Higher Education Policy and Practice

The Trustees’ Role in Institutional Innovation

Innovation is fine with the stasists among us…as long as nothing changes.

Most people like to think of themselves as wise dynamists (those willing and able to adapt to changes in our environment) as opposed to the silly stasists (those trying to keep things the same despite the plethora of changes consuming their world). The truth is that no-one can really claim righteousness when it comes to mustering the courage required to take significant risks and to make major change. It’s excruciatingly hard! Our commendations for innovators often only arise after their success is obvious. Before that, they can seem quite annoying to most of us. The truth is that nearly all of us have been enemies of necessary change in at least some circumstance, and often it takes a crisis to shake sense into us.

Crisis conditions require that responsible, conservative and even timid folks work to take measured risks and make innovative change happen. In higher education generally, that time is now. And we, as college and university trustees, are the agents responsible for cultivating and overseeing that innovative change.

To make change, we must recognize and deal with the barriers to change. In higher education, the most significant barriers are people and organizations. Many of these enemies of change are goodhearted folks (we trustees, presidents, some faculties, alumni and other true friends of a college) acting out of the security of what they know and an understandable fear of change. At the other end of the spectrum are the self-possessed or self-interested individuals, groups, organizations or guilds (some faculties, educational organizations and accreditors and our current US Department of Education) militantly defending the status quo, holding the fort against those they see or wish to paint as cretins, charlatans or both.

Some of these barriers to change are near or within our control and some are exogenous. We trustees are the first barrier, and without the elimination of that barrier, innovation in higher education will not occur.

My colleagues and I at Stevens Strategy study change and help colleges and universities create environments where it is possible thoughtfully to consider and implement major change. Many of our consultants serve as trustees, presidents, faculty and senior administrators of institutions struggling with the process of change and innovation. Let me tell you about my experience (as a trustee, not as a consultant) with innovation at one institution of higher education.

I became a trustee at New England College in 1999 when a new president there, who had been a client at her previous institution, asked me if I would be willing to sit on the board to bring a higher education management perspective to it. The college had been declining for some time. Despite her efforts at curricular change and the opening of new markets and venues, the college’s downward spiral continued. Her hard work toward strategic change was rebuffed by the faculty with support from alumni, local residents and students. This push/pull scenario developed and continued despite huge financial losses and depressingly low enrollments that threatened the survival of the college. Were the faculty and alumni not the true enemies of change here, placing their own shortsighted interests above those of the college? The honest answer we found was “no,” the true enemies were we, the members of the board. Over time, we had created a confused governance structure (where cozy relationships between faculty, alumni and board members preserved stasis by promoting quid pro quo decision-making) and weakened our chief executive. The path to this outcome was a board mixing passive attributes (abrogating its big picture policy-making and measurement responsibilities) with operating attributes (focusing on crisis decision-making and day-to-day matters often frustrating the president’s plans). Our board had found a way to utilize the two extremes of poor board decision-making. Our president, who had struggled mightily to move the college in the direction of innovation, resigned amid faculty assault.

Terrible enrollment, deep financial distress, threatened survival, a recalcitrant and angry faculty and then no president: That’s a pretty good definition of crisis…and a real incentive to change. I’ve learned as a long-time consultant that colleges in deep trouble almost always have poorly performing boards. Before these colleges can mediate their troubles, they need to fix their boards. New England College was no exception. This low point showed the New England College board that, before the college’s death spiral could be halted, it needed to remove the first barrier to change.

It needed to change the way it governed.

Then it had systematically to remove the other barriers. It needed to teach the college community about their proper roles in the governance of the institution, and not waiver when good governance policy was challenged. Finally, it needed to create internal structures that would support innovative change. I am proud to say our board was successful in removing the barriers to change over which it had reasonable control, and it has made enough progress with the exogenous barriers (more on them later) to provide enough freedom to offer some innovative programming.

I served as board chair during much of this transition period, and for about a year I served simultaneously as board chair and interim president. I should note here that my service was provided on a pro bono basis. And I don’t know that I would recommend that every board chair try the chair/president stunt at home. I believe the board asked me to try it because the institution was in a leadership crisis and I had consulting experience helping boards to do their jobs better and helping college communities to learn to work together to make difficult decisions. Nonetheless, some internal constituents, like faculty and alumni and some of my trustee colleagues, and external observers, like accreditors and some governance aficionados, wondered whether I was a self-serving charlatan seeking the permanent presidency, a kook or both. I think the accreditors resisted the temptation to object because it caught them by surprise and it was kind of fun to watch anyway. Thank goodness, because we wouldn’t have been able to fix things if they had objected. The internal objectors saw that I and the board were turning the New England College governance world upside down, and some fought hard to maintain the power they had amassed under the board’s long standing quid pro quo governance paradigm. My job was to teach governance discipline to the board and to show the campus community that a truly shared governance system would give them honest participation in the decisions to move the college forward; but regardless, forward the college would move. In retrospect, I can understand the kook allegation.

The blueprint for innovative change that we followed is described below. Certainly there was a period of initial tumult, but the board stood firm, and today, less than a decade later, New England College can boast about its exceptional president and an enrollment four times that which it had recorded at its nadir. About half of the college’s students are enrolled in its traditional undergraduate programs. The other half is enrolled in a variety of offsite, distance learning and limited residence (hybrid) undergraduate and graduate programs. Its president, administration and faculty offer and develop quickly new market sensitive programs with a modicum of contentiousness (it is the real world after all). Nearly all of these non-traditional programs are cohort based, meaning that the college doesn’t commit to a program unless sufficient enrollment is in place to sustain it financially. The college will move soon to a 12-month calendar and a trimester system to optimize on-campus space, and it will seek another doubling of enrollment by continuing to institute additional market sensitive traditional and non-traditional programs that utilize technology effectively. As it hasn’t achieved its optimum size yet, its finances, like those of any small college, require constant vigilance. With infrequent exception, the college enjoys substantial annual surpluses, and its endowment is growing.

So, here’s the blueprint for boards of trustees to battle the enemies of innovative change.

  • Realize that if your college is in stasis mode, you are likely enemy number one. Take action to change the behavior of your board. To do that, you need to know your job:
    1. Realize that you, and only you, have the duty and ultimate responsibility for all matters at your institution.
    2. Focus your attention on institutional mission, direction, values, clientele, programs, services and finances. There are people at your institution who know more than you in each of these areas. Listen to them, but never abrogate to them your duty and responsibility to make the policy decisions in these areas.
    3. Hire a great president. Delegate management of the institution to your president. Support your president in every possible way. But step up, and replace a weak president quickly and decisively.
    4. Measure and evaluate your performance, the performance of the president and of the institution in each of the areas listed above.

At New England College, these four steps toward doing our job well were integral to the transformation of the college. We experienced some changes in the membership of the board when some of us were not comfortable with the new role required.

  • Work with your president to teach everyone in your campus community their roles in the governance of the institution. At New England College, our board participated in a broad-based collaborative discussion that resulted in clear definition and codification of everyone’s governance roles. And then the college conducted a highly collaborative strategic planning process, reinforcing those governance roles. Boards also need to let the college know you will never engage in or second-guess the president’s responsibility to manage the institution. It is vitally important to let the faculty know that while their domain of authority includes the delivery of academic programs, the board—and only the board—decides which programs the institution will offer based upon the faculty’s and the president’s advice. Never blink when your governance role is challenged.
  • Work with your president to set up institutional decision-making structures that foster innovation. At New England College, distance education and graduate programs were set up as separate divisions with separate faculties. Our undergraduate faculty, despite all the best intentions, was not equipped for innovative thinking at that time, so the president set up new structures that respected the domain of the faculty. Even so, our regional accrediting agency paid some attention to this structural change and was skeptical and limiting for some time with respect to our distance education and off-site programs. They are more comfortable now. When we collaboratively redrafted campus policy documents, including the faculty handbook, we made sure that the board had the option to set hard time limits for faculty to consider academic program matters. Not meeting a time limit means passing on the issue.
  • You must insist on strategic planning, financial modeling and regular reporting on institutional performance with the implementation of your institution’s strategic plan. But to be innovative, that’s not enough. You and your president must engage your institution in regular generative discussions, which Dick Chait and his colleagues describe as explorations that challenge traditional boundaries and thinking and envision new ways of doing business that respect your institution’s values. In other words, identifying sacred cows and de-sanctifying those unworthy of the status. At New England College, we held generative sessions at every meeting of the board. Many of our efforts in areas like distance education and hybrid programs, for instance, resulted from these institution-wide discussions with the board.

That’s what took New England College from damaging stasis toward measured innovation. But for higher education in America to become a truly innovative industry, we need to consider and test significantly scarier ideas; ideas like Mike Townsley’s 3-year undergraduate college of professional education with a very limited liberal arts core (click here to review Mike’s blog). Or a breakthrough idea developed by two Stevens Strategy consultants that revolutionizes the delivery of instruction and the role of faculty in undergraduate residential colleges (potential investors are invited to review a confidential prospectus by contacting me at [email protected]).

With these scarier ideas, the enemies of innovation are also exogenous, not in any individual college’s direct control. Unfortunately, under the leadership of our current US Department of Education and as a result of the pressures they are exerting on accreditors, we are currently being led toward stasis. I must note that this sort of overreaching by DOE has occurred in some Republican administrations as well.

But the current DOE’s assault on distance education is a major example of stasist thinking in regulatory organizations that inhibits innovation. Here are just some of the new DOE rules barring entry into the distance education market and making continuing delivery difficult for all but the most sophisticated institutions:

  • Required authorization from other state for home-state distance education degree programs that
    • enroll just one student resident in the other state; or
    • employ just one administrator or faculty member resident in the other state; or
    • maintain a PO Box, phone number or server located in the other state; or
    • advertise in the other state
  • Rules that bar an institution from assessing recruiter performance based upon application and admittance outcomes
  • A traditional classroom-based definition of a credit hour incompatible with distance education
  • A definition of “last day of attendance” that is prejudiced against distance learning

The non-profit sector of higher education was caught napping with these new DOE regulations, because many thought they would affect the for-profit sector only. That is not the case, and even now, the fight against these stasist policies is being fought primarily by the for-profits.

This is where trustees, college presidents and other institutional leaders working in organizations like ACE, AGB, CIC, NAICU, NACUBO, SHEEO, AASCU and the myriad other national education organizations need to bring united pressure on the US Department of Education and regional accrediting associations to recognize legitimate experiments that are not anticipated by their regulations and standards or that run counter to their orthodoxy. Only then will American higher education be able to become truly innovative.

John A. Stevens, EdD
President, Stevens Strategy

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