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Academic Leaders Need External Advisory Committees—Now More Than Ever

Leadership and Management

Academic Leaders Need External Advisory Committees—Now More Than Ever

Higher education in the post-pandemic era will not be the same as in prior years. While each institution has experienced and responded to the pandemic differently, all face a continuing impact across every element of their enterprise. Students have different needs and expectations; faculty are challenged with different modes of delivery, curriculum development, and models of colleagueship; staff are addressing new ways to provide needed services; and needs to adjust space and facilities to accommodate to new modes of programming have emerged. Budgets are stressed, communications are often bifurcated, work patterns are changing, and even the academic calendar is under scrutiny.

Given the level of disruption to pre-pandemic collegiate life, it is understandable that academic leaders focus their attention and energy on strategies that will right the proverbial ship and return the institution of some semblance of the status quo. This would be a solid approach save for one critical element: the external environment is also undergoing disruption and searching for new, needed ways of responding to the post-pandemic environment. Academic leaders who do not understand the magnitude of the pandemic’s impact on important external stakeholders do so at their peril—and to the detriment of their institution.

Leaders at all institutional levels need to find ways to understand these environmental crosscurrents and their potential effects. Concurrently, academic leaders need to communicate ongoing internal changes to external stakeholders. Successful post-pandemic institutions must reestablish the “fit” between academic programs and services on the one hand and student needs and community expectations on the other.

External advisory committees are a potential tool academic leaders can use to understand the environment of key stakeholders and its impact on the institution. They provide a forum where external interests can react to proposed internal changes. Together, advisory committees and academic leaders can forge a meaningful set of relations to the mutual benefit of both.

The nature of external advisory committees

While there is no one model for an external advisory committee, all have similar characteristics. Their function is to invite external stakeholders to dialogue with institutional representatives on matters of import to the institution and of relevance to stakeholders. Such committees can focus on the institution, a single unit or discipline, an issue, or a project. An effective committee can provide an understanding of the institution’s environmental context. They can offer insights on how the institutional program is being received. If the committee is properly structured, external stakeholders can learn or opine about internal plans and directions. Successful external advisory committees enrich and assist academic leaders in guiding program development.

Advisory committees are neither an actual nor de facto alternative to existing governance boards. Advisory committees offer advice, suggestions, and views from their vantage point. They do not play a decision-making role, nor do they have any institutional decision-making authority. Throughout the conduct of such committee’s work, this distinction must be clear and understood by all parties.

The risks of external advisory committees

The use of such committees is not without challenges. If not addressed, they can derail the enterprise and interfere with committee effectiveness. These matters generally fall in one of three categories. First and foremost is the disposition of academic leaders to reach out to external stakeholders for insight, advice, and counsel. If institutional leaders are unwilling to listen to, consider, and respond appropriately to committee input, the enterprise will fail. This means leaders must be comfortable with transparency, offer non-defensive communication, and be willing to consider differing perceptions and points of view. It’s better not to create an external advisory committee than have one that others perceive as being only for show or not interested in the views of those outside the academy.

A second area of concern is the absence of a clear understanding of the role and function of the advisory committee. They are charged with offering advice, not making decisions. The desire to make decisions is powerful. It is incumbent on academic leaders to clarify both the limits and the importance of the committee’s contributions.

Finally, external advisory committees require consistent attention and leadership. If committee contributions are to be valued, academic leaders will need to invest time, energy, and resources in their conduct. As discussed below, the flow of an external advisory committee cannot be either “just a meeting” or a one-and-done event. External stockholders are both time sensitive and action oriented. Participation in such a group must be seen as bringing value to them. Here, too, academic leaders play a central role.

The rewards of external advisory committees

Properly designed, conducted, and led, external advisory committees offer academic leaders and the institution a variety of advantages. From the academic unit perspective, such activities provide for informed and relevant information about the environment. Current views of the unit or programs are critical. They texture student interest, recruitment opportunities, and potential placement of those who complete the programs. Understanding present trends and future directions from critical stakeholders ensures that internal programs are in sync with external expectations.

External advisory committees provide a forum where the program can tell its story. Matters of program design, delivery, and direction can be presented and discussed. Program constraints can be articulated. Advisory reviews, comments, and suggestions can be surfaced and addressed.

As stakeholder needs and expectations align with program delivery, additional opportunities arise. External participants become informed supporters. They can join with institutional staff in encouraging student recruitment, make internships and apprenticeships available, recruit program graduates, or support needed external resource acquisition.

Strategies for successful external advisory committees

While we acknowledge that there is no one way to conduct an external advisory committee, experience has led us to suggest the following strategies.

Recognize the advisory “loop”

Successful advisory committees operate a “loop” process. Meetings that involve “talking at,” come across as one-and-done events, or fail to report what was done with previous advice and suggestions quickly become liabilities. Effective advisory committees understand that not all advice can or should be implemented. It should, however, be respectively received and seriously considered. Too often, committee deliberations and work products are never acknowledged or are rejected without comment by the institution. “What happened to our suggestions?” should never be a concern. Academic leaders have a responsibility to report back to the committee and close the loop. In the spirit of “old business,” some committees use this as the first agenda item at every meeting. Appropriate actions can be communicated to members between meetings.

Clarify committee role and function

Develop a brief, explicit statement delineating the committee’s role, function, and focus. Such a statement should clarify the expectations and limitations of the advisory role. Other matters, such as leadership, appointing and reporting authority, membership terms, frequency of meetings, and the volunteer nature of the appointment, may be included. The document should be in print or electronic format or both and available to all.

Membership: selection and appointment

The committee’s focus and scope will determine the membership. For example, two-year community colleges have used an advising committee model that has proven successful: the career and tech education (CTE) board. A CTE board typically consists of the CTE faculty head, community and industry partners, and one or two current students. The board discusses current curriculum alignment with industry needs and how industry could assist with internships and other job training opportunities. Teacher education advisory committees often include local school officials, teachers, university faculty, and current students. Other committee configurations can be developed.

As the focus of the proposed committee is clarified, a list of appropriate stakeholders can be developed and narrowed in consultation with the appointing officer. Once a potential list is agreed upon, academic leaders will need contact each potential member, describe the work of the committee, and gauge their level of interest. The appointing officer than can invite membership.

Meetings: frequency and delivery mode

Frequency and duration of meetings should be designed to encourage participation. The nature of the committee’s work and focus should dictate the actual schedule. Quarterly meetings are common. Attention should be given to maintaining the announced schedule both in date and in length. In today’s environment a hybrid meeting model may be available. Electronic contact between meetings provides a way to keep members apprised of ongoing activities.

Committee leadership and agenda setting

Committee chairs need be careful, though. An academic leader is a logical meeting chair. Alternatively, the committee might identify a chair among the members. Circumstances, institutional history, committee focus, and participant energy will inform the selection. In either case, leaders need to provide leadership, assistance, and focus.

Committee participation and sound advice are enhanced through an open agenda-setting process. Members can be solicited for pre-meeting agenda items, a draft agenda can be developed and circulated prior to the meeting, or an agenda review can be a first order of committee meetings. All are useful strategies. It is helpful to provide members with a succinct update on matters both internal and external. Updates can be distributed in advance with the proposed agenda. Minimal time should be spent on background, leaving maximum time for reaction. Discussion and counsel regarding current challenges and proposed activities should dominate committee meetings.

Recognition of stakeholder participation

While a willingness to participate characterizes volunteers, all enjoy appropriate thanks and recognition for their time and contributions. Many opportunities exist, and academic leaders should develop a plan and guide its implementation. Campus media officers are useful partners in this regard. Public announcements of committee membership with identified corporate, business, or other professional affiliations are always appreciated; similar identification and stories in institutional publications are another strategy. Annual thank-you notes from the appointing officer communicate both appreciation for participants and reinforce institutional commitment to the advisory process. Invitations to institutional events, yearly thank-you dinners, and other events are additional opportunities.

Annual report to the appointing officer

A useful strategy to communicate the importance of the advisory committee’s work is to have the committee develop a short annual report summarizing issues, concerns, and suggestions offered for consideration by the institution. Prior to transmittal, committee review and concurrence provide a strategy to complete the advisory loop while preserving the distinction between advice and governance. The report can be transmitted to the appointing officer or, ideally, presented in person. Academic leaders will want to brief the appointing officer so there are no surprises.

Academic leadership in the post-pandemic era

The post-pandemic era will require changes to colleges and universities. Academic leadership will also need to change to guide the evolution of the institution. More than ever, higher education institutions will need to understand and respond to changes in the external environment. Guiding the institution through these challenges requires academic leadership of a different kind. Successful leaders will embrace an understanding of both the internal and the external. Maintaining an effective dialogue with critical external stakeholders will be essential. Leadership in this era needs to embrace the notion that all wisdom and solid alternatives do not reside only within the higher education unit. Important voices in the environment need to be welcome and responded to. An effective external advisory committee is a useful strategy for both obtaining and using important stakeholder assistance.

Charles P. Ruch, PhD, is retired, having served for over 40 years in academic leadership positions, including president of Boise State University and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.

Cathleen B. Ruch, EdD, is currently director of student success at Lake Region State College in North Dakota.


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