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The Campanile of Trinity College, Dublin is a bell tower and one of its most iconic landmarks

Campus Culture: Governance Challenges Facing Higher Education Boards

It was just two years ago that COVID-19 took root in colleges and universities, and higher education boards had to scramble fast to solve the problems the virus was creating. While students are back on campus, higher education has been forever changed due to the pandemic.

The severity of the pandemic has diminished, yet it is having lingering effects on college campuses. New strains of the virus continue to emerge year after year. The symptoms of new strains of COVID vary in how serious and contagious they are. As new information becomes available, higher education boards will need to decide on testing and quarantine requirements for students and staff.

Moreover, boards will need to deal with the problems that were already on their agendas. To compound matters even more, boards must also deal with the impact of global problems such as the war in Ukraine, inflation, and a looming recession.

Considering these issues, 2022 may challenge higher education boards with a major restructuring of their operations. We’ll look at what has changed in governance in higher education post-pandemic and best practices for governance in higher education moving forward.

How COVID Has Changed Governance

Some things have not changed since the pandemic started. Many higher education boards were already struggling with major issues such as enrollment, budgeting, cybersecurity, ESG, diversity and inclusion, digital transformation, and the list goes on. No college or university was prepared well enough to deal with a pandemic. While boards adapted and muddled through as best they could, the pandemic hit so swiftly and with such great force that it impacted campus cultures ubiquitously. With these things in mind, we’ll look at a few areas where COVID has forced governance changes at colleges and universities.

Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG)

Many higher education boards were already working on ESG initiatives before the pandemic. Now that things have settled down, it’s time to advance their ESG programs. The focus must be on building ESG principles into the college or university’s strategy and purpose to enhance the school’s standing with stakeholders. Developing or improving reporting will help emphasize their commitment to ESG.

Enterprise Risk Management (ERM)

COVID-19 generated new risks for higher education institutions. Enterprise risk management (ERM) was also a top priority for many schools before the pandemic. Many boards had already been dealing with how to modernize their ERM strategy. The challenges with ERM include the following:

  • Establishing a risk culture and tone at the top
  • Identifying, assessing, and managing risks
  • Monitoring and reporting risks
  • Preventing internal and external fraud
  • Establishing a common framework that aligns roles and responsibilities across functions


The need for remote classes has expanded the cyberattack surface of higher education systems. Students and faculty members are connecting to school systems on their own devices from various locations and causing new vulnerabilities. For example, PwC reports that attackers stole data from a university and published it online. Moreover, the “bring your own device” (BYOD) culture is challenging traditional security controls.

Moving forward, colleges and universities will need to develop a comprehensive response to cybersecurity that encompasses fully understanding the attack surface and threat environment, monitoring systems, and bolstering security for external networks.

Becoming a “Digital University”

The pandemic also called the need for higher education institutions to become “digital universities” to the boards’ attention. Pre-pandemic, colleges and universities were in various stages of the digital journey.

Colleges and universities would do well to work on end-to-end automation that leverages automation and aligns it with broader IT goals. Boards will be challenged in this area by getting everyone on board with adopting and scaling a large volume of digital solutions. To be successful in this area, boards will need to create a robust governance framework that factors in avoiding key risks, including program failures. Overall, boards will need to find a way to accelerate the digital journey to prepare for another pandemic or equally debilitating crisis.

Modern Leadership

As the pandemic has changed the world, school leaders have had to embody the types of leadership qualities the future world needs as they stand as models for students. Students will benefit from global influences and local influences so they can see the needs in the world more genuinely. One way to do this may be to partner with other universities worldwide on projects. Students will benefit by being encouraged to learn more about various political systems and economies to have a more integrated worldview. Such mindsets could solve big problems like climate change, green transportation, and healthcare. Students would also benefit by learning from the mistakes and successes of the greatest modern innovators.

Best practices for governance in higher education will pave the way for the changes that will be necessary for the coming years to prepare students for successful career and leadership positions.

Best Practices for Governance in Higher Education in 2022

Higher education boards will need to learn from past challenging economic times, such as the recession of 2008. That said, the consequences of the pandemic were far worse than the downturn in the real estate market nearly 15 years ago. Boards will need to start talking about how to prepare and plan for a future pandemic.

College enrollments have suffered greatly since the pandemic, and boards will need to start focusing on how to recruit students. This will help get revenues flowing. As important as this is, it’s also important to recognize that families may not be able to contribute as much to college expenses as they have in the past due to inflation and an impending recession.

Boards will also benefit by creating a plan to build a culture of trust from the ground up and incorporate that culture into their mission, vision, and processes. Transparency plays a role in building a culture of trust, but it should be intentional rather than reactionary.

Best practices for good governance also require financial responsibility. Boards will need to assess their cash flow in light of the changes COVID has brought and build a response plan. Scenario modeling will be important for assessing when to scale and when to postpone projects that require capital.

Lastly, quarantines made it difficult for higher education boards to meet in person. Moving forward, they may want to develop policies and processes that incorporate hybrid meetings where some or all members can participate in board meetings remotely. A board management solution such as BoardEffect provides all the tools boards need to conduct board business during and outside of meetings. Moving into 2022, a board management solution is a worthwhile investment.

Theresa Sintetos

Content Strategist and Operations Manager with six years of growth in the same company, moving up from social media specialist to executive strategy and director of operations. Skilled in research, writing and editing broad range of content.

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