Boards may delegate administration and curriculum responsibilities, but they are on the hook for the overall well-being of their institutions. They should expect and prepare for the kind of crises and breakdowns that happen in any human institution. Knowing good governance practice from bad, and recognizing warning signs that lead to trouble, can spare boards grief and avoid heartbreaking damage to the institutions they serve.
The final red flag any trustee should be watching out for is a culture that avoids tough questions and does little to demand evidence. Board members, however obvious it may seem, do not always understand this imperative, or at least have the courage to practice it. Going hand-in-hand with such a culture are regular and systematic processes for monitoring and evaluating both the institution’s and the president’s performance. At Penn State, the president was a voting member of the board—an unusual practice at public institutions and one that can complicate effective evaluations. In addition, trustees complained that the president did not tell them what was going on. That’s not good enough. Their job was to ask questions, require answers and expect evidence.
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This is especially the case in American higher education, where governance responsibility lies with boards of citizen trustees rather than government agencies, as is the case in other countries. This unique approach is often credited, at least in part, with fostering a system of higher education that is the envy of the world. It is a winning model, when it works. Yet citizen trustees, who are not higher education experts, depend on the professionals to whom they delegate authority—the president and his or her administration—to assist the board. Trust in those leaders is crucial; blind trust is irresponsible.
And so we’re left with the question: Who is in charge here?
The president may be responsible for running the university, but the buck stops at the boardroom door. Board members may take pride in the honorary aspect of their position. But their fiduciary responsibility demands the exercise of good communication, effective training, and the courage to ask tough questions. Without these, they too could be headed for trouble.
Jill Derby is a governance consultant with the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities and a cultural anthropologist. She served 18 years on the Nevada Board of Regents, and was the board’s chair for three terms.
The full On Leadership round table on university trustees:
A bruising summer for governing boards
Drawing back the curtain on our deeply flawed trustee system
Three warning signs that university leadership is on autopilot
What we have here is failure to communicate
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On Leadership: @post_lead | Editor: @lily_cunningham