Improving Board Performance
The majority of private college boards are under-performing for today’s challenges. Over the years, I have trained or consulted with more than 60 CCCU boards. Trustees and presidents need our prayers now more than ever. These proven best practices are critical in 2021.
It is disciplined but rewarding work, not just an honor. To be effective, trustees should learn something weekly that helps in their key roles. Presidents can customize recommendations by interest and committee assignment. Most trustees want to learn more about good governance and invest more in it.
Board chairs are the key to moving governance from good to great. The role takes at least five hours a week. Chairs manage the board; presidents manage the institution. The chair-president partnership is critical to improving governance. By default, presidents often lead the board if the chair doesn’t. Chairs ensure future board leaders are being recruited and developed.
With wonderful exceptions, Christian college boards are still too white, too male, and too old. Diversity of ethnicity, gender, and age is important. It speaks to the populations we need to attract and retain. This year it is also wise to include a few board members with good relationships within the Democratic Party. A good trustee reflects most of these: Work, Wisdom, Wealth, Witness, and Wallop (influence).
COVID-19 was a wake-up call. Risk management is now center stage. COVID-19-related decisions will lead to survival, dissolution, or merger. Similarly, there are other external disruptions that require advance thinking and new strategies, such as online learning, the potential loss of government funding, and new regulations related to sexual orientation and gender identity.
I like smaller boards than the current Christian college average of 20-21. Smaller boards can and should involve more non-trustees in governance. Committee charters need to be reviewed every year and allow a minority of non-trustees on some committees. Ad hoc task forces should be used more, where external experts can be appointed for short-term, very focused study and recommendations. Other task forces could include trustees, staff, and outside friends of the institution. Advisory groups bring ongoing fresh thinking to governance and administration.
Board-oriented presidents are critical to governance. Every year, a dozen or more new CCCU presidents are selected. All boards should have succession policies in place. Recruitment should be assisted by search experts. When a vacancy is sudden, an interim presidency often allows the campus time for reflection, prayer, and a better selection process. The transition process for the outgoing and the incoming presidents needs creative board guidance. Every incumbent needs ongoing encouragement, annual performance reviews, fair compensation, maybe an outside coach, and the benefits of two executive sessions at every board meeting (a short one at the beginning without the president, and the second at the end with the president). All this keeps the president and board in alignment and allows trust to grow.
Boards develop habits and attitudes that resist change and keep them from improving. Every few years, the entire board structure and process, including board and committee meetings, need evaluation. Every trustee whose term is coming up should be evaluated by fellow trustees before the too-frequent “automatic” election to another term. Overall, a culture of evidence, including spiritual development, is critical for high-performing boards.
Spiritual discernment by a group requires intentional prayer and practice. The chair needs to lead in this, not allowing just a token nod to the spiritual calling of the institution. Jesus’ analogy of the vine in John 15:5 is the key: Our culture challenges us to be in the world but not of the world. Without board leadership to keep Christ at the center of mission, culture will eat away at what makes CCCU institutions so special — and vulnerable.
Boards spend way too much time listening to reports and drifting into administrative issues. Boards must govern well so administrators can lead well. Agendas, policy development, and reporting should be guided by board leaders. When the president and cabinet want advice, they should ask anyone — whether individual trustees or outside experts — but they should do that outside of board and committee meetings.
Board Policy Manuals are common now, but to keep all ongoing policies in one organized document the manual needs attention at every meeting. Presidents should make recommendations in advance. Current policies clarify roles, keep the board focused, the administration guided, and accountability clear.
Dr. Bob Andringa was CCCU president from 1994 to 2006. Since 1986, he has trained or consulted with more than 500 ministry CEOs and boards. Bob and his wife, Sue, live in Scottsdale, Arizona.