The challenges facing college and university boards of trustees (also referred to as regents, governors or visitors) today are formidable. They range from cutbacks in federal and state support to faculty governance and presidential leadership. Boards bear responsibility for issues that touch on every aspect of campus life: enrollment, financial aid, academic integrity, fundraising and athletics. At times they will be tested by crises, such as sexual assault or racism.
High-performing boards want to know how well they are serving the institution. They also want to fulfill their proper role, generally defined as hiring and, if needed, firing the president or chancellor, fundraising, strategic planning and fiduciary oversight. Board evaluation often creates an atmosphere of inquiry and dialogue that sets a standard for the rest of the institution to follow.
How can evaluation strengthen board effectiveness? Most obviously, it can uncover strengths, weaknesses and areas for improvement, which in turn can shape priorities for board education. Evaluation can forge a culture where trustees can be more open about board performance and their own satisfaction. And as a result, they develop more confidence in their processes and actions.
Evaluations take many forms. Most evaluations are of boards, not individual members, and can involve any combination of strategies. These include:
- Hiring a consultant;
- A self-administered board survey;
- A board meeting dedicated to evaluation;
- A retreat;
- An in-depth written analysis of the evaluation process; and
- Actionable steps to enact changes and plan for the future.
Some of the best evaluations use a survey that can be evaluated against what is expected of high-performing boards (for example, a trustee satisfaction rating of 8–10). Engaging an independent consultant to guide the process can increase board members’ comfort level with self-scrutiny. A skilled consultant can also explain the survey’s results, define goals and help the board set an action agenda.
A carefully thought-out evaluation process can reinforce that a strong board is on the right track. For a board that is seeking its way, evaluation can help it address issues before they undermine the institution’s effectiveness. It can also set the stage for positive collaboration with the president and the faculty.
As long as an evaluation is viewed as fair and capable of real change—not merely talk—it can inspire boards and trustees to adopt best practices in everything they do.
Ready to dig deeper? Download our Guide to Board of Trustees evaluations.
This article is authored by Kent Chabotar, Ph.D., president emeritus of Guilford College and co-founder of MPK&D Partners. Founded in 2014, MPK&D is an experienced team of higher education leaders, who deliver practical and creative solutions to some of the most complex challenges facing institutions today. For more information, visit www.mpkdpartners.com