College governing boards must intensify engagement in challenging times


Timothy Tracy is a university trustee, corporate executive and former provost at the University of Kentucky. Richard Messina is a management consultant for corporations, not-for-profits, government agencies and universities. They co-wrote “Redesigning the University: A Guidebook,” from which this piece has been adapted.

Timothy Tracy

Permission granted by Timothy Tracy


In today’s turbulent times, university boards have an indispensable role to play to help ensure the continuing success and long-term survival of the institutions they serve. 

Boards can assist senior leadership in anticipating changing dynamics and adapting accordingly, and they can challenge traditional assumptions that stand in the way of needed evolution. They can also help ensure the development of planning scenarios that are reality-based, implementable and consistent with the university’s values. Most importantly, boards can help management sustain the resolve necessary to break from established practices and pursue new strategic directions and pedagogical approaches. 

A headshot image of Richard Messina.

Richard Messina

Permission granted by Richard Messina


How should boards be thinking and acting differently during this time? 

1. Increase engagement through information. The board’s ability to contribute depends on the information it possesses. The board needs to regularly, ideally monthly, receive a dashboard that tracks performance across all the key areas of the institution — strategic, financial, operational, human resource-related and philanthropic. 

Including student success measures such as retention and graduation rates is especially important. It is constructive for the board and the senior leadership team together to define the performance measures and to agree upon modifications as the university’s environment changes and milestones are achieved.

2. Act as devil’s advocate with respect to traditional assumptions. Implicit and explicit assumptions about the university’s approaches and plans should be surfaced, reassessed and altered in light of new realities. Boards can add great value through posing questions that encourage leadership to reexamine assumptions that may be inaccurate or out of date. 

In this process, boards may wish to test assumptions by proposing scenarios that are substantially different from the status quo and asking university leaders how they would respond to these new situations. For example, the board may ask what assumptions underlie the university’s enrollment projections, and how leadership would respond to a rapid 20% decline in enrollment.

3. Challenge strategic positioning. Challenging times create unanticipated opportunities. Now is the time to retest the robustness of the university’s strategic objectives and initiatives, aiming to ensure continuing and future distinctiveness.

In this regard, the board may request that executives reassess the three highest priority initiatives in the current strategic plan for their appropriateness in today’s environment and, if indicated, work to develop better targeted initiatives. The board should also encourage senior leadership to conduct regular assessments and monitoring of peer, competitor and aspirational institutions.

Since strategy is an area in which the board’s experience can be especially valuable, it is worth elaborating on the board’s potential contributions here. Board members with diverse experience in corporate, government and not-for-profit entities are well aware that strategies are based on attributes that distinguish an organization from its peers and competitors. An undifferentiated institution lacks uniqueness and therefore a reason for long-term survival. 

Thus, boards must help universities develop realistic and compelling answers to fundamental strategic questions related to differentiation, for example:

  • What can our university do better than any other? In which market segments?
  • What are students’ perceptions of value and their return on investment?
  • What qualities do we want our graduates to be known for? 
  • How do we uniquely develop our students? 

Boards should encourage universities to evaluate four fundamental yet nontraditional strategic pathways. The essence of strategy is making choices to focus scarce resources on value-creating activities, through a deliberate review process. Universities should consider creating consortia or alliances among groups of institutions, enabling the cluster to maintain an overall breadth of offerings while each institution concentrates on selected priority areas of strength (for example the University of Wisconsin system). Experience demonstrates the value of buying additional capabilities, such as technology-based teaching, learning and administrative software (for example Purdue’s acquisition of Kaplan). Finally, since organizations that strive to learn and innovate increase their chances of survival in dynamic environments, universities must themselves become learning organizations.  

4. Insist on new paradigms. The traditional university economic model and the paradigm underlying it need to be reevaluated and modified. Boards should insist on the imperative of this redesign and should help shape the frameworks associated with alternative education-delivery and financial models. 

5. Bring outside experience to bear. Board members with corporate and not-for-profit experience in transformational environments can assist their presidents and colleagues by advising on lessons learned. Representative topics could include leading organizational change and communications approaches. 

6. Coach the president. Even the most capable and best prepared presidents benefit from counseling and support in navigating the transition to a dramatically different world. Boards should seek opportunities to provide such assistance to presidents. This coaching role is most often successful in circumstances where the president and a board chair are able to develop a deeply trusting collaboration.

7. Deliberately assess board practices and performance, and implement improvements. The board also has a responsibility to itself to practice good governance — periodically assessing its own performance and adjusting its operations accordingly. Besides strengthening the contribution the board is able to make over time, thoughtful self-assessment serves to model for the university the discipline of promoting organizational learning and innovation, both of which are essential for succeeding in disruptive environments.


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