Building a Better Trustee

By LAURA S. TROMBLEY

Chronicle of Higher Education POV, from the issue dated May 11, 2007

As I complete my fifth year as president of Pitzer College, I recall the invaluable advice that a dear friend of mine, Eugene M. Lang, founder of the I Have a Dream Foundation and Project Pericles Inc., gave me my first year: "Always remember, where the board of trustees goes, others will follow." He was referring to the importance of every member of the board's contributing money to the annual fund, and he was certainly correct about the board's leading the way in fund raising.

Gene's statement, however, had much broader implications and raised the question: How does a board determine just where to lead the institution? College presidents will agree that nothing is more desirable than a well-informed, philanthropic, forward-looking board of trustees. But they will also agree that such highly competent boards don't just emerge out of the ether.

In these days of multimillion- and billion-dollar campaigns, the performance demands on trustees continue to rise exponentially, along with pressure to practice high standards of governance. Now, in addition to the long-established expectation that trustees will assist the president in networking and raising money, trustees are to a much greater degree held responsible for understanding the implications and costs of calculating tuition increases, leveraging financial-aid support, managing construction costs, creating a balanced budget, and collaborating with the president to develop his or her performance program.

Moreover, while measures mandated by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act are not required for nonprofit organizations, they have heavily influenced the current practice and policies of colleges. Many, like my own, have had to create a separate audit committee of the board to serve as the institution's fiduciary watchdog. All those aspects of board performance may prove daunting, particularly to new trustees.

At Pitzer, I have been fortunate to work with trustees who are actively interested in best practices in governance. Yet it has been illuminating for me to observe other boards through my work as a commissioner at the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. As I have served on many college-review panels for the association, I have seen the powerful and detrimental effect a poorly functioning board can have upon an institution.

The most dismaying part of my experience has been sitting across the table from a president and a board chairman and watching an expression of discomfort appear on the chairman's face when he or she finally realizes, after being informed by the association, just how dire the institution's situation is — a situation that the president apparently was disinclined to share. At such moments, my impression has often been that the chairman has placed a higher priority on loyalty to the president than on fiduciary oversight, thus jeopardizing the institution. The basic lesson that I have learned, whether the issue at hand is educational outcomes or institutional capacity, is that the failure or success of a college can ultimately be tracked to the effectiveness of its board.

While books and articles can provide valuable insights into how successful boards should operate, it is fundamentally the president's responsibility to provide trustees with readily accessible information about the institution as well as to establish clear standards and expectations — with the board's approval — for each trustee. As a result, during the past few years, I, with my board's guidance, have introduced two new tools that have been particularly helpful in keeping trustees apprised of the college's performance as well as their own.

The institutional dashboard. Most colleges annually compile an in-depth, multipage "fact book" that few people outside of the treasurer's and president's offices ever read. The dashboard, in contrast, provides a quick overview of the institution, as an automobile's dashboard gives a driver an immediate sense of how well the car is running. Once a trustee has examined the dashboard's 30 pages or so, he or she will have received a thorough overview of all the key strategic indicators in areas like admissions, student retention, faculty salaries, budget, endowment, fund raising, and trustee giving.

During my first year as president, I worked at length with the board and top administrators to identify the most-important indicators to be included and how they would be designed for quick and easy understanding. The project took us a year to complete, with multiple drafts and enormous effort. The graphical presentation of particular challenges was especially problematic; the document needed a uniform look to promote easy comprehension, but each area of the college had its own internal ways of displaying information.

Yet my trustees consider the dashboard, now in its fourth year, indispensable. For example, graphs that depict, over the past five years, acceptance and yield rates for first-year students as well as retention and graduation rates have indicated a significant improvement over past totals. In response, the board has expressed interest in the college's developing a comprehensive first-year program to further increase retention.

More than providing information, the dashboard calls for accountability. The board uses it regularly as a reference to guide collegewide planning and decision making. This year, for instance, the board has begun preliminary discussions about a comprehensive fund-raising campaign. Contained in the dashboard is a record of fund-raising results in each academic and administrative area over the past five years. As a result, the trustees know the trends for the institution and can anticipate opportunities and challenges in the course of their planning.

The trustee report card. At this time of year, Pitzer students, like their counterparts at colleges across the country, are anxiously anticipating their final grades. Pitzer trustees have been relieved of any equivalent suspense because they have already received detailed annual reports summing up their performance.

While no grades are assigned, the report card lists each trustee's committee and meeting attendance as well as total giving to the annual fund, endowment, and capital campaign. A separate section contains a listing of all of his or her activities on behalf of the college — be it making annual-fund calls to fellow graduates, attending special college events, or holding a dinner to introduce the president to people in the community. The numerical totals of each trustee's report card are compared to those of other members of the board.

The report-card drafts are sent to trustees to examine for accuracy — and trustees take significant time and care making sure the information on the report card corresponds with their personal records — so that they can communicate any edits to the secretary of the board. For trustees who are approaching a three-year term renewal, their report cards are forwarded in the second year to the Trustee Composition and Procedures Committee. One of the members of that committee contacts other trustees who have not met the required giving totals, attendance expectations, or participation goals in other aspects of trusteeship to discuss how they can strengthen their performance.

The trustee report card, also in its fourth year, has had a profound and enormously generative effect upon the Pitzer board. A committee member contacted a longtime board member whose participation had noticeably decreased, and the two had a lengthy discussion about the role he could play in furthering the college's agenda. That trustee is now more involved than ever before and has, in fact, been actively engaged in some of the new projects that the board has initiated. For the first time, each trustee's performance is utterly transparent and summative. Perhaps most important, all trustees are clearly aware of expectations, even while they may find them difficult to always fulfill.

The dashboard and the trustee report card are both crucial ways to measure a college and its trustees. The benefits of the dashboard include increased interest and confidence in institutional data and a greater understanding of the drivers that inform and influence the college's operations. The trustee report card transforms what was once a secretive process into an open discussion, where the emphasis is always on how trustees can support the institution, fellow trustees, and the president.

There should be no mystery about how a college operates, no sour surprises for the board about institutional financial well-being, admissions results, advancement totals, or construction costs. There should be no secret formula for why one trustee remains on a board when another one leaves. Common sense dictates that it is much easier to hit a target when it is known and visible. The dashboard and report card help pinpoint those targets as well as provide greater clarity, understanding, and enhanced expectations for the board, president, and everyone involved with the college.

In this era of ever-increasing accountability and demonstrable outcomes, the institutional dashboard and trustee report card should be common standards in higher education. Only one out of every 6,000 Americans is a college trustee, and while it is an honor to be elected, a solemn responsibility comes along with service. The performance of higher-education institutions is increasingly being debated within academic ranks as well as in public forums, and trustees can only be as good as the information and feedback they receive. If trustees are appropriately educated about their college, and if their performance is regularly assessed, they will best serve the institution and ultimately our society.

Laura S. Trombley is president of Pitzer College.

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Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 53, Issue 36, Page B20

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