The Time Has Come for all University Boards

By Jon Masters

The time has come for all university boards to take a hard look at how they are operating and what should be their role. The failings of the boards of trustees at Penn State are waving a red flag.  As the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, Anne D. Neal, is quoted in The New York Times, “This should be a clarion call to trustees across the country to ask questions, to demand answers, to insist that the president is responsible to them, not the other way around. For too long, the boards have been viewed more as boosters than as legal fiduciaries.”

What should be the board’s role?  To what extent is it different from a corporate board? Are the trustees getting the information necessary to enable them to carry out their responsibilities? How effective are their operating procedures?  Are they agreed on mission and strategy and the role of the president?  What is the proper balance between the role of the president and the role of the board? What are the areas for which board oversight is appropriate? Does the president see these things the same way?  Sensitive issues need to get on the table in a way that they can be freely discussed and a consensus developed.  That is not easy, but there are ways to do that.  The key, however, is the board’s determination to do its job.

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