Hail Alma Mater: Board Roles and Responsibilities at Universities
With the school year fast approaching, higher education boards are busy preparing for students return to campus. With that in mind, here is an overview of board roles and responsibilities at universities.
College graduates take pride in their alma mater as they should. While they were busy studying and attending college events, the board was hard at work to make sure all students got the most from their college education.
Those who have had a great college experience naturally want to see their school thrive and prosper long after they leave. It’s common for people who have an affinity for a college to want to be involved in the school after graduation, either by becoming a donor or fundraiser, working at the school, or accepting a leadership position at the school.
One way to get more deeply involved in a university is to serve on the institution’s board. Learning first-hand how the wheels of leadership steer progress and innovation is surely a rewarding experience.
University boards carry many critical responsibilities. Each board member must understand their role and fulfill their duties to the best of their abilities.
Board Responsibilities of Higher Education Board Members
Boards of higher education institutions have a responsibility for governance, finance, fundraising, and student success. Let’s look at each of them individually.
The board has a responsibility to act as a unit. When an issue comes up to a vote, each board member can vote their conscience. However, if the vote doesn’t go their way, they have a responsibility to accept and support the decision of the majority.
Board members also have a responsibility to serve the good of the public and support the community. In the spirit of transparency, board members are responsible to create a culture that demonstrates they are actively monitoring the performance of the institution – financially and otherwise.
In part, the work of a board member requires them to work with other board members to establish policies that support the university’s mission.
One of the most important responsibilities of a board member is to recruit and higher the college president. A college president may go by other names such as a principal, chancellor, vice chancellor, provost, or rector. Once a president accepts a position, the board is responsible for evaluating the individual annually and supporting them in their role.
Much of a board member’s responsibility relates to responsible budgeting and good fiscal management. Each year they must adapt a sound budget and review it before every board meeting. During their reviews, they must assess incoming revenue, outgoing expenses, and cash balances. In making decisions to approve expenditures, board members should take financial metrics into account.
Board members must also be sure the budget reflects the college’s mission and strategic plan. Another annual task of board members is to hire an external auditor and carefully review the audit report.
Most universities, both public and private, get some form of federal aid. Federal aid can have a considerable impact on student outcomes. The amount of federal aid also impacts the staff, enrollment levels, and overall revenue. A primary fiduciary responsibility of board members is to advocate at the federal level for much-needed financial aid.
Board members are expected to be available at all board meetings, and they may be required to serve on one or more committees. They need to be willing to ask probing questions, listen to various perspectives, and be engaged in board discussions.
Above all, board members are responsible for compliance and they must follow the law at all costs.
Board members are expected to participate in fundraising efforts as well as make a personal contribution to the university themselves. Board members are generally visible to people within the community, and they bring legitimacy to the school’s fundraising efforts. They must also support the president in bringing in additional revenue. By being dedicated fundraisers, board members can be strong advocates for the university.
Effective governance leads to student success in higher education. Board members play a role in ensuring all students have equal access to their college education regardless of their race, creed, ethnicity, ability, or gender. They do this by developing policies that allow all students equal access to classes and programs.
Board Roles and the Associated Responsibilities of Board Members
University boards may be called by various names such as —Board of Trustees, Board of Regents, or Board of Governors. Whatever their name, the board is the ultimate decision maker. For example, they could decide to change the school calendar, eliminate or add a program, provide transportation for students, or even shut the college down.
Boards typically meet quarterly, although, they sometimes meet more often. It’s generally best for boards to meet in person, however, virtual meetings are becoming more commonplace.
Harvard University provides a good example of what should be expected of a higher education board. There are several roles within the board, and the individuals who serve in each role may change from year to year. The board roles include:
President (chancellor, vice-chancellor, principal, rector, provost, etc.)
The president of the board is an officer. The primary duty of the president of the board is to preside over meetings. This individual works very closely with the executive director, also known as the CEO, and sometimes the provost. The board president must know and understand the bylaws and policies as a leader of the board. The board president sets the tone and culture of the board. The person who fills this role must try to engage other board members, give each of them a voice, and not allow board members to monopolize discussions.
Vice Chair (Vice President)
The vice chair, who is also an officer, fills the role of president if the president is not available to preside over a meeting. Often, the president serves as a mentor to the vice chair. the vice chair may succeed the president.
Also a board officer, the secretary is responsible for taking board accurate board meeting minutes. This individual prepares the final minutes and distributes them to the rest of the board for approval.
The board secretary is also responsible for maintaining all or university compliance documents and records used in board meetings. They must make them available for board members and bodies that regulate the university. The secretary stores the articles of incorporation, bylaws, employee contact lists, financial records, and other documents. A board management solution is an ideal place for secretaries to store documents where all board members have access to them at any time.
The treasurer, also an officer of the board, is responsible for paying bills and managing the bank accounts, loans, and credit cards. The basic role of the treasurer is to oversee the college’s financial transactions, financial reports, and the overall financial health of the school. The treasurer may have other duties as outlined in their job description.
General Counsel (university counsel)
This role is filled by an attorney who has the expertise in higher education and issues related to campus activities. This person manages legal conflicts between administrators, staff, and students as well as third parties. The attorney may or may not be an official part of the board.
CEO (executive director, provost, etc.)
The CEO of a university is also sometimes part of the board. The person filling this position works closely with the board president. The CEO is responsible for administering programs and activities for the school. The CEO typically makes policy recommendations and all matters that affect the institution to the board.
Regardless of the role, all board members must be inquisitive, visionary, and strategic thinkers. Board members must have a strong sense of ethics and integrity. They must be willing to ask hard questions and take a stand even if they are a minority. A well-rounded, diverse board of trustees makes for an innovative, responsible, and effective board.