Microphones and binders sit on a long table.

College governing boards have an essential responsibility to fulfill during this challenging time and beyond. They must apply vigorous oversight and counsel to help navigate crises, ensure institutional resilience, and advance progress.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought severe financial pressures, service disruptions, and existential threats to colleges that demand intensive board engagement. This includes:

• Closely monitoring college finances, budgets, financial projections, and key metrics to determine vulnerability and solvency. Providing guidance on difficult decisions around cuts, layoffs, furloughs, etc.

• Asking tough questions about challenges being faced, priorities, contingency planning, and risk management. Pushing for transparency on issues and options under consideration.

• Ensuring the college’s mission and strategic plan are being executed faithfully despite disruptions. Advising on balancing immediate crisis response with long-term priorities.

• Providing advice and support for college leadership in building public trust through clear communication and addressing anxiety among students, faculty, staff, donors, employers, and other key stakeholders.

• Advising on key policy issues with legal, ethical, and social implications like switching to online programs, grading policies, paying employees during closures, etc. Ensuring consistency with institutional values.

• Serving as an extra set of ears listening to college leadership and as a check on decisions that could significantly impact programs, services, employees, students, and reputation if mistakes are made.

• Raising awareness of risks, including potential liability, and legal exposure for institutional actions. Gaining assurances proper oversight and legal counsel are in place.

Beyond this time of crisis, fruitful board engagement includes:

• Providing governance oversight and strategic guidance as college leaders work to reshape operations, adapt to new realities, and advance key priorities.

• Recruiting and developing high-performing board members with relevant experience and expertise to support need areas like finance, technology, diversity, and workforce development.

• Dedicating adequate time to discussions and decisions critical to college improvement and responsiveness to industry changes, competitive pressures, and student/societal needs.

• Engaging in productive debates that raise important questions without producing personal attacks or wasting time. Presenting differing perspectives and opinions constructively.

• Regularly evaluating own performance and dynamics to ensure effective governance processes and cooperation despite likely disagreements on strategy or philosophy.

• Maintaining focus on student and public good above personal interests or agendas to advance an institution’s noble mission.

By stepping up their role during this difficult time and beyond, college governing boards can help make a vital difference in progress, resilience, and impact. While boards must rely on and trust in leadership, they also have obligations to question, probe, and press for the type of transparent, strategic, and mission-driven work essential to colleges fulfilling their purpose. Strong, thoughtful board engagement is always important but has particular urgency and importance when times are most trying. Colleges and communities are relying on it.


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