HE Governance in the USA – Through the Looking Glass

Andrew West recently attended the annual conference of the Association of Governing Bodies of Universities and Colleges (AGB) in Washington DC. AGB describes itself as the premier organisation centred on governance in higher education in the USA, thus covering some of the territory filled in the UK by the CUC’s work with the LFHE, alongside AHUA. 

My somewhat surreal arrival at the immense and splendidly-named “Gaylord Convention Center” on the Potomac River coincided with the closing party for a preceding conference which had an Alice in Wonderland/Mad Hatter’s Tea Party theme. Having lived a rather sheltered life, this was my first experience of sharing a hotel lift with three Queens of Hearts and two Mad Hatters.

Reassuringly the AGB conference which followed was more a case of entering the Wonderland of higher education leadership. The quality of the speakers and sessions was second to none and the scale of the event (a pre-conference workshop for university secretaries attended by around 250) and the main conference (1100 delegates, including 150 University Presidents) meant for genuine breadth and depth of content.

Part of my rationale for attending was to extend my own appreciation of leadership and governance models operating in a different –and historically successful –  HE system. There were certainly plenty of governance differences evident: the large private university where members of the governing body are required to make an annual six-figure gift as an expectation of their position; those state institutions where every governance appointment is subject to political approval, or where governors arrive on campus after selection by a state agency and little or no opportunity for input or influence by the receiving university.

Meanwhile it was immediately clear that some current issues are broadly similar to the UK environment, including concerns associated with institutional risk and reputation management; the holy grail search for meaningful educational metrics; and questions of institutional sustainability and value when compared to high levels of graduate debt. Other topics on the agenda were somewhat more contextual, reflecting local regulatory requirements such as the state “Sunshine Laws” – in some cases requiring all board business to be conducted in public session. And a very hot topic of the impact of so-called “Title IX” legislation on the management of instances of sexual misconduct on campus (though here there is a clear parallel with UUK’s current work on this theme and there seems to me considerable instructive experience in the US case).

Interestingly, thus far an equivalent of the Prevent duty does not seem to have penetrated into the US system and my descriptions of our newly-mandated responsibilities were largely met with incredulity by other delegates.

AGB as a professional organisation has a longstanding focus on good governance practices, including recently published work on “consequential” boards –responding to increased levels of complexity and challenge in the sector with a siren call for governors to spend their time on issues of consequence – adding genuine value to the work of an institution, rather than operating as a form of static overlay or assurance for executive management.  More information on a National Commission on College and University Board Governance (and the resulting Consequential Boards report).

I think also worth a look is the AGB President’s work on the characteristics of highly effective governing boards and some recently-published thinking on the concept of a “Flipped Boardroom“, mirroring the equivalent educational approach and aiming for increased board member engagement, participation and thus improved decision-making.

The main conference was the usual mix of plenary and workshopping, including some stellar speakers, a highlight being a hugely informative (and largely depressing) overview from the editor-in-chief of The Economist on current global political and economic trends, generating plenty to worry about and not many reasons to be cheerful.

Given the timing of the conference in relation to the US presidential race, of course we didn’t escape an entertaining mix of serious analysis and broad-ranging satire on that topic of national import and global significance. Exploring the story of the presidential campaign to date and potential next steps, we did seem rapidly to be back into Mad Hatter territory: the AGB pundits’ prediction, by the way, being a Clinton/Cruse contest, with Hilary emerging as the victor. You heard it here first.

Image Credit: 2008 06 30 – 4096-4101 – National Harbor – Docks by thisisbossi is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0