What Should a Board of Trustees Do?

MHC's board of trustees (Mary Graham Davis ’65 is second from left)

Mary Graham Davis ’65, chair of the Mount Holyoke College Board of Trustees, was recently named to a new National Commission on College and University Board Governance. Questioning Authority asked her about the group’s charge—to examine how boards of trustees govern higher education institutions and to make recommendations for improvement.

Questioning Authority: Boards of trustees can seem mysterious to those who don’t serve on or interact with them. What are the primary responsibilities of a good college board?

Mary Graham Davis: There are three main things. First is maintaining the institution’s sustainability financially and in terms of the outcomes it produces for students.

Second is having a strategy to make sure that, over time, the institution can address its mission while remaining financially sustainable. Right now, the emphasis here is on the cost of higher education and how a college can provide its students with an education that makes them valuable citizens who can be financially independent after graduation.

And the third area concerns board culture—the relationships among the board members and between the board and the president, students, parents, staff, faculty, and community. The goal is to have open dialogues emerge around problem solving that will generate outside-the-box solutions.

QA: Although we’ve heard about changes in what corporate boards do, the president of the Association of Governing Boards, Richard Legon, has said that educational board governance hasn’t changed in 300 years. What challenges face this commission?

MGD: The issues confronting higher education boards today are large and complex, and involve a tapestry of interwoven constituencies. Some of the changes in financial accountability standards that corporations have made since 2008 are trickling down to nonprofit boards. Also, accrediting organizations now ask questions about a college’s structure and educational outcomes in a more stringent way, and we need to be able to provide more data.

QA: How might the commission help higher education boards improve?

MGD: We’re exploring this big topic on several fronts, for example, by attending education conferences and by collecting information from educational associations and from individual board members at various institutions. We have an evolving list of things we want to tackle, and ultimately we’ll produce a report with specific recommendations.

QA: You spoke about board culture; what exactly is this?

MGD: I’m chairing a subcommittee on this topic. We’ll look at how individual board members garner respect, confidence, and the ability to speak up, and whether the board as a group welcomes conflicting ideas and healthy debates before a decision is made. Not enough time has been spent looking at the norms, behavior, and organizational dynamics of boards and their constituencies. So spending more time looking at the communication within boards and between boards and their constituents is going to be incredibly important.

—Interview conducted by Emily Harrison Weir