January 29 2019

Excerpt from "PIVOT: A Vision for the New University

In every university, the task of the board of trustees is twofold:

  1. they have ultimate fiduciary responsibility over the university, and
  2. they hire and fire the president or chancellor.

The best boards are mindful of these two direct roles and exercise engagement with both while also giving the president the room and freedom to manage the university in all other arenas. In this sense, effective boards must be both invested in the strategic direction of the university and also trustful of the president and the myriad tactical management decisions he or she must make to move the institution forward.

Without a mutual understanding of vision at the proverbial thirty thousand foot level, the board can’t possibly understand the complexity of the decisions demanded of presidents. Since there is never a straight line from innovation, to achievement, and ultimately to success, the board must have the kind of relationship with the president where they understand the ebbs and flows of decision-making.

Navigating the politics of change within the academy rests on the most crucial element of board-president relations when it comes to vision: they must have a clear awareness that together they are moving the university from a culture of stasis and resistance to change to one of innovation, risk-taking, and change celebration designed to achieve one singular and unwavering outcome: the facilitation and maximization of student learning.

Moreover, embracing the vision is central to understanding the accelerated pace at which decisions must be made. The traditionally glacial movement of colleges and universities must be jettisoned for a much more market-driven, responsive, action-oriented approach. Institutional vision in the twenty-first century academy must build upon speed, flexibility, and responsiveness, requiring that the board and the president understand not only what the vision is, but the ways in which it can be decisively and quickly realized through strong planning and bold initiatives.

One of the best examples we’ve seen of how vision can drive strategic action at the board level is at institutions where the board of trustees’ committee structure is reorganized directly around advisory groups connected to the themes in the strategic plan. When that happens, board members have a focus that has a direct impact on the health of the college or university and the life of the students. It brings critical relevance to every board discussion. Many college presidents and board chairs are afraid to restructure, because there are long-standing traditions and constructs. But with the vision at the center of the board’s connection to the president, it is irresponsible to allow those entitlements to block the excitement and innovation of the future.

The reorganization of the board around DWU’s strategic plan has been critical to the success of that institution’s vision. In doing so, board members have been reenergized around the mission and empowered to be active players in the institution’s growth and success. They are now deeply engaged in work around themes of strategic growth, visibility, the learning experience, innovative partnerships, and a sustainable foundation.9 They are leaning in—with their time, energy, and resources—to the development of DWU’s Center for Rural Impact, which will become an applied-research laboratory for four cornerstones of the rural renaissance: economic development, health care, ministry/non-profit administration, and education. Additionally, regional leaders, along with university faculty, are collaborating on the interface of digital pedagogy and experiential learning, rethinking how to deliver health care, support rural education, and strengthen rural communities. President Novak has been intentional about providing education and training that has given this board a sense of urgency and compelled them to stand behind an agile system for change. Not only do they embrace and read everything that is delivered to them, but they are now sending reading materials to President Novak as well.

Courageous Leadership: Championing Disruption, Risk, and Innovation Challenge Questions

  • Is at least one critical constituency at your institution (board, leadership team, faculty, staff) consistently focused on and pushing for change and new ways of thinking?
  • Are your board members chosen strategically for skill in areas needed for institutional health?
  • Does your board own and share the vision of the institution?
  • Are your board members being educated about the future of learning through regular board development
  • Has your board of trustees assessed itself for readiness to address the trends exerting pressure on higher education over the next ten years?
  • Is your president sufficiently protected through the support of the board of trustees to be an agent of change?

© Credo and www.credohighered.com, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Short excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Credo, Credo Press, and www.credohighered.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Please email info@credohighered.com for information on how to obtain a full copy of Pivot: A Vision for the New University or for permission to use excerpts from the book and/or blog series.  

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