Articles & Updates

V5I3: Letter from the President

Mar. 29, 2023 ⋅ Categories: Beacon, President


Governance: The Final Frontier

Sonny Ramaswamy, President, NWCCU

On a recent flight to Atlanta to attend a conference, “Making the Grade: Strategies for Success in Higher Education,” I started writing this essay on governance.

As I thought about it, I was reminded that governance is indeed the final frontier, i.e., the often unknown, secretive, inscrutable, sometimes disconnected enterprise in higher education, which the faculty, staff, students, parents, alumni, and the public are disconnected from and often know nothing about.

We know governance can make or break an institution.

As I thought about governance being the final frontier, I was reminded of when I came to America in January 1976 for my Ph.D. in entomology, during which I studied German cockroach sexual behavior and reproduction at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ.

A Rutgers graduate had arranged for my housing at the Quaker House, a gorgeous 19th Century Colonial, located at 33 Remsen Avenue. The Friends, i.e., Quakers, met once a week for their prayer meetings at the Quaker House; intrigued about the Quakers, whom I knew nothing about, being an FOB (Fresh Off the Boat), I attended a few of their meetings and found them to be refreshingly worldly, and not at all parochial.

The residents of Quaker House included an array of graduate students, predominantly Caucasian Americans, one African American, and a few from India and Africa. I was introduced to pizza, along with copious amounts of beer, and American Football and learned the rules of the game. I watched the playoffs that season and the Super Bowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers with Terry Bradshaw and the Dallas Cowboys with Roger Staubach (which Pittsburgh won 21-17 and, to date, the Steelers are one of my favorite teams).

At the Quaker House, I was also introduced to Star Trek on television. My housemates gave me a primer on the same and we watched it religiously every evening. What has stuck in my memory through all these decades is the show started with the intonation, “Space, A Final Frontier,” and the starship Enterprise flying across the screen into the void!

Space, like governance, is for the most part still unknown, has lots of secrets, is inscrutable, and people on Earth are disconnected with and oblivious of it. And yet, Space and its constituents affect everything we do on Earth, not too dissimilar to governance and governing boards affecting every aspect of an institution’s being.

The word governance as a noun refers to the act or process of governing or overseeing the control and direction of something, such as a college or university, a company, or a non-profit organization.

When asked, most everyone can define governance; however, they most likely would use various other words to describe the term, without actually defining what it is, because the meaning of governing, governance, etc. are context dependent and in the eye of the beholder. This situation is not too dissimilar to the “I know it, when I see it” statement attributed to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who used it in the context of a 1964 case on obscenity in which they needed to define pornography.

Foundational to governance and governing bodies, such as Boards of Trustees or Regents, are strategy and tactic.

Governance! It can often be the defining part of the success or failure of an organization.

In my experience, the most successful institutions of higher education are characterized by governance structures and governing boards whose members have an excellent, cooperative, collaborative, and supportive relationship with the institution’s administration and yet hold it accountable; are trustworthy and trust the institutional administration to manage the day to day affairs; have distinctly defined board structure and function; have clear and transparent board processes, norms, and values; are deeply knowledgeable about the institution and its academic enterprise, mission, and enterprise, including its business and operations; hold themselves accountable and undertake routine self-evaluations, are passionate advocates for the institution; adhere to the principle of continuous process improvement, outcomes, and ethics; focus on value creation, effective control, and legitimacy of their efforts, and last but not least, do not let their personal or political views influence their work and, rather, are singularly focused on the institution’s success.

Along the above lines, in an excellent essay published in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, McKinsey and Company offer simple and effective insights for effective governing boards, including: setting and monitoring shared purpose and strategy; recruiting, hiring, supporting, and evaluating the institution’s chief executive officer; undertaking assessment of governance performance objectives; providing oversight and support of budget priorities and fundraising and other development activities; helping set and evaluate institutional performance indicators, particularly as related to student success and closing equity gaps; ensuring risk mitigation and management, particularly as related to local, state, and federal regulations, accreditation, and other legal and regulatory obligations; and serving as ambassadors and advocates for the institution with its various stakeholders.

In considering the critical duties board members must be cognizant of and exercise, experts point to the Duty of Care, Duty of Loyalty, and Duty of Obedience that often are tied to fiduciary responsibilities, but which in my mind are relevant more broadly, particularly trust, as it relates to the relationship between a trustee and the institution.

Duty of Care refers to the obligation to provide the level of care to protect the interests of the institution, setting aside personal or professional interests, which derives from: Being knowledgeable about and adhering to the bylaws and policies of the board, the institution, and applicable regulations and laws; practicing good governance; respecting and soliciting input from all members of the board; becoming informed about the institution’s mission, goals, and strategic direction; being prepared for board and committee meetings; actively participating in meetings; being alert to potential concerns and problems; becoming knowledgeable about the various issues and topics being considered before making decisions; providing guidance by contributing to institution’s culture, strategic focus, effectiveness, and financial sustainability; serving as fiduciaries by ensuring prudent use of all assets, including facilities, people, and good will; and fulfilling legal duties and obligations.

Duty of Loyalty relates to conflicts of interest, particularly in the context of political, social, economic, and financial self-interest and personal gain. What this requires is absolute and undivided allegiance to the institution and its well-being. Additional aspects of the Duty of Loyalty include ensuring that the institution’s activities and transactions advance its mission; stressing group welfare, consensus, and unity in governance and decision-making; making decisions that are in the best interest of the institution; and serving as ambassadors and advocates.

Duty of Obedience relates to respecting the limits of the governance structure’s power and using that power to help the institution fulfill its mission. In addition, Duty of Obedience requires ensuring the institution obeys applicable state and federal laws and regulations and NWCCU Standards, Eligibility Requirements, and Policies; and, adhering to the roles and responsibilities defined via the board’s bylaws, policies, purpose, and mission.

In addition to the above Duties, the Association of Governing Boards reminds us of the importance of the Duty to Act in Good Faith, which requires board members to exercise diligence, competence, and objectivity, and the Duty to Serve the Public Interest, which is about fiduciary responsibilities.

Aligned with federal regulations and in support of institutional well-being, NWCCU has explicit Standards and Eligibility Requirements related to governance and governing boards and their roles and responsibilities, including Standards 1.B.4, 2.A.1, 2.A.3, 2.D.3, and 2.E.3 and Eligibility Requirements 9, 10, and 11.

In addition, NWCCU offers various resources, webinars, workshops, and training sessions related to governance and governing boards, in partnership with various experts, including representatives of the Association of Governing Boards (AGB) and Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT).

Articles by AGB and ACCT related to governing issues are included in this edition of The Beacon.

In closing, at the Atlanta conference I referenced at the beginning of this article, “Making the Grade: Strategies for Success in Higher Education,” I had the privilege of listening to various experts, including retired Judge Stephen Robinson, a Cornell University Board of Trustees member. I was inspired by his comments regarding the role of board members; he stated, “their allegiance is to the institution and not their self-interest or political motivations, nor is to the president.” Board members, he said, “ensure that the institution is successful in achieving its mission and is there for the future.

From my perspective, good governance isn’t easy; it requires hard work to achieve the common good for the institution.


After I wrote my essay on governance and governing boards, on a lark, I decided on asking OpenAI’s ChatGPT, the generative artificial intelligence (AI) application that’s been in the news and which appears to be able to respond to all manner of queries, to respond to my question, “What is the most effective approach to governance in higher education?”

ChatGPT’s response is copied and pasted below verbatim:

The most effective governance of higher education depends on various factors, including the political, economic, and cultural context in which it operates. However, there are some general principles that can be followed to promote effective governance in higher education. These include:

  1. Autonomy: Universities and colleges should have sufficient autonomy to make decisions about their academic programs, research, and student affairs. This autonomy should be balanced with accountability to stakeholders, including students, faculty, staff, and the public.
  2. Transparency: Higher education institutions should be transparent in their decision-making processes, budgeting, and policies. This includes providing access to information about the institution’s performance, finances, and governance.
  3. Stakeholder engagement: Effective governance requires meaningful engagement with stakeholders, including students, faculty, staff, alumni, and the public. Stakeholders should be involved in the decision-making process and provided opportunities for feedback and input.
  4. Quality assurance: Higher education institutions should have robust systems in place to ensure quality in teaching, research, and student outcomes. These systems should be regularly evaluated and updated to ensure they are effective.
  5. Diversity, equity, and inclusion: Effective governance should prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion in all aspects of the institution, including recruitment and retention of students, faculty, and staff. This includes promoting a culture of respect, tolerance, and inclusivity.
  6. Continuous improvement: Governance of higher education institutions should be dynamic and adaptable to changing circumstances. Continuous improvement and evaluation of governance structures and processes should be prioritized.

Overall, effective governance of higher education requires a balance of autonomy, transparency, stakeholder engagement, quality assurance, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and continuous improvement.

I was quite impressed by ChatGPT’s statement on higher education governance.

ChatGPT offers a significant level of relevant, general principles that can be followed to promote effective governance in higher education; however, some critical aspects of governance that experts speak to, as described in the articles in this edition of The Beacon by representatives from AGB and ACCT, are missing or are glossed over.

AI applications are getting more and more sophisticated and could certainly play a role as an aide in higher education, but should not the primary source. Like others who have expressed concern about AI platforms and which should be addressed, ChatGPT gives me pause, but I am optimistic about the future role of AI applications in various aspects of higher education. NWCCU will be convening conversations and webinars this year on AI platforms.


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