Richard Chait, Professor of Higher Education, has conducted extensive research on the management and governance of colleges and universities throughout his career. He recently published Governance as Leadership (with W. Ryan and B. Taylor), his third book on school governance.
Q: Like your previous two books (Improving the Performance of Governing Boards, 1996, and The Effective Board of Trustees, 1993), Governance as Leadership focuses specifically on the role of trustees in the nonprofit. Why do you feel this role deserves so much attention and is so uniquely important?
A: There are several reasons the board of trustees has become so important: intense competition in the not-for-profit sector; far greater expectations from the “consumer,” where we want more for less and want to know who’s responsible; and corporate and nonprofit scandals that have reached news headlines.
Q: In your book, you bring governance and leadership togethersomething you say has never been done before. In your opinion, why is this a new idea? How does making an explicit connection between the two change how we approach these ideas?
A: The reason governance and leadership have come together is that, in the past, most efforts were to create a perfect division of labor between boards and management. The idea was that if you could identify what the management should do and what the board should do, there wouldn’t be this phenomenon of micromanagement or intrusiveness on the part of boards. You could have a clear line of demarcation that separates management and governance.
However, as of late, there have been a few changes. For starters, managers have become very gifted at leading. And as managers have become more successful leaders and leadership has become more important, it has raised a question: if administrators are responsible for both management and leadership, what is the role of boards? Typically, boards have been seen only as an oversight mechanism, and not as the source of leadership for the organization. We have taken a position that it’s important for boards to provide oversight as stewards and that it’s important for boards to play a role in the formation of strategy. But the underutilized potential of the boards is in the absent element of governance, where we think of the boards as a source of leadership.
Q: How are the needs and circumstances of education nonprofits unique compared to those of other nonprofits? What specific lessons can trustees of education nonprofits take from your book?
A: There are a few characteristics that are maybe not unique to, but that are at least distinctive about educational organizations, particularly universities and colleges as opposed to pre-collegiate schools.
Universities and colleges are very strongly influenced by the professional autonomy of the faculty, so the degrees of freedom available to both managers and governors, or boards, is somewhat restrained. The outcome measures are not always easily discerned. There is no obvious bottom line beyond the bottom lines that we can measure, most importantly teaching and learning, the public value of research, the cultural value of knowledge exploration, and the custody of knowledge. So the elusive measurements matter.
The goals of universities are also contested or ambiguous. It’s not just profit maximization, and it’s not just prestige maximization. It is research and instruction—domestic and international, applied and theoretical, professional and basic, or applied and basic research. Therefore, these organizations are a little more challenging to govern because there is not one overriding goal, whereas in the corporate sector you’ll find profits drive goals.
The other difference in education is that, particularly in private colleges and universities, many if not most trustees are alumni of the institution. They have both a vested interest, which is good, and a first-hand experience, which is also good. But sometimes that becomes possessive or excessively nostalgic, leading to dysfunctional and proprietary.
And lessons to take from the book are really difficult to summarizethat’s why it’s a book. But, in essence, we should be less concerned with the division of labor between management and the board, and more concerned with a fusion of thinking between management and the board, where you have common concepts and focus. Boards should work in multiple modes rather than doing multiple tasks. The boards need to be fiduciaries sometimes; they should be strategists at other times; and they should be a source of leadership at other times. And, rather than thinking about what the tasks are to be done, we encourage boards to think about the mode in which they operate or the perspective the board takes on a particular set of issues and to work in a new covenant with management that enables boards to be more engaged, more involved, and more influential. It is only after all the problems and opportunities have been defined and planned that the real work of leadership and governance can begin.
Q: You explain that a board is more effective when it acts with a “collective mind,” aware of all members’ ideas and abilities. What advice do you have for putting this into regular practice?
A: If you’ve ever been in a class that’s case-based or built around an effort to have active learning and interactive modes of thinkingwhere you deliberately try to solicit multiple points of view, agreeable disagreement, and constructive counterpoints; where you first explore what’s at stake, what’s at issue, how should the problem be framed, how should the opportunity be presented, who has a different point of view, and what can you add to this conversationthose are the same elements that one would use to engage the collective mind of the board. It means you have to relax the parliamentary rules, be a little less orderly and a little more tolerant of robust discussion at the outset, have board meetings that have more qualities of board retreats than highly structured rituals, ask questions that underlie the question on the table.
For example, rather than ask, “Should we eliminate fraternities,” ask, “How do we create an environment of tolerance, moderation, and intellectual rigor?” And it may be, or may not be, that the elimination of fraternities is an answer to that question, but it’s the effort to find the better question and the better problem that we’re looking for. And in schools, especially in independent schools, rather than ask, “Should we hire three more school counselors,” ask “Why do our students have more and more stress? What is it that’s underneath the request for more counselors?”
There’s a wonderful maxim, “If IBM only knew what IBM knows.” Our position basically is, “If a board of trustees only knew what a board of trustees knows.” So the effort is to harness the intellectual capital of all these talented, bright trustees that we go to great lengths to recruit, and make sure all these people have an opportunity to participate on difficult, complex, ambiguous questions. It’s not necessary to have the best brains for no-brainer questions.
Q: Your book proposes a new, innovative way of thinking about the role of trustees and nonprofit governance. Have the boards and executives with whom you have worked been resistant to any of these changes? How have you dealt with this initial resistance? How can boards of trustees successfully integrate these new ideas into an already existing, well-functioning nonprofit organization?
A: This is the third book I’ve co-authored on governance. The first two were more of an effort to understand best practices and learn what boards actually do. This book had a very different genesis and purpose, which was actually to reformulate or reconceptualize what we mean by governance, and to change the way people think about governance. In that sense this book is an invitation, and it’s experiment, but primarily an invitation.
The resistance is likely to come, as it always does, from people who are comfortable with old habits, who have succeeded with the status quo individually perhaps, but not collectively, from managers or executives who worry that this could actually unleash the power of the board. And some boards worry that this might take the board too far away from operations and lessen their sense of proximity and touch that the trustees have with the organization. But in the mainstream, we have a sense that there is enormous receptivity to a new way of thinking about governance, and that is to think about governance as leadership.
For More Information
HGSE News, Harvard Graduate School of Education