Shaping a Successful Board of Trustees with Robert Scott

Reports about the increasing turnover of college and university presidents are in the news. The reasons for turnover range from a lack of clarity of expectations, problematic responses to student and faculty protests, political interference, and more. In light of these and other serious concerns, boards and presidents can benefit from a guidebook for selecting members and orienting them to their duties.

In How University Boards Work, I give examples of positive and negative board behavior; guidance on board professional development and how boards should fulfill their duties of care, loyalty and obedience; information on how best to prepare for board decisions and discussions; and advice on leadership development, succession planning, and managing the transition between chief executives, among other topics.

Just as corporate boards require members who know the industry, science, and technology at the core of the company’s business, so too universities benefit from trustees who can contribute substantively to planning and decision-making, not just annual or capital gifts. University trustees are most effective when they know the history, the mission and purpose, the students to be served and the competitive landscape, and the comparative advantages of the institutions they serve. As a consequence, board deliberations are enhanced when they include members who have experience in and knowledge of higher education.

University trustees need to be trained in the complexities of higher education financing, quality controls, government regulations and legal requirements, financial aid policies, and other issues if they are to be effective in their roles. For these reasons, board members should be chosen thoughtfully and provided with an ongoing orientation to their responsibilities.

Trustees may wish to serve because they believe it is time to give back to an institution that was important to them at a critical time in their lives. While this motive is honorable, it does not reflect the true nature of what is needed for the position. Board service, if done well, is work. It takes energy, imagination, and commitment—not old sentiments revisited. As a consequence, board members should know the positive reasons they wish to serve, understand what is rewarding and challenging about board service, and be committed to continuous study for their role.

In my experience, boards are most effective when members know the difference between governance and management, and have the gumption to ask questions about things they do not understand or with which they disagree. Members should not seek a board position for prestige any more than a corporate director should take a board position because of the stipend. They should collectively have the expertise necessary to guide a complex organization with multiple functions and sources of revenue. Board service is an opportunity for learning, judgment, and setting institutional direction in fulfillment of historic missions and state priorities. Effective trusteeship requires time, talent, and treasure. It is not something to enhance an obituary.

This topic and others are examined in How University Boards Work.