New Directions for Higher Education: Q&A with AGB Prez Richard Legon on Challenges Facing Higher Ed Boards

By Philip DiSalvio and NEJHE Staff

In April, NEJHE launched its New Directions for Higher Education series to examine emerging issues, trends and ideas that have an impact on higher education policies, programs and practices.

Past installments of the series featured Philip DiSalvio, dean of the College of Advancing & Professional Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, interviewing: Carnegie Foundation President Anthony Bryk about the future of the credit hour; and Publisher Mark Kantrowitz about student debt; Lumina Foundation President and CEO Jamie P. Merisotis about Lumina’s commitment to enrolling and graduating more students from college; American Council on Education (ACE) President Molly Corbett Broad about the efforts ACE is making to raise educational attainment in the U.S. and around the world; AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider on liberal education; and Richard Arum, co-author of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.

In this installment, DiSalvio interviews Richard Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB), on the growing challenges facing higher education governance.

The context

The AGB is the only national association that serves the interests of academic governing boards, boards of institutionally related foundations, campus CEOs and other senior-level campus administrators on issues related to higher education governance. Its mission is to advocate on behalf of citizen trusteeship that supports higher education.

The converging forces driving changes in the higher education landscape have brought new demands on colleges and universities to ensure that significantly more students receive a quality education at a reasonable price, even as resources in many higher education institutions continue to be severely constrained. Moreover, institutions are confronting growing government and regulatory oversight and declining public faith in the value of higher education.

Questions of how well prepared the governing bodies of higher education institutions and systems are to address the myriad challenges confronting higher education institutions abound. Boards must strike an effective balance in governing so that their institutions retain financial strength, achieve their core missions and embrace new strategic thinking to help them—and their students—advance toward stronger futures.

However, the onslaught of issues that will define higher education in the 21st century, from demands for increased accountability, to fiscal challenges, to the debate over the real measure of student outcomes, will make higher education governance increasingly knotty.

Legon provides a perspective on the realities of the external environment that will increasingly demand governing boards’ close attention. His insights on the key strategic issues confronting boards today may be useful in helping boards and other university leaders ask the right questions for thoughtful and strategic decision-making.

The interview

DiSalvio: American colleges and universities are distinguished by their distinct form of governance: independent boards of volunteer trustees. What is the historical context for this?

Legon: In the U.S., we have been doing board governance of our institutions essentially the same way for over 300 years, going back to the Colonial period. While institutions during the mid to late 17th century may have had different foci and different missions than institutions of today, the concept of an external group of individuals–a critical point–adding value, overseeing the institution and being accountable for institutional direction continues.

This is a dramatically unique character of governance and boards in the U.S. as compared to the rest of the world. I think that America’s fundamental value of volunteerism is the key driver of how we govern our institutions.

DiSalvio: You press for a heightened priority for board members and top administrators to “get governance right” and to attend to the business of their business. What are the evolving realities that are especially demanding this sense of urgency?

Legon: There are approximately 50,000 men and women who serve on the boards of our colleges and universities. Boards of independent or private institutions tend to have a larger number of these volunteers. Public boards, including systems and individual campuses with their own governing boards, tend to have fewer individuals serving.

Public board members tend to be appointed through a political process. Those serving on independent boards generally get there through a self-perpetuating approach–securing and recruiting and replacing individuals to the board independent of any outside authority.

Considering the kinds of issues facing higher education today, with many of our colleges and universities facing significant financial concerns and heightened public and governmental expectations, there is both uncertainty and “change.” In addition, all of our institutions are challenged to retain the public’s support for how our colleges do their work. When you put all of that into a pot and stir it around, you get boards that are demanding a broader level of engagement than has heretofore been the case. Governing boards today are increasingly going beyond policy and oversight while, ideally, avoiding the instinct to micromanage their institutions. In light of that, they see their primary responsibility as hiring the kind of leadership required to do the job and then trusting that leadership to lead.

At the same time, in this unique model of citizen engagement and the connection of boards to stakeholders outside of the institution itself, boards are asking more profound questions. What is the quality of our academic programs? Are our students succeeding? Are they graduating and, if so, are they graduating on a timely basis? Is what we provide affordable and are we doing the best we can to maintain quality and focus on our priorities, while still being sensitive to containing the costs that we ultimately pass along to our students? Are we addressing technology in an appropriate manner–not to compromise our quality, but to enhance education?

And so public pressure and expectations, as well as the internal pressures facing these institutions, demand that boards be wiser about how they do their work. It also means that boards must be substantially engaged with the more critical challenges that come under the broad heading of change, again, not to manage these institutions but to recognize that the board’s ultimate fiduciary authority requires tough questions about big issues.

DiSalvio: The new strategic plan for the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, Vision 2016, provides an aggressive agenda for AGB that is focused on service, expanded outreach and program development, research and advocacy. Could you speak to that agenda and the impact you see it making on higher education governance?

Legon: AGB’s strategic plan incorporates expanded services to help board members know what their responsibilities are to help institutional leaders develop their boards, and to increase board members’ understanding of the priorities of the institution and how to be helpful by asking the right questions. That agenda includes educating presidents, boards and board leaders as to the magnitude of this voluntary job, as well as its limits. AGB’s leadership spans some 90-plus years as the most trusted advisor in institutional governance; our current plan builds upon that experience.

Keep in mind that one-fifth of the 50,000 men and women serving on boards, whether public or private, turn over every year; each year, a substantial number of men and women are new to board-member responsibility. Although these individuals are leaders who bring expertise in certain areas and professions, working in the milieu of higher education governance is for many a unique experience. While boards hold the ultimate authority, in practical terms they are sharing a sandbox with other stakeholders–administrators, faculty, alumni, current students and interested policymakers. So understanding how that works matters.

Our strategic plan drives our agenda because we are trying to demonstrate best practice for our member boards. The focus is on the combined commitments and priorities to help board members understand their responsibilities as a fiduciary body and their appropriate level of accountability. There is a distinction between the responsibilities of an individual board member and those of the board as a corporate entity, which is where the authority resides. So helping boards and board members understand both the changing scope of their responsibilities as well as the limit of that authority and to remind them that the most effective board governance ensures the mission of their institution, which almost always comes down to enabling access by students and facilitating the ability of students to succeed, graduate and be productive, contributing members of society.

DiSalvio: AGB’s newly announced National Commission on College and University Board Governance will be exploring the capacity of governing boards to address the fundamental shifts in academic delivery, student demographics, finances, and expectations that we are seeing in higher education today. What specifically will the commission hone in on and what do you expect to see as the end product?

Legon: Let me start by saying that we have a very strong commission chair in the former governor of Tennessee, Philip Bredesen. I have every expectation that he will lead firmly and strongly, but I can’t forecast the commission’s final recommendations or how the commission’s members will ultimately focus its work. However, we have been talking and planning and framing the launch of this initiative for the past several years.

While the structure of board governance in higher education has been fairly consistent for many years, it has evolved to address tectonic shifts in our history. from the Civil War to changes after World War I to the GI Bill after World War II and the challenges in the Cold War period, as well as campus unrest across the country during the Vietnam War. And currently, we are seeing upheavals in higher education and the impact they are having on the business model of our institutions. The issues, their complexity and the nonstop pace of change affecting higher education are profound.

The public and policymakers’ mandates and expectations of higher education are changing, and more spotlight is being shone by the stakeholders on how we do what we do and the effectiveness of how we do it. At AGB, we look at higher education and student success through the lens of governance, and this change suggests to us that we need to lift the hood and determine whether we are helping our volunteers understand their role and how to carry it out in this period of heightened and fast-paced internal and public expectations.

What do the transformations taking place in higher education mean for how boards carry out their responsibilities? How does shared governance work in this fast-paced new environment and how will it work going forward? Those issues urged us on, especially when we saw some high-profile examples of boards that have touched the third rail and created challenges and crises in their own institutions.

I anticipate that this commission will look at the relationship between higher education’s challenges and their implications for board governance. In addition to the myriad changes going on in the higher education landscape, the commission will address such issues as size and structure of boards and what a fiduciary’s responsibilities are as boards try to face new challenges in a changing world.

DiSalvio: Given the transformations taking place in higher education today and what this means for how boards carry out their responsibilities, why do you feel shared governance deserves such scrutiny? 

Legon: With the recent onslaught of challenges confronting higher education and calls for dramatic change in how we teach and how academic programs are delivered, it is incumbent on institutional leadership to work together as profound issues are addressed and recommendations are framed. Clearly in the area of academic delivery, boards have the ultimate authority but should recognize and respect the inherent value to higher education of shared governance. It is incumbent on boards and presidents, who are addressing some transformational issues, including business-model questions along with pricing and cost containment, to reach out to faculty and engage them in these strategic conversations. The ultimate decision-making authority is clear, however, and now is the time for inclusivity as difficult issues are considered.

An appropriate question related to shared governance is the status of faculty engagement in governance processes within their institutions. Today, we see the trend moving away from tenured and tenure-track faculty, while adjunct and shorter-term contracts are increasingly the norm. Notwithstanding the current makeup of faculty, stakeholder input is essential to answering higher education’s strategic questions. Smart boards and presidents are applying AGB’s call for integral leadership in shepherding the fundamental questions that need attention in the academy.

DiSalvio: What do you see as the strategic imperatives facing colleges and universities today and how should board and executive leaders begin to work together to address them?

Legon: I think it’s important for presidents, especially new presidents, to have an understanding of how to work with their governing body. Presidents often come from a background where they have not had extensive contact or a direct reporting relationship with a board of trustees. Given that, they should be capable of not only leading the institution but also engaging their board as a thought partner.

In this time of transformative change, we have to work together to reclaim the public’s trust. Many observe a push-pull in the general public and with public policymakers; there is a sense we are a bloated sector and that that higher education institutions generate a lot of revenue that is not always well-applied. I think it is time for higher education to pay more attention to the public’s concerns about what we do, how much we cost and how effective we are in meeting the public’s needs. Even private institutions have a public purpose, in the way they are achieving the public’s business through the education and research that private institutions provide.

For too long, we may have been defensive, protective and even insular under the assumption that the public trusts and admires higher education institutions. While many still feel that way and still want their kids and their grandkids to attend our higher education institutions, the trust factor has wavered in recent years. And so collaboratively–and as part of what we hope the commission will do–we must come together to re-engage with the public, to “hear them,” and to do what we can to demonstrate why we are still a good investment that makes an essential contribution to the lives of individuals and to society.


Composition of Independent and Public Governing Boards* 

  • In 2010, nearly 13% of independent board members were racial and ethnic minorities, compared with 12% in 2004; 23% of public board members were minorities, compared with 21% in 2004


  • Men outnumbered women by more than two to one on both independent boards (70% to 30%) and public boards (72% to 28%)


  • 69% of members of both independent and public boards were ages 50 to 69


  • Nearly 9% of independent boards included at least one student as a voting member; 50% of public boards included a voting student member


  • The professional background of more than half (53%) of board member of independent colleges and universities in 2010 was business; for public colleges and universities, the figure was 49%


  • Most independent institutions (76%) included the chief executive as a member of the board, while most public institutions (73%) did not



“2010 Policies, Practices and Composition of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities” (AGB, 2011)




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