The Guardian Podcast With Ryn Melberg Asks: Is Your University Board Clueless?
This week on her podcast, Ryn ‘The Guardian’ Melberg asks a question about how colleges and universities are governed by their directors. Are they clueless? The Guardian podcast can be heard on iTunes, Soundcloud, or at www.rynmelberg.com.
The Clueless Board of Directors
Melberg describes what happens with many college and university board members. “They are not really sure why they are on a board or what it is they are expected to do,” she told listeners. “Only 10% of college and university board member ever receives any training, and of that little it devoted to governance.” Making the work of college or university board members more challenging is the absence of a defined fiduciary roles and responsibility for them. “It is very difficult to be good at a job where there is no training offered,” she said. “So how would anyone in that situation feel anything but clueless”?
According to an article in Forbes, university board members reported receiving a lot of material from the schools president right before a board meeting and much of that written from a point of view designed to put the school in the most positive light. “As a board member, you have a responsibility to get the information you need to do your work and fulfill your obligation,” she said. “They are able to request whatever information they believe is needed for them to do their work, but many did not even know that they could and should do that.”
Defining Board Member Responsibility
In an ideal situation, board members would not be merely fundraisers for the school, or provide a rubber stamp for the school president. The primary responsibility of board members is to protect stakeholder value. “It’s unfortunate that so many university board members do not even know that this was expected of them,” Melberg stated. “Protecting stakeholder value is the heart of governance. The trustees have the most financial and legal responsibility of any group. So not understanding what governance even means or their role in it is a problem.”
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
According to Melberg, the board is there to protect the institution from what could possibly go wrong. To that end, the school leadership has to be forthcoming with the good and the bad. “If information is withheld from the board there is no way they can be held responsible for not doing anything,” Melberg said. “Some of these include the physical safety of the students, how they do in their careers after they graduate, how are potential conflicts of interest with corporate partners managed? These are areas of responsibility that speak to the need for well defined university governance.”
Know What Is Expected
The emphasis for members on many boards of directors and even for school presidents is fund raising. “ In some places, the role of fund raising and governance is separated into two different groups,” Melberg said. “We know from Agile that it is better and more productive to be focused on a single thing. So when directors can focus, they will necessarily do better work than they would otherwise.”
If not dividing the work into two groups, Melberg suggests defining a fixed amount of time to devote to fund raising and the remainder to delivering stakeholder value. “Colleges and universities have lots of stakeholders,” she said. “No college is an island, they all sit in a community and typically have a big stake in that community. Add that to students, former students, future students, elected officials etc. and it is easy to see how much is expected of directors with respect to their roles maintaining good standards of governance.”