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V5I3: The Important Role of Boards in the Governance of Accreditation


Paul N. Friga, Ph.D. and Chris Moloney, Ph.D., Association of Governing Boards

The Governing Board and Accreditation

Accreditation is one of the hallmarks of higher education and serves a critical role building and maintaining public trust that our cherished colleges and universities will deliver on their promise of quality education for all. In recent years, however, public trust in higher education has eroded. At the same time that pressure on accreditors to assure that students’ best interests and public funding mandates for outcomes are being met has increased. The members of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities know this and have identified the importance of governance in this process.

The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) has a long history of working with boards, trustees, and institutions to strengthen governance, institutional prosperity, and student success. In 2022, AGB teamed with CHEA, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, to identify updated accreditation guidance for boards of both public and private institutions operating in the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment that defines the modern era of higher education.

We believe that higher education is undergoing significant transformation and, as the chief stewards of the mission of colleges and universities, boards must play an active role in setting strategy, monitoring results, and ensuring their institutions have the capacity and capability to fulfil accreditation requirements. The importance of good board governance to the long-term health, sustainability, and prosperity of America’s system of higher education cannot be understated. To be blunt, the highest performing, most successful institutions often have the highest performing boards and most robust governance structures. Good, and great, governance is paramount as leaders of colleges and universities deal with declining enrollments, challenging fiscal management, civil unrest, stress on campuses and overall increases in accountability.

A Journey of Collaborative Governance

The first step is education for boards. Many trustees and regents, while loyal champions of their schools, may lack a deep understanding of the unique nature of higher education and the consequences of macro forces on each institution’s pursuit of its mission. AGB often delivers educational programs, workshops, retreats and assessments with a goal of educating board members on how they can operationalize changes in the world at large to changes in system or campus level strategy. From a governance perspective, a diverse board can offer valuable insights for a campus but must be clear on its role vs the role of the cabinet and management. Shown below is a diagram of the key elements of navigating such a journey of collaborative governance.

We begin by understanding the potential gap between the current positioning and offerings of an institution with the changing external environment. Questions to ask include “what are the three most important macro forces that will affect our ability to execute on our strategic plan?”, “are we operating at a positive operating margin and what are our projections?” and “do we offer degrees and non-degree programs that are aligned with student and employer demand?”. Another aspect of the environment to consider is external influences. Boards need to be solely focused on their role as stewards of the institution and its mission. Even while interacting with other groups, board priorities and actions must be focused on the long-term success of the college or university. Individual board members must take the initiative to learn about the standards of accreditation and how they relate to board ongoing and potential future discussions.

When it comes to setting strategy, boards should be involved early, provide input, approve and monitor strategic plans or frameworks. It is important to allow the leaders of the institution actually craft and implement the strategy – for better content and buy-in for implementation. The board should be engaged in helping identify high-level strategic directions or imperatives and should ask for dashboards and high-level results. Boards should not get involved in operational or management level decisions on campus, but certainly should be advocates for university philanthropy.

Finally, the board should ensure that strategy and action are aligned with mission. Accreditation always starts with mission and differentiation: why is this particular institution here and what is the unique value-add? Modern strategic planning has to be shorter and focused on a smaller set of priorities that really matter to the institution. Boards can approve overall budgets, and help allocated necessary resources, but should also be involved in multi-year forecasting and return on investment conversations.

Taking Action

How do we accomplish better governance, both to strengthen the institution overall and specifically related to achieving more positive accreditation outcomes? As noted, AGB has been a vocal advocate for strengthening higher education governance for over 100 years, and has published numerous articles and reports, including two with CHEA (2009 and 2022), specifically focused on the board and trustee’s role in accreditation.

First, it is critical that trustees and the board understand the accreditation standards and expectations of their national (formerly regional) accrediting organization, and in particular any specific requirements or expectations that directly relate to board or campus-wide governance. Many institutions across the country come up short when evaluated on issues of campus shared governance, a complex and challenging issue, but one that AGB helps institutions navigate on a frequent basis. Likewise, while AGB strongly urges that all governing boards engage in regular, reflective, board self-assessment, particularly with an external, expert facilitator, too many neglect this opportunity to identify issues before they become problems and instead treat regular board self-assessment as a “check-the-box” exercise. This could be a mistake, since external facilitators bring an awareness of what other, innovative and strong boards are doing, which can be incredibly helpful.

Second, even though institutional re-accreditation may occur only once during a board member’s service, the stakes are high and rising, meaning this is an event and process that all trustees must be well-versed in and able to support. Long gone are the days when a higher education trustee could fly in for a board meeting and then alight, never to return reengage until the next committee or full-board meeting. While American higher education governance is defined by the voluntary nature of trusteeship, acting as a high-performing individual fiduciary, increasingly resembles a job (in some cases almost a full-time job!). In other words, individual board members must engage at a deeper level and embrace the principles of trusteeship (which AGB has written a book about), namely understanding governance, thinking strategically, and leading by example. To the extent that individual trustees embrace the principles of trusteeship, the anatomy of the board as a collective, including its culture, processes, policies and ability to exercise strong governance in collaboration with the Chief Executive, will improve. The best boards, and thus those with the greatest capacity and capability to support accreditation efforts, will have the right high performing trustees, connected with the right relationships to each other, the chief executive, the campus and the community, oriented toward the right strategic focus.

Finally, it is worth highlighting and summarizing the key recommendations from the AGB-CHEA joint statement on governance and accreditation, depicted graphically below:

You may have noticed a common theme of advice for boards centers around education. Many board members have not been exposed to the unique objectives of higher education accreditation, but this is easily addressed by bringing in external speakers, attend conferences, which can now both be achieved a lower cost thanks to worldwide transition to virtual meeting platforms. Moreover, seeking external expertise is a great way to elevate meaningful real-world examples and self-studies that can assist the board in learning more about accreditation and ensuring that the university is continually on track.

Advice for CEOs (Presidents and Chancellors), not surprisingly emphasizes finding ways to engage the board and keep them appropriately informed regarding the accreditation process. However, the institutional leader and his or her team, also bear the responsibility of ensuring campus stakeholder groups, especially faculty, are engaged in the accreditation process, as well as lifting back up to the board any critical issues raised in the review process that require their attention and input. We recommend reading the full report from AGB, issued in collaboration with CHEA and wish you the best in your governance of accreditation.

About AGB

The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) is the premier organization focused on empowering college, university, and foundation boards to govern with knowledge and confidence. Over its 100+ year history, AGB has been at the forefront in advocating for America’s unique system of higher education governance and supporting institutions of all types as they navigate both governance and strategic challenges. Governing boards and institutional leaders in higher education must focus now more than ever on strategic leadership of their institutions and foundations to ensure institutional vitality and student success. It is critical that they reinforce the value of higher education, innovate through the effective use of technology, and serve the needs of a shifting demographic. AGB provides leadership and consulting advisory services to Higher Education boards, chief executives, staff, policymakers, and other key industry leaders to help them navigate the changing education landscape.

About the Authors:

Paul N. Friga, PhD, is a clinical associate professor of strategy at the UNC Kenan-Flagler School of Business, senior consultant at AGB and a former Trustee at Saint Francis University.

Chris Moloney, PhD, is the senior director of AGB Consulting and a teacher and scholar in higher education, serving as an instructor for multiple institutions, including Colorado State University.

Additional AGB Resources Noted in this Article:

  1. AGB – CHEA Joint Advisory Statement on Accreditation and Governing Boards – 2022
  2. Principles of Trusteeship
  3. Anatomy of Good Board Governance in Higher Education
  4. Improve Your University’s Governance

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