Boards of trustees at many American colleges and universities often confuse governance and oversight. They argue that boards have a responsibility to be informed and establish a committee structure that reaches into every aspect of college life. In some cases, committees are under populated because their number exceeds the capacity to populate them based on the size of the board. In other cases, a lack of board discipline overpopulates key committees like Finance because of the professional experience, interest level, or presumed importance of a trustee within the pecking order. Set within the broader parameters of shared governance, however, the overall effect is to create a hodgepodge of protocol and practices likely to produce dissent, confusion and institutional inertia within shared governance.
The result can play out in any number of ways. On some boards, a rigid and disciplined committee structure decentralizes authority to make full meetings of the board a bland mix of information gathering and ceremonial votes. At other colleges, boards operate as a kind of “committee of the whole” where every action is vetted through several committees and then digested by the full board before a vote is taken. Both extremes inadequately address the central question. What is the responsibility of a board of trustees – however it may choose to organize itself – to provide proper, necessary and effective oversight?
Boards derive their responsibility from the institution’s charter and by laws and through the state and federal non-profit regulations that govern them. Basically, they have three primary duties: policy review and approval, fiscal oversight, and the need to hire, nurture, replace a president, and manage a succession plan. At the same time, boards also relate to day-to-day management by embracing a vision -- articulated by the president and supported by the board – found in the college’s strategic plan. Beyond these functions, it is the responsibility of the administration to manage the college. Boards handle general oversight through their treatment of the president as the institution’s CEO. The failure to do so effectively can create the broad restructuring that will most certainly be a critical outcome of the current debacle at Penn State.
Given the range of organizational approaches and the differing “styles” of collegiate boards of trustees, how then can a full board best operate to fulfill its program, fiduciary and appointment responsibilities? The answer is to decide what is important for them to know and determine how to get at this information consistently. The information provided must also be part of a broader longitudinal analysis that allows them to assess progress over time. Further, these metrics must be tied not only to overall institutional health but also to broader measurements to assess the progress of a dynamic strategic plan. In short, boards of trustees must establish a dashboard metrics to determine where they are and where they are headed.
These metrics may vary across institutions. At most colleges and universities, where the comprehensive fee is the basis for the annual operating budget, the metrics begin with the admission and financial aid numbers, since overshooting the financial aid budget can inhibit the ability of the institution to move forward with its strategic plan. They extend also to longitudinal trends within admissions including application number, yield, comparative sticker price, and revenue per student. This same approach must be applied uniformly to all major fund categories from auxiliary revenues to development. Good metrics begin first by measuring institutional financial strength.
To establish these metrics, institutions increasingly and appropriately rely on financial modeling that integrates revenue with expense to present a comprehensive picture of the college’s institutional health over time. Since so much of a college’s operating budget is tied to relatively fixed costs in labor, facilities and technology, boards of trustees must pay special attention to debt, especially if much of the debt is taken out at a variable rate. After developing the financial picture fully, board of trustees must paint the rest of the canvas and may choose to review program, demographic, social, attitudinal, athletic, and reputational metrics to understand fully the state of the college. Collectively, dashboard metrics are the basic research and monitoring mechanism upon which any board action should be based.
In the end, dashboard metrics offer important assurances that permit boards of trustees to embrace the aspirations within the college’s strategic plan. These metrics must drive decisions, be themselves driven down into the schools, colleges, institutes and departments within an institution, and be the subject to open and transparent debate. If a strategic plan answers the question who do we wish to become, dashboard metrics provide the critical assessment tool necessary for the best boards of trustees whose members ask first who are we today and what is the foundation upon which we must build our future.
Brian C. Mitchell is the president of Brian Mitchell Associates and a director of the Edvance Foundation. http://edvancefoundation.org/. Dr. Mitchell is the retired president of Bucknell University and former president of Washington & Jefferson College. He can be reached at: email@example.com.