Boardroom: Governing in and Through a Pandemic
Cathy A. Trower
and Peter D. Eckel
Enrollment and financial uncertainty, systemic racism and social injustice, generational divisions, insufficient technology and online learning, and individual and institutional safety and well-being—these are just some of the challenges schools and their boards are facing. Many boards and school leaders were ill-equipped to deal with this list before the pandemic—let alone now when they must meet and govern virtually.
Even as the odds seem insurmountable, the demands of governing in and through a pandemic present opportunities for boards to learn, grow, and govern better. These times place a premium on how boards think and the questions they ask to find, frame, and prioritize what matters most. By prepping differently, having different conversations with the head, and candidly naming blindspots, boards will govern better now and into the future and help their school emerge from the pandemic better and stronger.
Opportunities to Do Better
Appreciate complexity. Trustees, like most everyone else, prefer certainty over uncertainty, clarity over ambiguity, answers over questions, and solutions over problems; and many prefer decision-making over sensemaking. Complex environments mean that cause and effect is unknown, and there rarely are right answers. Complexity demands different ways of thinking and operating that may be foreign to some boards less poised to operate in this environment because of routines, habits, and boardroom cultures reflective of the way things used to be. Some trustees will be stuck in old routines, some will be seeking overly simplistic answers to complex questions, and some will be resistant to the demands of governing in this complex environment. Boards must be able to open up discussions, generate ideas, and allow the administration to lean into emergent practices (rather than rely on best practices of the past).
Appreciating the complexity of the current environment may allow boards to ask novel questions and explore long-held assumptions in ways they didn’t before. It can unlock new curiosities that create fresh thinking and lead to creative solutions. The conversations needed now are far more generative than fiduciary. Instead of encouraging the board to plunge head-first into operational solutions to the issues education is facing now, open up the dialogue to encompass core values the school wants to preserve, the criteria by which the board can decide an issue, and the tradeoffs demanded. In short, realize that decisions need to be made, but spend more time sensemaking first.
Focus on priorities. Being intentional about what the board needs to address—and why—is essential right now. The board should not limit its focus only to the problems at hand. Boards can benefit by thinking of their work as spanning three categories: oversight, problem-solving, and strategy. The pandemic has likely pushed most board work into the problem-solving category; however, boards should also include some discussion of the other two categories.
How well is the school doing, and what evidence supports that assessment? What does the future possibly hold, and how can we best position the school for that future? What do we want to be out in front of, and what should we wait and see about? What is within our control, and how can we leverage those things? As an example, the board might charge a small working group to look at acquiring real property or making needed campus improvements given the low cost of credit. This is a future-focused acquisition that while possibly challenging to think about right now might pay off handsomely in the future.
Rethink meetings. Why do boards meet on a calendar-driven and not an issue-driven cycle? One answer is that humans like routines, and there is a reassuring ritual with board work (for both trustees and management). Boards—and particularly board committees—might be better served if they are topic-driven with some regularly scheduled meetings to discuss items that are on a fixed schedule, such as budgets or audit reports. They can supplement with a more flexible approach as board and school leadership deem necessary. While many bemoan virtual platforms such as Zoom, they do offer some additional opportunities that might be useful. Polls can be used for voting or to frame and seed discussions. Short-answer questions, word clouds, and other tools are built into these programs or are supplemental (Mentimeter and Poll Everywhere are examples). Don’t forget about consent agendas as a way to shorten and streamline board meetings and ensure focus on what matters most.
Recast committee work. Committees can add depth to board work, extend capacity, and limit burdens on volunteer trustees. Consider breaking large committees into smaller, more nimble task forces to go deeper on specific issues within the committee’s purview. For example, break committees into two—one focused on immediate challenges and concerns and the other on long-term implications and actions. Another idea is to have subcommittees working on different issues within their purview. For example, a faculty affairs committee might examine the effect of COVID-19 on faculty work and what faculty are learning about student outcomes in a remote environment. The student life committee might examine ways to help students practice, cope with, and enforce social distancing and the effect of new practices on various student groups (such as students of color and international students). Boards may create new task forces as well. A board might create a Reopening Campus Risk Working Group to examine minimizing the risks associated with a safe return to campus. If they didn’t before, ensure that these task forces and working groups include faculty and outside experts when helpful.
Prep differently. The stakes are too high for trustees to ignore board portal content or be unfamiliar with necessary data. Time is too precious to be spent listening to long reports. Board leaders need to secure a commitment from individual members to do their homework. Agendas can be created not with topics, but with questions to consider before people enter the (virtual) boardroom. Pre-meeting polling and questionnaires can take the pulse of the board so that meeting time can be spent unpacking the responses and making decisions.
Have different conversations with the head. A job widely understood to be lonely is being carried out these days in even more isolation. So, it is important for trustees to recognize that they need to focus on what the head most needs at each meeting (and the next one, too). These needs are definitely institutionally focused, but there are personal dimensions to leading well in the pandemic. To be most effective, set specific goals for each virtual meeting and listen carefully to what the head is asking for and saying, and listen for what the head isn’t saying. Be mindful of the head’s time and attention. And watch for signs of stress and burnout. The pandemic is both a series of sprints (of varying lengths) without rest time in between and a marathon.
Call out blind spots. These days, boards should recognize that heads now are deeply immersed in day-to-day operations. They may “lose sight of the forest for the trees” and may be less aware of biases, patterns, and blindspots. Furthermore, leaders have the tendency to create and adopt certain language in times of ambiguity and uncertainty that is helpful to them. The language becomes a relied upon shorthand for insiders but has the potential to be misinterpreted by stakeholders. Trustees can ask about interpretations and help recast potentially problematic language (program revitalization versus program review).
Trustees bring experience and understanding from different sectors and industries and different workplaces to their board work. Simply being a stranger in a strange land can lead to insights and questions that add clarity, surface assumptions, challenge outdated or habitual norms and ways of thinking, and lead to better outcomes.
Leading in Uncertain Times
Tested solutions don’t often exist in times like these, and the questions are often unclear, too. Each school and each board is feeling out the way forward as they go. The pandemic is asking everyone to be flexible, including heads and boards, and to adopt a learner’s mindset.
Essential to this mindset is the capacity to be reflective. Boards must carve out the time for discussions about what they are doing and how well they are governing. Governance is a thinking person’s game. What are the ways in which a board’s previous strengths will continue to serve it well, and what are the ways in which it must adapt with the times? It is always good practice for boards to be intentional, deliberative, and reflective about their work. The pandemic means that they must be. They must ask what’s working? What’s not? Why? And they must stop to ask questions even when short on time.
Much of what is happening across the education sector is unpredictable and outside our control, but that does not mean that we succumb to fear and immobility, nor does it support rash decision-making. Now, perhaps more than ever, all stakeholders are looking for thoughtful, competent leadership not just from the head, but from all quarters—faculty, staff, students and, very much, from boards.
This article was adapted from “Governing In and Through a Pandemic,” which appeared in the September/October 2020 issue of Trusteeship, a publication of the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities.
Readings & Resources
“Board Meetings: Moving from Face-to-Face to Virtual,” by Cathy A. Trower, an article at nais.org.
“What Boards Are Missing: Curiosity,” by Peter D. Eckel and Cathy A. Trower, a May 2017 article at insidehighered.com.
Practical Wisdom: Thinking Differently About College and University Governance, by Peter D. Eckel and Cathy A. Trower