Recently, the Association of Governing Boards (AGB) released an exceptional document, Consequential Boards: Adding Value Where It Matters Most. This report is the handiwork of the National Commission on College and University Board Governance chaired by former Tennessee Governor Philip Bredesen and comprised of a blue ribbon panel of higher education leaders and policy experts. It is arguably, the most important statement on higher education governance ever released and its importance cannot be overstated. The release of the report is timely for all of higher education and particularly for colleges and universities experiencing fiscal and enrollment challenges. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) especially will want to read the report carefully given their individual and collective plight.
Consequential Boards offers seven recommendations and while each has major value, they are interdependent. In order to achieve the desired results, all must be addressed and implemented as a unitary goal. They are as follows:
- Boards must improve value in their institutions and lead a restoration of public trust in higher education itself.
- Boards must add value to institutional leadership and decision making by focusing on their essential role as institutional fiduciaries.
- Boards must act to assure the long-term sustainability of their institutions by addressing changed finances and the imperative to deliver a high-quality education at a lower cost.
- Boards must improve shared governance within their institutions through attention to board-president relationships and a reinvigoration of faculty shared governance. Boards additionally must attend to leadership development in their institutions, both for presidents and faculty.
- Boards must improve their own capacity and functionality through increased attention to the qualifications and recruitment of members, board orientation, committee composition, and removal of members for cause.
- Boards must focus their time on issues of greatest consequence to the institution by reducing time spent reviewing routine reports and redirecting attention to cross-cutting and strategic issues not addressed elsewhere.
- Boards must hold themselves accountable for their own performance by modeling the same behaviors and performance they expect from others in their institutions.
Why is this report particularly important for HBCUs? First and foremost, this is a watershed moment for the nation’s 105 black colleges and universities. Many, if not most, appear to be struggling financially and perform less than average on metrics like retention and six-year completion rates. It is doubtful that most can survive without substantial changes in their business model, leadership and governance. In my judgment, it is in the realm of governance that HBCUs are most challenged and that is why Consequential Boards warrants their immediate attention.
The single most important decision a board makes is hiring a president. Usually, when an HBCU president leaves, he or she is perceived as having failed. What is often overlooked is the governing board’s role in the matter. If the president fails, the board has to assume some responsibility. Governing boards must support presidents while holding them accountable. Boards must not get involved in the daily operations of the institution but must ensure that policies and procedures are in place and followed by the president and the leadership team. The performance of presidents should be regularly evaluated and so should the performance of boards. Today, perhaps more than ever, boards must ensure that trustees possess the skill sets required for effective governance: knowledge of higher education, finances, information technology, strategic planning, marketing and branding, etc.
In 1900, there were 10 black medical schools. By 1923, there were only two: Meharry Medical College and Howard University Medical Department (as it was then called). With the creation of Morehouse School of Medicine in 1975, there are now three. In short, we should not delude ourselves about the fact that HBCUs are imperiled and neither should we be surprised when some are closed as have several in recent years. The simple truth is that some HBCUs are not salvageable. By addressing the urgent need for effective governance we can improve the life chances of some of these incredibly invaluable institutions.
Alvin J. Schexnider is the author of Saving Black Colleges (Palgrave Macmillan 2013). He is a former chancellor of Winston-Salem State University, a board governance consultant to the Association of Governing Boards, and an advisory board member to the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.