Want to Be a Really Effective Trustee?

By Scott Cowen

July 11, 2018

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As a university president for 16 years and a member of numerous governing boards for 35 years, I’ve observed the ups and downs of institutions at close range. Recent examples of poor governance—athletic scandals, presidential turnovers, financial collapses—led me to reflect on the critical differences between effective and ineffective trustees I’ve worked with over the years. Oddly enough, I began to think about Robert Fulghum’s book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, and its underlying credo—the simplest things are the truest. Bottom line: Truly effective trustees make an effort to learn what it takes to be successful in their new environment, while less productive trustees fail to fully acclimate.

So what do you need to do to succeed at the job?

Do your homework

Most likely, you’re an outsider to academe. The majority of trustees at both private and public institutions come from the business world, and often only a single-digit percentage has a background in academia. So do your homework. Learn more about the university you represent (its origins, its purpose, and its evolution over time), obtain some basic knowledge of the history of higher education (for starters, everyone should know what the Morrill Acts are), and keep up with current events. Read The Chronicle of Higher Education; check out Inside Higher Ed. There are plenty of scandals and tumultuous developments to acquaint yourself with, so don’t worry—this reading assignment is far from boring.


Think of academia as a foreign country with its own language, habits, and rules. Where you come from is important—you bring specific expertise and fresh perspectives to your new position. But what you’re accustomed to in your other occupation may not translate well on campus. Universities come wrapped not only in ivy but also in the history and traditions associated with a particular mission. Don’t mistake the schools that make up an educational institution for divisions of a business that can be sliced and diced, downsized or closed, based on their performance. Individual schools and programs can be immeasurably meaningful to the identity and success of an institution even if they don’t perform well by ordinary business standards.

Be brave

Once you’ve mastered the institutional culture and have a solid grasp of the university’s identity, don’t be afraid to take on the sacred cows—ever-expanding athletics departments, chronically weak academic programs, superfluous amenities designed to lure applicants—when exploring cost-cutting measures. This may sound like a contradiction of the previous point, but opposites may apply, depending on the context. After Katrina (a context of epic proportions), I, together with my board, voted to eliminate one third of Tulane’s doctoral programs and suspend half of the athletics programs, as well as let go about 800 full-time faculty and staff, among other drastic changes. We were responding to an existential threat, but the day-to-day governance of a school requires similar toughness. To lead with integrity, you need to make principled decisions responsive to the particular realities you confront.

Focus on the big picture

Pet projects and myopic vision can get in the way of board effectiveness. You’re on the board to represent the entire university, not just the segment that you’re most closely associated with. Think of the team and not yourself. If you want to allocate resources to a handsome new building, a lovely rose garden, a lazy river, or a bigger football stadium, consider the university’s fundamental mission and adjust accordingly.

For those whose service to the university involves distributing their own wealth, be more open-minded and selfless about what purpose your gift should serve. To repeat: the most important aspect of being a trustee is to ensure the integrity and quality of the university’s academic mission. Earmarking gifts for the college football program may fill you with pride and satisfaction, but there are other efforts—efforts that may be much more important to institutional success and more aligned with the educational mission—that are deserving of and dependent on your generosity. Mission is a litmus test not only for contributions but also for decision making of all kinds. Say yes if the program or project serves the institution’s fundamental purpose; say no if it’s window dressing or pie in the sky.


You probably aren’t accustomed to shared governance, the organizational structure that distributes power among the faculty, board, and president. And you may not appreciate it. Even those of us who are old hands at shared governance continue to struggle with its pros and cons. But so be it; it’s time to get used to it. Practice the following skills and behaviors and you’ll be fine: listen, be patient, take turns, focus on the common goal, be fair, and make decisions based on facts, not feelings.

Be real

I like to feel free to be straightforward with other people, however difficult or contentious the issue, and I like it when people are straightforward with me. If your president prefers to present shiny PowerPoint slides that illustrate how great everything is going, encourage him or her to share bad news. Likewise, if you have bad news, speak up. You are on the board not to be an unabashed cheerleader, but to deal with reality and help fix problems. You can’t fix what needs fixing if you ignore the facts or whisper behind people’s backs.

Don’t be a control freak

Micromanaging the university is not your responsibility (think about it—you wouldn’t let someone do that in your own organization). Keep your eye on the ball—the university’s strategy and goals—and do your job, which is to help achieve these goals and be accountable, with the rest of leadership, for the results.

Give out grades

As university leaders, we are very concerned with how students perform; indeed, we live in a world where almost everyone and everything is being given points, grades, and rankings. Let’s apply that same systematic rigor to governance. The most effective boards not only have a system in place to grade their president’s performance but also practice self-reflection. You need to be honest with yourself about your weaknesses and mistakes as a trustee, and accept the feedback you receive to improve your ways of handling situations and working with others. In the long run, a university’s overall GPA depends on the performance of its board members and leadership team.

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About the Author

Scott Cowen

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