profit organizations where board members work differ in fundamental ways from academic institutions. Yvonne divided those differences into three main areas.

  • Goals. “In business you’re a profit-making entity, so your goal is to maximize profits, growth and shareholder returns,” she explained. “You can change prices, you can find new customers, you can expand geographically, you can change your workforce.” Some of that doesn’t sound so different from a college—many of us are trying to find students from new geographic areas, for instance. But, obviously, the emphasis on profits is not central to a nonprofit college or university. As Yvonne described it, “You could measure the success of an academic institution in many ways, but it’s probably a much broader set of metrics with both qualitative and quantitative aspects around the experience of the students and the impact they have on the world.”
  • Processes. Shared governance in higher education stands in stark contrast to the more hierarchical models of governance in a for-profit corporation. “In companies, you have a very clear hierarchy, where the board and CEO make decisions and then things kind of cascade down” is how Yvonne put it. Right away, I hear my faculty colleagues saying, “That’s actually no different from how we do things in academe.” But our decision-making processes look pretty foreign to businesspeople. From Yvonne’s perspective, “In academe, we take the full year, and we have to go through different committee structures. And maybe the next year it gets voted on, and then maybe the next year it finally starts to be implemented.”
  • Stakeholders. “There are a lot more constituents in higher education, and their relationship to the entity is less clear than it is in a business setting,” Yvonne observed. And while we might assume businesspeople think of students and parents as customers, Yvonne said that’s not really accurate: “In business you want to give the customers what they want and make them happy, and then they’ll come back for more. Here you’re trying to help the students graduate with better academic training, better experience and a better sense of their values and leadership. That may not always make them happy.”

Board Members and the Academic Mind-Set

If some of these views make you as a faculty member uncomfortable, you are not alone. (And I didn’t even include the part where Yvonne described tenured faculty as a “fixed cost.”) They key point, however, is that on a well-functioning board, trustees from the for-profit world are aware that the institution they are guiding does things differently. In one of their series of articles about board governance in higher education, Peter Eckel and Cathy Trower say that it’s important that “the board has an academic mind-set versus a corporate one.”

In part, that means that boards should spend a lot more time listening and learning than they do deciding. And what Yvonne described as the most interesting function of the board was “What are the areas of the college that, in the normal operational mode, you maybe just lose sight of? And can the board play a role of shining a light on that to say, ‘When’s the last time we really thought about our approach to X or our strategy for Y?’”

I think it is also worth acknowledging that even academics occasionally find the pace of change in our own institutions frustrating. Sometimes by “shining a light,” a board can highlight the urgency of issues we are working to solve. One example is the way sudden changes in student enrollment patterns are temporally misaligned with the long-term processes by which we construct our curricula. The board members I worked with were particularly attuned to the way a student’s four-year college career might not be well served by the timeline of any long-term, viable solution to those shifts. Their impulse was to ask the college and its faculty about possible shorter-term solutions. It’s not always comfortable for us as faculty to think this way, but sometimes piloting quick solutions to seemingly intractable problems can buy us time while we do our best long-term planning.

Why Are So Many Businesspeople on Boards?

If a well-functioning board takes its cues from the academic environment it’s governing, why are higher ed boards populated substantially with people from outside academe?

First, the category “businesspeople” covers an immense range of people, their jobs and the for-profit entities they work for. A useful board has members with a wide range of professional expertise, and that can include work in both for-profit and nonprofit environments. Also, in many cases, board service has an important philanthropic component, and if you’re a faculty member, you probably recognize that the philanthropic capacity of an all-academic board would be limited. And since the board hires and advises the president of the college, it can be helpful to have board members who themselves have managed large and complicated institutions.

At its core, however, the responsibilities of trustees are fiduciary ones. When I joined the board, I saw firsthand the kind of expertise and work required to manage an endowment-dependent institution through a major financial crisis. To call that a difficult time is a massive understatement, and having lived through a version of it on my home campus, I am confident few faculty members are ever completely happy with decisions made in a crisis. But our options are better when our financial health is better, and I am definitely in favor of having people with deep expertise work to ensure that financial health.

That said, much about the finances of a college or university is learnable, and faculty members are nothing if not good at learning new things. If we want a say in where the money is spent, we must understand the basics of our institution’s finances. Both colleges I’ve been associated with offer faculty the opportunity to learn about the financial model of the college and to get periodic updates on the financial picture of the institution. This kind of working knowledge is vital not only to faculty who have official roles in shared governance but to all of us who care about what is and isn’t funded on our campuses.

At the same time, we should recognize that working knowledge isn’t the same as expertise. For example, it’s not hard to learn how to estimate a 5 percent takeout rate on an institution’s endowment and then extrapolate how much larger that endowment would need to be to fund something additional. But it’s much harder to look at all the factors feeding into that common assumption of a 5 percent takeout rate and to evaluate whether or not we should expect that number to hold up into the future. That kind of assessment requires expertise that I, as a Ph.D. chemist, do not possess.

Why Have Academics on Boards?

I’ve yet to find a faculty member who doesn’t think it’s a good idea to have some of our own on boards, but what do nonacademic board members think of the practice? Nationwide, roughly 10 percent of trustees have experience in academics, and that presumably encompasses a chunk of board members with administrative but not faculty experience. A recent article by a search firm executive gave the somewhat tepid endorsement that, “Perhaps having at least one board member with higher-education experience could be useful for perspective and balance.”

Part of the argument for including professors as board members, Yvonne said, is that they bring an important perspective, including deep insights about students and their concerns, as well about faculty issues related to their teaching, research and service. She also observed that faculty trustees lend “a board credibility that it wouldn’t have with only businesspeople.” She told me, for instance, that as a faculty member, I was better suited to hosting the series of open forums we held with student activists than someone running a giant hedge fund or who is CEO of a big company.

I disagree with her somewhat, because, in fact, she and many of my other fellow business trustees have proved quite skilled at communicating with students. Still, the campus context is familiar to professors, and most of us are accustomed to having difficult conversations with our students. And sometimes it can be useful to reference our day jobs in board meetings and say things like, “I understand that you really want the college to add this major, but as a faculty member, I would be pretty upset if my board did an end run around our process and told me I had to do that.”

How Can Faculty Best Engage With Their Boards?

What I did not do as a faculty member on the board was serve as the designated advocate for the faculty, because I never felt I had to. I found that my fellow trustees had a real appreciation for how complicated faculty jobs are and for how much of ourselves we devote to those jobs.

It was no accident, however, that that was the case: the president and administration made sure trustees interacted regularly with small groups of faculty. So my strongest piece of advice to faculty is simply to take advantage of any opportunity you have to meet with members of your board, even if it looks like a purely social dinner. And if you don’t think faculty are being given that opportunity at your institution, ask for it.

Such interactions are separate from, and ideally complementary to, more structured meetings where, for instance, the board meets with faculty members serving in specific governance roles. As Yvonne said of those more informal exchanges, “That’s where a lot of trust gets built. Once you have a personal relationship and trust is built, then you can have so much more discussion and debate.” She encouraged more boards to identify ways to create such connections.

A recent article highlights the fact that many of us do not view our colleagues as faculty once they become deans or other administrators. But however you feel personally, it is very likely that your board members view the deans who come out of the faculty as faculty members. It is also very likely that your trustees will develop strong relationships with them, because they work together so closely. Yvonne was complimentary about those working relationships and the ways they helped bridge the academic/business divide. “Their approach feels like, ‘I know you don’t know anything about what I do, but I’m kind of curious what you think; sometimes, you will say something really interesting that I hadn’t thought about before, and I’m kind of excited to have that back-and-forth in partnership with you.’”

Embedded in how Yvonne imagines the faculty perspective is something we’re all highly capable of, which is curiosity. I’d argue that the advice given to trustees in this piece titled “Boards need to be more curious to be effective” can apply to faculty as well: we should try being more curious about and less suspicious of our businesspeople overlords.

If your trustees are going rogue, making headlines for chaotic governance or pressuring you to invite David Duchovny to give a distinguished lecture, then you have my sympathy, and perhaps none of this insight is relevant. For the rest of us, however, fostering strong relationships between the faculty and boards (and, yes, having some faculty members on those boards) might help us come out of the current crisis in a better position to move our institutions in a direction we can all embrace.

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