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How to Help Your Board Make a Greater Impact on Your Institution

By James W. Dean, Jr. and Deborah Y. Clarke

Dean and Clarke recently co-authored The Insider’s Guide to Working with Universities: Practical Insights for Board Members, Businesspeople, Entrepreneurs, Philanthropists, Alumni, Parents, and Administrators, published this fall by The University of North Carolina Press.

What can universities do to leverage the immense talent that their board members bring and help them make a greater impact on the institution?

In writing The Insider’s Guide to Working with Universities, we leveraged our collective experience in both business and academics to explain to board members and other businesspeople how businesses and academic institutions are simultaneously similar and different. We’ve seen many board members who don’t understand why universities are organized and operate the way they do. The book describes these organizational differences and provides suggestions for how businesspeople can be more effective when working with colleges and universities. We also explore specific topics that are often hard to understand or appreciate for those who grew up professionally outside academics, including a lack of a sense of urgency; tenure; shared governance; how academic leadership works at different levels; types of research; what it takes to get a Ph.D.; how curriculum decisions are made; and innovative approaches to teaching and learning.

Universities face a number of significant challenges, including: developing and implementing strategies for long-term success; marketing educational programs and offerings; budgeting and cost management with scarce resources; and attracting and retaining highly-skilled people. University board members, many of whom have business backgrounds, have the potential to address these challenges and make institutions better, and institutions can greatly benefit from their insight and experience. But very often board members become frustrated when they engage with universities. They may become impatient with the sometimes-glacial pace of decision-making and implementation, frustrated with weak chains of command, surprised by what faculty seem to get away with, and unhappy with their ability to use their business skills to truly make a difference.

This is unfortunate, because many of the challenges universities face have business analogues and board members have considerable relevant skills and experience. How can universities engage these highly skilled and experienced volunteers to make a greater impact on the institution?

First, take the time to explain to board members the inherent and crucial similarities and differences between universities and businesses. In higher education, organizational mission and the desire for quality and reputation drive decision-making, not profit. Unlike businesses, colleges and universities rarely operate based a clear chain of command; institutional decision making depends heavily upon shared governance and mutual influence. In business, lifelong employment is never guaranteed. In higher education, tenure has a critical impact on academic freedom and inquiry, which in turn advances the university’s mission and reputation. Businesses make R&D decisions based on cost-benefit analysis. University research has direct relevance to an institution’s commitment to innovation and inquiry; it may or may not have a significant net positive impact on institutional finances.

Second, summarize what businesspeople need to know about universities in order to work effectively in higher education. This body of knowledge includes: differences among types of colleges and universities, the regulatory environment for higher education, the organization of universities and how leadership operates within that organizational structure, the different types of research done in universities and why it’s important, and the sources and uses of funds in various types of universities.

Third, create strategic and collaborative relationships between board members and academic leaders. Universities often struggle with actively leveraging the talents of board members, partly based on lack of understanding the similarities and differences described above. Some university leaders have legitimate concerns about getting board members involved too deeply in management. Universities need to ask, understand, and operationalize how board members can effectively contribute their expertise. Further, universities believe strongly in the importance of diversity. This is an opportunity to leverage diversity of approach and experience, but it takes good will and effort to really make it work.

American universities have contributed a great deal to the success and well-being of millions of people, and are in many ways the envy of the world. We believe that with proactive education of board members and deliberate efforts to create collaborative relationships, board members will help universities become even better.

  • Accountability & Transparency

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