The Forum | Trusteeship

Disrupting the Boardroom? A Plea for Engaged Trusteeship in Turbulent Times

March 17, 2017 by Ted Eismeier

Should college trustees be more than just wealthy donors? According to two experts, the answer is a no-brainer. University Ventures Co-Founder and Managing Director Ryan Craig and Willamette University College of Law Associate Professor David Friedman published a thought-provoking piece in Inside Higher Ed this week making the case that professional expertise should receive equal priority in the composition of governing boards alongside alumni and donor prestige. Friedman and Craig argue:

“Relevant expertise is essential to ensure appropriate governance, like asking the right questions at board meetings and—most important—making sure the board agenda is set to focus on the most important challenges and opportunities and not merely those senior managers want to discuss.”

Bingo. These experts are making an important observation. ACTA has for years argued that trustees and alumni are too often viewed as ATMs to pay for institutional priorities.

Boards are in need of innovative and resilient leaders today as their institutions grapple with intense new challenges to boost the career relevance of the degrees they provide and improve on-time degree completion. Combine that with serious threats to the incumbent tuition and endowment model of the last century, and armchair governance is a recipe for disaster.

Board members can ill-afford to be simply boosters and cheerleaders. As ACTA said in its signature Governance for a New Era report, “To be effective, boards must have members who can be leaders—willing to invest the unpaid time, understand the issues, and raise the tough questions.” So the real currency in effective governance is the leadership and wisdom of engaged trustees—and trustee leadership is most often grounded in skills and expertise carved from decades of experience in other industries.

Mr. Craig, a veteran investor and commentator on the evolving business model of higher education, has consistently made the case that college students—particularly those of low-income, first-generation and minority backgrounds—are not being well-served at all by the traditional “higher education bundle.”

It’s true. For any breakthroughs to occur amidst a swiftly-changing labor market and beguiling new challenges from alternative models, trustees now more than ever have a responsibility to use their skills and help lead universities through these grueling changes. If colleges are to thrive in an era of change, boards need to lead on fiscal, management, and programmatic issues. For colleges to navigate all of this, engaged trusteeship will be more important than ever.

For more, download our podcast “Reimagining the Cost and Value of College” with University Ventures co-founder and managing director Daniel Pianko.


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