Why Good Governance Matters
How University Boards Work by Robert Scott
We live in a time when the importance of well-functioning boards of trustees and governance structures is particularly evident. Higher education is increasingly challenged by rapid changes brought on by technology, evolving job markets, competition from for-profit educational companies, and more. As a consequence, presidents and faculty leadership must navigate many near-term changes, often operating with imperfect information.
At the same time, colleges and universities are among the longest continuously operating institutions in our nation. They have survived in part by focusing on their long-range futures and by remaining adaptable enough to contend with long-term structural threats and opportunities. For example, when is it in the best interest of a college to merge with a stronger institution or simply close down? How can a well-positioned institution secure its future by adding to its educational offerings through mergers?
This juxtaposition of immediate and long-term structural challenges—increasingly common in our times—requires both the wisdom and perspective of well-chosen and trained trustees, who have a fundamental responsibility to help institutions and their leaders manage these issues. A board that is well-constructed and well versed in the lessons of How University Boards Work will have a comparative advantage in these demanding times.
Robert Scott’s perceptive “Guide for Trustees, Officers, and Leaders in Higher Education” is based on his 30 years as a college president at Adelphi University and Ramapo College. How University Boards Work is a must read for all higher education leaders, particularly board members. Scott’s insights and recommendations ring true to me based on my years working with boards at Yale, the University of Chicago, and The New School, as well as at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.
Scott starts with a discussion of the historical and structural framework of governance in higher education that illuminates the distinctive qualities and challenges of the traditional shared governance model—one that involves trustees, state regulators, presidents, deans, faculty, students, and others. He outlines board responsibilities in clear language, including ensuring integrity of mission, protecting academic freedom, raising funds, setting enrollment strategies that ensure financial equilibrium, and appointing and regularly assessing the president.
One of the strongest chapters discusses board membership, arguing for the inclusion of academics from noncompeting institutions as well as leaders from the public and private sector who understand higher education. Scott also offers thoughtful insights about the qualities of an effective chair and of board members, and particularly about the critical relationship between chair and president. This relationship often determines how well a board functions as well as the longer-term vitality, relevance, and health of the institution it serves. His description of the importance of regular communication is particularly compelling:
No surprises! This is an essential truth in the relationship between a president and the board, and vice versa. Board members are not bystanders, but fundamental partners with the president for the effective accomplishment of goals. However, it is also true that boards should not be told too much too soon; for example, early signals about a drop in admission deposits might lead to overreaction. Timing is essential. No surprises, for sure, but no undue panic either. Judgment is required in board communications as in all other matter.
Scott clearly understands the challenges of encouraging trustee interaction with students and faculty without undercutting the president’s leadership. He rightly underscores the critical role that boards play in the strategic planning process, which is “about principles for decision making, priorities for action and milestones for monitoring progress.” In light of a board’s oversight and stewardship roles, it is appropriate and essential for the board to establish these principles, priorities, and milestones.
How University Boards Work is more than a “how-to” guide. It begins with a thoughtful look at the history and mission of higher education and concludes with a discussion of future challenges, thus offering a context for thinking about the role and composition of boards and considering how these might need to change in the future. Scott confronts difficult issues like controlling costs, the role of part-time faculty, rising student debt, and the imperative to improve completion rates. The need for higher graduation rates was recently identified as a key issue in higher education in a report by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education.
Deeper exploration would be welcome on a few topics, including the discussion of “ethical investment policy” and how to preserve institutional neutrality on political issues, as well as the challenges of encouraging all points of view to be safely expressed on campus. I would also appreciate more insight into handling campus controversies and how a board can be prepared to work with the president on contentious issues.
In his discussion of developing leadership, Scott quotes Warren Bennis, founding chairman of The Leadership Institute of the University of Southern California: “One of the most reliable indicators and predictors of true leadership is an individual’s ability to find meaning in negative events and to learn from even the most trying circumstances.”
That insight reminded me of my own mentor, Kingman Brewster, who as President of Yale kept that university together through the tumultuous late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Brewster once told me that working with him in the President’s office offered an overview of what enables a leader to produce a positive outcome by connecting two or more negative events. Scott forcefully argues that leaders of higher education have an obligation to advance one of higher education’s most important missions: to strengthen our democracy and build a culture that is comfortable with diversity.
During Brewster’s years, Yale had an outstanding board deeply involved in navigating the University through turbulent times. I recall a challenge from an alumnus at a meeting in Minneapolis who was upset with the President’s comment that he was concerned that black radicals could not get a fair trial. In response, Trustee J. Irwin Miller, head of Cummins Engine, stood up for the President. He asked (as I recall nearly fifty years later), “if the President of Yale will not articulate the values of our country, who will?”
How University Boards Work is a vigorous call to action to recognize and protect the special role of higher education through the courageous and thoughtful leadership of boards of trustees.
Jonathan Fanton, an AKA Senior Advisor, is President Emeritus of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.