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Saving Struggling Colleges: The Role of the Board

The EvoLLLution | Saving Struggling Colleges: The Role of the Board
When properly developed and leveraged, governing boards can have an incredibly positive impact on the capacity for colleges to succeed—both in meeting their missions and in generating revenue.

A foundation president once said, “A college is only as strong as its board of trustees.” If that is true, more attention needs to be paid to the governing boards of the numerous colleges struggling to survive.

Having worked for decades with such colleges, a colleague and I recently interviewed college presidents and trustees from over 30 colleges to determine how their governing boards have strengthened and are strengthening their colleges. Included among those interviewed were leaders from colleges considered by various agencies (such as accreditors and financial rating agencies) to be relatively financially secure—including Centre College (KY), Furman College (SC), and the University of Richmond (VA)—and leaders from colleges that seem to struggle each year to operate under a balanced budget.

The study, funded by the Spencer Foundation, began with recognition that colleges with reputations for being academically strong produce graduates likely to excel in the professional world, prosper financially, appreciate the opportunities their alma maters provided, and make major contributions of time, expertise and money to those institutions. It is often the most successful of such alumni who serve on the governing boards of their alma maters and/or recruit other prosperous individuals to serve.

Unfortunately for many colleges, trustees are named because of their affiliations with the church supporting the college or because they are well known in the geographic region of the college. As one person reported in explaining the closing of a college that had served for over 100 years, “The trustees were local, without money or influence or any understanding of how colleges operate.”

The assumption is often that a trustee fulfills their obligations by attending meetings, being on committees and making small annual gifts; the reality is that much more than being present at appropriate times and writing a small cheque occasionally is necessary to the building of a secure future for any institution.

To be able to have the strong knowledge of the institution necessary to make good decisions and represent the college well, trustees need training that assures they know the history of the college, current data reflecting the strengths and weaknesses of the college, how that data compares with that of similar colleges, and the issues locally and nationally that are impacting higher education. They need opportunities to view the college from the perspectives of faculty and students as well as from that of administrators and graduates. They need to be sensitive to signs that problems may be developing, such as not having their questions answered quickly and completely. They need to know that assistance in governing is available from such national organizations as the Association of Governing Boards and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. They need more preparation than a tour of the campus and a meal with various campus constituents.

So, what is the difference between a college that is thriving and one that is close to closing?

A major difference between weak and strong institutions reflected by the cases studied was how the boards of the strong colleges had created and maintained a strong vision of the college, based on its mission, regardless of how that mission may have changed to remain relevant.

John Roush at Centre College described the vision established by the early leaders: Centre would be a college recognized as the strongest in the state; later presidents and trustees referred to the college as the strongest liberal arts college of its size in the country; a more recent image reflects a college that stands among the strongest private liberal arts colleges in the nation regardless of size. In other cases, the vision was one reflected by the continuing growth of the institution in terms of its ability to attract students who will graduate with knowledge, skills and philosophies promoted by the institution. Edward Burger at Southwestern University in Texas indicated that a clear vision reflecting the historic mission and goals of the college can keep institutional leaders on a track of continued improvement and growth and avoid their being distracted by whatever new tactics happen to be promoted at the time.

Perhaps the best example of how a clear, compelling vision can sustain a college is Berea College in Kentucky. The articles of incorporation were recorded in 1866, establishing a college that would provide an “education to all colors, classes, cheap and thorough.” This vision of a college that accepts only students from families with incomes below an amount established by the board of the institution has attracted generous donations from generations of families and foundations. Today the endowment is about $1 billion—quite a distinction for an institution serving roughly 1500 students annually, each of whom is required to help offset operating costs of the college by working a minimum number of hours each week in such areas as maintaining grounds and buildings, covering clerical responsibilities, and assisting individual professors. Even in times when returns on investments are low, the college never deviates from this vision of a place dedicated to serving disadvantaged students willing to contribute to the cost of their education through physical labor.

In too many cases, board members view their appointment as honorary and presidents consider their major responsibility keeping trustees entertained. As Robert Reich replied when asked about his experiences as trustee of a college, “We ate well.” Too often, meetings are planned around agendas that consist of flashy presentations by various administrative offices that allow little time for discussion of critical issues likely to impact the future of the college. Some believe they should “never give trustees information likely to raise questions.” And in some cases, administrative offices follow the same practice: they never give the president information that will create questions. So, the uninformed lead the uninformed.

Since many of the colleges facing the greatest financial struggles are church-affiliated, a common response to the question of how an institution was addressing threats to their existence was “with prayer.” But neither prayer nor hoping for the best serves the purpose of strategic planning.

All questioned admitted that the primary responsibility of a governing board is hiring the president and evaluating their work carefully and consistently. Until recent years, the search process often included having trustees recruit applicants they knew as strong leaders from personal experience. Past presidents at Elon University were selected from among faculty members or recruited for the position because the person was known to be committed to the institution and education in the region. At least some board members usually knew a potential new president well enough to endorse them. The trustees were not dependent upon the word of an outside agency being paid to produce a president.

Today, trustees often assign responsibility for finding a new president to a search firm and hire a president even though they have reservations about their competence for or commitment to the position because they do not want to go through another search process or pay another search firm, or they assume the candidate selected is the best that can be found.

A new president may be evaluated infrequently and assumed to be doing a good job just because the previous president had managed the institution well. By the time the board realizes its mistake, the college may need decades to repair the damage done and repay the debts accumulated. If trustees do nothing else well, they should choose and monitor presidents carefully and consistently.

Trustees interviewed often believed (in some cases rightly so) that the president knew more about the college, its resources and weaknesses, than anyone else on the board. Yet, it would seem that 12 to 45 trustees (the range in the study) collectively would have at least as much knowledge about the college—both its past and its present—as the one president, especially if that president comes to the college with no prior experience with it. Board members come to colleges with life experience, business and professional skills, knowledge of human relations and, in many cases, experience as a student at the college.

A president should aim to build a collaborative relationship with the board members and help them understand how their skills can contribute to governing the institution. A commitment to collaboration evolves when a president strives to enrich the board’s understanding of institutional issues, and board members begin to perceive how they can utilize their personal abilities to support the president and administrative staff.

This study providing multiple examples of how trustees best serve their institutions is expected to be available for general distribution soon—hopefully in time to benefit some of the colleges most in need of guidance in the area of governance. Every new year tends to bring new challenges to small private colleges, and in many cases previous challenges remain.

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