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The Future of Governing Boards and Higher Education

Photo: Courtesy of Changbok Ko on Unsplash

Now more than ever, colleges and universities are tasked with affirming their unique value to students, families, and the public. The people who oversee these institutions — members of college and university governing boards — shoulder this immense responsibility in a rapidly changing environment.

The compounding effects of the global pandemic on already declining student enrollments, as well as escalating costs to institutions, are intensifying the need for governing boards to remain focused on student outcomes and financial viability.

In recent decades, educational leaders have established their priorities on meeting student financial aid needs, increasing graduation rates, ensuring the quality of the college experience both inside and outside of the classroom, and preparing students for life after they earn a degree. Such concerns now have taken on new urgency. 

In the last year, I have had literally hundreds of conversations with board members, presidents, and other higher education leaders about much-needed changes to the sector. These conversations have had the consistent refrain that, going forward, if colleges and universities wish to prove their value in the coming years, they must at least do the following:

Demonstrate a commitment to diversity, equality, and inclusion

Most conversations reinforced the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges’ position that diversity, equity, and inclusion are critical social, economic, and moral imperatives. While I firmly believe higher education is a force for good, that will remain true only if these values are treated as more than buzzwords. 

Board members and institutional leaders have the ability and responsibility to elevate diversity, equity, and inclusion, and oversee the development and integration of policies to ensure these values are mobilized across all facets of campus life, virtual or otherwise.

Further, there is agreement that colleges and universities will enhance their performance by cultivating diversity, especially at the leadership level, both in terms of demographic characteristics as well as skills, experiences, and perspectives that board members bring to their work. In other words, higher education institutions need leaders with a wide array of talents and experiences to steer them through major change. 

And although diversity has long been an aspiration for many boards, there is a special urgency today as the nation calls for renewed commitments to racial equity and social justice, concerns that are embraced by many students, faculty, and staff, among other constituents.

Embrace and leverage shared governance and enhanced communication

My conversations also revealed a renewed emphasis on the importance of communication and collaboration. Boards must be decisive if they are to navigate concurrent and high-priority challenges that, if not addressed in a timely manner, could jeopardize financial viability, institutional reputation, and, potentially, students’ academic success. 

For example, many boards and administrative teams are deciding when and how to reopen campuses, and how they can foster racial equity. These are decisions that will have profound, long-term consequences for students and institutions, but they are also decisions that need to be made quickly.

Yet higher education is not known for its quick action. In particular, critics often point to shared governance—how boards, presidents, and faculty collaborate in key areas of institutional decision-making—as a roadblock that results in extended deliberations. It is here that boards and presidents must be clear about the roles and responsibilities of these three groups (boards, administrators, and faculty), and implement policies that allow for quick, effective, and appropriate collaboration.

To demonstrate its value to students, families, and the public, higher education cannot remain the same. And if higher education is to advance for the good of all, then so too must governing boards.

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