January 24 2019
Excerpt from "PIVOT: A Vision for the New University"
"Presidents discuss a central tension with their peers: How involved should they get with their boards?
But this is fundamentally the wrong question: the real question is not the board’s degree of involvement, but rather how presidents focus their involvement on the vision and the subsequent strategies to achieve it.
The new university is one where the president and the board of trustees spend their time together with a strategic focus on vision: communicating, connecting, and building where the university is going, how fast it needs to move, and how it will get there. Once the board buys into the vision, then the discussion of macro-strategy has a context and a framework of understanding. Without that, the board is simply reacting to a series of seemingly unrelated decisions, and that is where misunderstanding and opposition can emerge. Keeping the board at arm’s length means they do not have true or rich context for the change that is essential.
Leaders need to be able to function knowing that their boards have their backs even through difficult and unfamiliar territory. Courageous presidents cannot be effective change agents with constant worry about no-confidence votes and board intervention in management issues. In short, just when they think they are spending too much time with their board on vision, they should spend a little bit more.
Consider this example from Maryville University...
It was the commitment of the board of trustees that jump-started Maryville University’s journey. This engaged and passionate board has created space and safety for change that has been crucial in the university’s ability to pivot. Fundamentally, the Maryville board has made a comprehensive philosophical and strategic commitment to a new approach to education. The institutional vision demands their engagement.
Vice Chair of the board Jim Switzer says, “I have been a part of many great things in my life, but I don’t think I have ever been prouder of anything than what we have done for student learning at Maryville University.” Giving legs to a bold vision will always begin with crafting the right board of trustees for the work that must be done. At Maryville, board members were selected specifically because of skills or experiences that bear a connection to innovative work, and these connections are explicit to their appointment and engagement. They know their role, have clear expectations, and serve as active contributors to institutional momentum without the micromanagement that slows many administrations down.
Maryville board members felt that their institutional heritage, through its founding within the Sacred Heart tradition, had a strong connection to academic innovation and student success, as articulated in the institutional history: “This heritage bequeathed to us by the Religious of the Sacred Heart includes a commitment to the education of the whole person through programs designed to meet the needs of traditional and non-traditional students offered in day, evening, weekend and blended formats. We are committed to provide an excellent, challenging, mentoring education where students are free to explore issues of ethics, spiritual place, and questions of conscience.”
While Maryville has been a secular institution since 1973, the fact that the sisters at Maryville embedded a long-valued culture around individual success for all students fueled a new conversation about what student success could look like today and in the future.
The relationship to institutional foundation here is critical: too often, innovation and traditional values seem destined to come into conflict with each other. It was clear that the Maryville board of trustees had embraced the best of both. Believing that a liberal arts education was still instrumental in the success of its students, the university embraced that core and surrounded it with a new and innovative model for education."
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