Report: Boards need to shape up

Less squabbling, more governing

Governing bodies need to focus on strategic needs of their institutions instead of squabbling over ideological differences, asserts a report published last Thursday by the National Commission on College and University Board Governance.

The 26-member commission, formed by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges in July 2013, says that such actions endanger the schools themselves and the public's confidence in higher education.

"Far too much time and talent, and too many resources, are preoccupied with institutional advantage, the preservation of the status quo, internal disputes over governance roles and authority, and the advancement of political and individual agendas," asserts the report.

Governance is more important than ever, it says, as institutions face declining enrollments and revenues.

Additional challenges include shrinking numbers of full-time, tenure-track faculty, inefficient accounting systems, and higher turnover rates of college presidents. Amidst these changes, boards continue to govern as they always have, according to the report.

Higher education's business model is broken, says Philip Bredesen, head of the commission and former governor of Tennessee.

The business side of higher education has grown much more complex, says Jane Wellman, founder of Delta Project on Postsecondary Costs Productivity and Accountability and contributor to the report. "What’s happened is that the pressures for more complicated decision-making are greater... choices have to be made that are more explicit—the revenue that allows you to avoid choosing between A and B isn’t there. The need to focus on student success and what that means for programs—that’s a different environment," she explains.

Related: Recruiting and engaging trustees at small, private liberal arts colleges

The report found two major challenges. First, keeping the institution financially viable. Second, improving graduation rates, particularly among low-income students.

To solve these problems, the report suggests governing bodies shift their focus to more strategic priorities, including:

  • Delivering education at a lower cost;
  • More closely monitoring relationships between the president and the board, and increasing faculty shared governance;
  • Improving board member recruitment and training;
  • Reviewing routine reports faster; and
  • Comporting themselves as they expect others to (Kelderman, Chronicle of Higher Education, 11/6; Rivard, Inside Higher Ed, 11/6).

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