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June 12, 2018
Remodeling Higher Education Board Governance
Written by: Marion Lewis
The current landscape of higher education board governance is drastically changing and reshaping the way boards guide the institutions they serve. With technological advances and the popularity of fully online for-profit schools, traditional four-year colleges and universities are feeling threatened. American higher education is also under scrutiny due to the low number of quality graduates institutions are producing. In his article for University Business, Walter G. DeSocio says, “not a day passes without Lumina, the Gates Foundation or another major education-centric foundation editorializing on the quality of American higher education.” Inside Higher Ed reported in May 2018 that Daniel Greenstein, a former official who managed the Gates Foundation’s work on postsecondary education, was appointed as the next chancellor of the Pennsylvania state system. He will make the move to a state university system that is struggling to keep its 14 universities operating.
Shared governance and communication is also a concern for a multitude of higher education institutions. John Messier explains shared governance in his article for the National Education Association: “shared governance focuses on the degree to which faculty makes or participate in decisions around academic policies, programs and other key issues such as the budget and faculty and administrative hiring decisions.” This stressor is visible in the current scandal rocking the University of Southern California as 200 professors signed a letter demanding the president’s resignation. The Los Angeles Times reported that the voting members of the Board of Trustees who include “an elite group that includes billionaire tycoons, Hollywood power players and philanthropists” have fully backed the university president.
The communication and collaboration between higher education presidents and boards of directors are also strained. In her article, “Solving the Governance Conundrum”, Marla J. Holt cites a survey of 523 college and university presidents: “forty percent of presidents- including 68 percent of presidents at public four-year colleges and universities- said they would replace board members if they could.” Corporate governance in higher education is complex and unique. Messier says, “the problems facing higher education are multifold and so must be the solutions.” Among other solutions is the need for the implementation of an intuitive board portal to help with transparency, organization, communication, and security.
Solutions for Higher Education
DeSocio outlines numerous trends in higher education board governance that he feels are needed for future success which highlights mitigating risk, the development of committees, and the necessity for board independence. College and university boards are often large including external members, alumni, professors, and benefactors. This proves difficult to communicate, collaborate, and vote. Board oversight is set to drastically shift from issues such as endowment, reputation, and planning to committees founded on crisis management. The Sandusky scandal at Penn State and the current affairs at the University of Southern California and Michigan State University are what DeSocio refers to as “cautionary reminders that an extraordinarily healthy institutional operation often results in an unhealthy institution.” He continues, “communication with boards having dozens of members will prove too unwieldy and slow in exigent situations. The creation of standing board crisis committees will become an institutional necessity.” Board portals such as Govenda also help with the organization and communication between committees. The intuitive software keeps documents secure and readily accessible to all who need to access information.
A common document library for board books and files is necessary for adequate communication across all channels as well as a place to locate and store contact information. DeSocio also goes on to explain that “institutional complexity, heavier federal and state regulation and the higher expectation that any number of enterprise risks will be promptly and decisively managed by boards will dictate multiple channels of coordinated communications.” Board members will expect to have direct access to a growing number of documents and data. Implementing a board portal software will greatly expound this process and create a stronger presence of transparency.
Transparency across often multi-tiered boards and committees is essential for proper governance in higher education. DeSocio concludes, “higher expectations of transparency and independence will oblige boards to act with irreproachable standards of care.” Board portals, along with other solutions, create not only transparency for board governance but a safe and secure platform for all information and data.
Transforming Higher Education Board Governance
The need for a transformation in the shifting higher education governance environment is significant and crucial to best practices and essential to the livelihood of traditional institutions. Amidst a catastrophic lawsuit, Michigan State University announced a $500 million settlement with the promise of board reform. The Detroit Free Press reported reform could begin with changing the governance structure of the board and even including students as board members. One element of higher education board governance is clear- the need for better organization and communication. Jim Sirianni, who is quoted in Holt’s article says, “open communication, as well as clear expectations about communication, can go far toward building positive momentum.” Organization is also at the forefront of board governance reform. Holt concludes, “trustees are often merely handed a dossier full of rules and regulations and overview of the college’s history, culture, and programs. Institutions would be smart to make an ongoing investment in board member development.” With the rise of board transformation, the need for an innovative board portal is apparent and the answer to helping higher education board governance with independence, transparency, communication, and security.
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