The following implications include what trustees told us could help them work more effectively and some of the key challenges they identified:
- Address gaps in trust as well as gaps in information. Our research found trustees do not always trust the information they get from administrators and staff. Creating regular opportunities for trustees to engage in collaborative dialogue with institutional leadership and carefully framing and facilitating that dialogue can help build trust.
- Provide trustees with orientations and peer-learning opportunities to help them understand and ask good questions about finances and other issues. Trustees told us they often feel overwhelmed by complex information and uncomfortable asking for help. Providing trustees with targeted information and creating time and space for them to ask questions could help them understand and serve their institutions better.
- Empower trustees to engage in student success issues without overstepping. Presidents and senior administrators can do more to educate trustees about innovations in teaching and learning. Associations of trustees and of higher education institutions can do more to help trustees understand pedagogical innovations so they can be in a better position to guide comprehensive universities through conversations with internal and external stakeholders about student success.
- Support trustees in advocating for their institutions with elected officials and policymakers. Trustees need to be able to advocate for their institutions with respect to transfer, financial aid and funding. This means they must be sufficiently informed about those policy priorities to discuss them with elected officials and policymakers.
- Guide governors and legislators in appointing strong and capable trustees. Trustees and presidents told us that if boards develop mechanisms to identify gaps in their own skills and connections, they can be better positioned to advocate for new appointees who meet their institutions’ needs.
- Clarify for trustees how to help their institutions serve as engines of regional economic development. Trustees, who sometimes have significant business connections, could be positioned to help their institutions understand and meet regional workforce needs. But their roles should be specified and formalized as part of a broader institutional workforce strategy.
- Grapple with the implications of discussing controversial issues in public. Having thoughtful, honest conversations about tough issues while ensuring the transparency of public institutions represents a challenge for higher education governance. Public universities, and the policymakers who determine how they will be governed, need to grapple with the implications of discussing controversial issues in public.