Getting boards some respect

It’s  humbling for a governance geek like me to confront (again) the brutal truth that board work isn’t much understood or valued by much of anyone beyond the CEO and maybe a few other senior staff.

It’s also helpful.

Sequestered from the hoi polloi, board members begin to believe they’re the center of the organization’s universe and that all else revolves around them and their precious actions. There’s value in calling board members and those of us who champion them back to reality from time to time.

Which is what’s happening for me as I lead a group of would-be college administrators through an on-line course titled “Organizational Culture and Governance.” These 20-somethings have no qualms about labeling boards as superfluous to college as they know it. Most have never met a board member, and they can’t think of a thing the board ever did for them.

This shouldn’t surprise, I suppose. After all, it’s rare for faculty, let alone students, to interact with trustees. For the most part, the board operates in isolation from the campus community.  It’s little wonder its existence is barely acknowledged by students and faculty.  In governance, as in most areas of life, out of sight is out of mind.


Over the coming weeks, I hope to correct the mis-perceptions my students have about boards of trustees, and not just because that’s what I’m being paid to do. I take up the challenge because I really, truly believe no college or university (or any other nonprofit, for that matter) will be stronger than its governance. And although many stakeholders contribute to the process, I believe strong governance begins with strong boards.

In an essay titled “Practicing Governance in the Light of Faith,” David Hester raises a question that I am eager to answer for myself and my students over the coming weeks. He asks: “How can the practice of governance be taught and learned in ways that are appropriate to understanding it is a sacred calling, in which the purpose served is, first and last, God’s purpose?”

For the good of the institutions where they’ll one day lead, I want my students not simply to put up with trustees. I want them to value board members as allies, as partners in shared vocation to the school and its students.

I may be humbled, but I’m not discouraged. I’m determined to get boards some respect, beginning with the 18 students in my course. It’s a good start.

What's your take on this topic?

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