Boardroom: Defining the Boundaries of Social Responsibility for Trustees

Fall 2023

By Carrie Grimes, Whitney Walters-Sachs

This article appeared as "Lines of Duty" in the Fall 2023 Independent School.

School … has a chance to affiliate itself with life, to become the child’s habitat, where he[/she] learns through directed living; instead of being only a place to learn lessons having an abstract and remote reference to some possible living to be done in the future. [School] gets a chance to be a miniature community, an embryonic society.” 

When educator and philosopher John Dewey penned these words in The School and Society in 1899, the American system of organized schooling was still a relatively nascent social enterprise, with only 50% of American children ages 5–19 enrolled in school. Rejecting the conventional wisdom of the time that education should be viewed merely as preparation for industrial life, Dewey believed that school should function as a microcosm of civil society. He encouraged school stakeholders to operate in active and cooperative pursuit of knowledge through teaching and learning to prepare students to become responsible members of the democratic community at large.

What might Dewey make of the increasingly complex and interconnected global environment schools are tasked with preparing children for today? How would he make sense of the maelstrom of external and internal forces that contemporary school leaders sift through each day, week, or month? How do the echoes of Dewey’s early 20th-century notions of schools as “miniature communities” play out in today’s sociopolitical landscape?

Our best guess is that Dewey would be utterly bewildered. As today’s school leaders grapple with how, why, and where to draw lines between the spheres of school, society, home, community, and culture, it is clear that organizational success is dependent upon the ability of independent school leaders to establish public trust in our messy world while maintaining authentic relationships with a wide range of stakeholders. 

This leads us to wonder what it means for socially responsible school leaders to consider how their actions—and inactions—affect the world around them and the delicate ecosystems in which our schools exist. In the context of independent school governance, what exactly are the boundaries of social responsibility?

Responsible Leadership Today

With increasing frequency, school stakeholders (parents, alumni, faculty, and students) are demanding to know what our schools stand for and what they value. Climate change; diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging; and human rights are among the common issues that intertwine with strategic initiatives and operational decisions related to many facets of school life, including curricula, admission, and student and employee wellness. Recent studies from Pew Research Center and Amnesty International examining the engagement of Gen Z (people born between 1995 and 2012) reveal increased activism among the teens walking our upper school hallways. Through their classroom discourse and visible participation in school clubs and community events, today’s students are making it known that engagement on social issues is not merely a preference, but an expectation and, in some cases, a moral mandate. 

An increasing focus on corporate social responsibility has demonstrated that businesses have not only economic and legal responsibilities but also ethical, moral, and philanthropic ones. In 2008, eminent leadership scholars David Waldman and Benjamin Galvin posited in an October–December 2008 article in Organizational Dynamics that socially responsible leadership extends beyond traditional moral and legal standards to encompass the specific concerns of others, an obligation to act in response to those concerns, and a requirement to be held accountable for the consequences of one’s actions. 

Applying these ideals to an independent school environment, the practice of social responsibility should span beyond the needs of internally facing stakeholders to include those of the larger community and society. According to Thomas Maak and Nicola Pless in a 2006 Journal of Business Ethics article, socially responsible leaders across sectors assume an integrative role in which they act as stewards, citizens, visionaries, servants, architects, storytellers, and meaning-makers to achieve shared objectives for stakeholders and respond to challenges in an increasingly interconnected world. 

In the context of school governance, this is an implicit invitation to take up much more work than many trustees may have originally bargained for. Who are we doing more for, for what purpose, and to what ends? Gazing at governance through a lens of social responsibility is a valuable opportunity to consider what our stakeholders are asking board members and how expectations related to social responsibility track with other key facets of school service.

Taking Responsibility

The perceived pressure and urgency our schools are experiencing have been exacerbated by social media and political polarization, which have increased public discourse and intensified emotions surrounding issues of social concern. Yet, it is reasonable to expect school leaders, including trustees, to begin from a foundational place of individual responsibility. After all, each person serving our schools was presumably selected based on their personal integrity and an alignment of their individual values with the school’s mission and vision. 

We must continue to ask important questions: What societal events are school leaders responsible for addressing? What actions are responsible trustees expected to take? And where might we create reasonable boundaries to ensure that the act of responding does not overwhelm the school’s mission and purpose?

So, what does this mean for what trustees do? Without question, boards are expected to set an appropriate example, and stakeholders are watching trustees both in and out of the school setting. It seems intuitive to suggest that leaders should be expected to act in ways that responsibly promote the greater good and reflect care and concern for the community. At the same time, there may still be instances when trustees feel that they are unfairly expected to tackle it all. 

The question of where to draw the line on what is deemed a social responsibility is one that schools can answer only in the context of their unique environments. A strong head-trustee relationship is critical to determining what is right within a community. 

There are six steps, easily remembered as TACKLE, that school leaders and boards can take to help support strategic thinking when making important decisions. This approach can help boards better balance competing views with the benefits and consequences of taking positions on social issues: 
  1. Trust your people, systems, and foundation. This step is the cornerstone of the rest. Faith in the school’s underlying organizational structures and in the individuals who have been entrusted with the well-being of the school is an antecedent to any complex challenge. Each person at the decision-making table has arrived by way of procedures designed to help the school weather storms, demonstrate resilience, and lean into its core beliefs and shared history when problem-solving. Leadership decisions are only as good and impactful as the individuals charged with carrying them out.
  2. Anticipate the issues. Rather than reacting to concerns as they arise, school leaders and boards should proactively consider how current affairs impact the community, openly discussing the school’s boundaries and carving out time for thorny discourse when the element of time-sensitivity is absent. These conversations will help the school decide whether, when, and how to take public stances on potentially controversial topics.
  3. Center decision-making on your school’s mission and core values. Strategic decision-making calls for intentional, authentic, and mission-aligned action. Relying on the school’s core values as a barometer will help school leaders determine when a social issue merits a response. Beyond this, it is far easier to explain a decision in terms of how a social issue does (or does not) implicate the school’s mission and fundamental principles and beliefs.
  4. Know your school culture and community. School administrators and boards know their communities best, including what will likely work and what might spark strong reactions. When evaluating whether to say “yes,” “no,” or “not yet” to a particular course of action, heads and trustees should maintain a steadfast focus on the shared norms, expectations, and beliefs that create the desired climate. Questions like, “What do we stand for?” and “What are our non-negotiables?” can provide a framework for decision-making. Frequent engagement with all constituents is also essential for keeping a finger on the pulse of the community.
  5. Live your values. The school’s story is told in the actions its leaders take and the subconscious movements they make over time. Living your values involves a consistent and concerted effort to demonstrate—through behavior—a true commitment to the ideals the school claims to espouse. 
  6. Externally communicate thoughtfully and authentically, backing your words up with action. To establish and maintain trust, there must be congruency between what is externally expressed and what is done in practice. School leaders should continually endeavor to show their high regard for stakeholders not only in what they say but also in what they do each day, in large and small ways. This requires being vulnerable and owning any mistakes.
Socially impactful decisions require time, energy, and thoughtful consideration. When deciding whether to respond to social issues, leaders should invest in thinking, planning, and modeling how to make operational and strategic decisions that allow their schools to take the best steps forward.

Go Deeper

As the new school year begins, don’t forget to share all the NAIS resources for trustees with them, including the Summer 2023 issue focused on governance. Read these articles and more:
Carrie Grimes

Dr. Carrie Grimes is a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development and is the director of the Independent School Leadership master's program.

Whitney Walters-Sachs

Dr. Whitney Walters-Sachs is the vice president of school and legal affairs at Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and an adjunct professor in the Independent School Leadership master’s program at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development.