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Keys to a Productive External Advisory Board, Part 2: Sustaining Board Focus and Interest

Leadership and Management

Keys to a Productive External Advisory Board, Part 2: Sustaining Board Focus and Interest

In our previous article, we outlined some key points that university leaders should consider when establishing a functional and productive external advisory board (EAB). Among them was that those chosen for board membership must be enthusiastic supporters of the institution and the school or college and should be of a stature to influence others in similar positions in the external environment. From the university side, the dean must be confident and comfortable working with high-placed individuals from the outside. We presented strategies for rebuilding or expanding the board as well as for making certain that the board has an appropriately diverse composition.

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In our previous article, we outlined some key points that university leaders should consider when establishing a functional and productive external advisory board (EAB). Among them was that those chosen for board membership must be enthusiastic supporters of the institution and the school or college and should be of a stature to influence others in similar positions in the external environment. From the university side, the dean must be confident and comfortable working with high-placed individuals from the outside. We presented strategies for rebuilding or expanding the board as well as for making certain that the board has an appropriately diverse composition.

Now that we have selected our EAB, it is time to turn to the dean to see how they can manage the board in terms of sustaining its excitement for the school and creating an entity that meets school goals. It is critical to keep in mind that the members of the board are very busy people. Many will be working full time in complex, challenging positions. They must be responsive to an array of constituents, including in many cases their own boards. Thus, time is a precious commodity, and the amount spent on board business should be restricted.

Scheduling board meetings

Our recommendations for board meetings consider both the elements of time element and excitement. The first is to schedule meetings judiciously. Once per quarter for 90 minutes should work well. Check with board members about their availability, and schedule the meetings for the year. Reserving the time in advance helps prevent some changes but does not eliminate absences due to primary work conflicts. If there is insufficient material to fill the agenda (see below) or too few board members can attend, do not hesitate to cancel the meeting. In addition to business meetings, one social event per year that includes the board, school leadership, and the significant others of both groups. This serves the purposes of thanking them for their efforts on behalf of the school and allows everyone an opportunity to engage individually and perhaps meet each other’s spouses or partners.

Board meeting content

The meeting agenda is critical to engaging the board. At the meeting, the dean should distribute a detailed agenda outlining everything they will say in the report to the board. The report should be packed with information such as student enrollment data; growth in majors; new degrees approved, submitted, or planned; the number of degrees conferred (both undergraduate and graduate); the number of new students recruited; the dollar amount of research funding; faculty who have earned federal or other major research funding; faculty and staff awards; student award and external scholarship winners; and other data on student success that speak to the quality of the school and its personnel. Pictures of the individuals involved should be included if available.

One consistent role for the dean is to continually remind the EAB members of the mission of the school or college and to describe how that translates into value for the community. The dean should make this a central element of all presentations and discussions and should correspondingly ask that all EAB members serve as ambassadors to share this value statement with their networks in the community. In addition to providing direct advice, fundraising, and providing opportunities for student and faculty success, board members can thereby significantly extend the school’s reputation to many beyond the dean’s reach.

Because it is part of the board’s focus, the school’s development officer should report on the philanthropic activities of the school. The board recognizes the importance of philanthropy to all schools and knows that fundraising success is linked to institutional quality and the effectiveness of the dean and the board in telling the school’s story.

A final, innovative part of the board meetings brings a part of the school to meet with the board. While it would be extremely difficult to have every faculty member meet the board, we have found an effective way for the board to get a feel for the school’s human side: having the dean invite one or two active (often junior) faculty members to board meetings to give 10–15-minute overviews of their research. The presentations are not overly technical yet require attention to follow. Board members have many questions during each presentation and after. The questions are remarkably to the point (although not formally trained in most of the presenters’ areas, board members are bright people who catch on very quickly!). Beyond questions, presenters are given advice on organizations that may be interested in their work, on patenting their inventions, on additional applications of their findings, and on potential collaborators. As evidence that this truly engages the board, we offer the fact that at the next quarterly board meeting there are sometimes side conversations among the board members about past faculty presentations.

One final element related to the board meeting is that immediately thereafter, the dean will send all board members an electronic version of the detailed agenda. This allows those unable to attend to keep up with the school’s progress, and it provides all members with information they can conveniently forward to others.

Other board contact

At board meetings the dean will report on several in-progress items. The dean will ultimately announce their resolution or completion to the board via email, a process that keeps them up to date between board meetings. The board will want to immediately know when that new PhD program in a discipline relevant to the region’s economy is approved and would be interested to know that the faculty member who presented at the last board meeting received notification from the National Science Foundation that their proposal would be funded.

Invitations to special events

Every college and university has ceremonies that honor the accomplishments of faculty, staff, and students. The dean should regularly invite the board to attend school-level events of this kind. Board members would then get to meet some of the outstanding individuals they have heard about from the dean at board meetings. The dean might also invite a board member to give a brief keynote, especially at events that honor students, many of whom attend with their families. Most board members would be pleased to accept this opportunity to share something from their journeys with young people just starting their careers. Their organizations can also benefit from their active engagement.

Benefits for both sides

To this point we have discussed the many benefits that accrue to the university when it has an effective EAB. When members of external organizations commit to serve the institution and school through board membership, the school in turn commits to assist the organization through collaborations that improve the local economy, by providing education or training for employees, and by working to place the partners of newly recruited employees in suitable positions. The enhanced relationship between the university or school and the external organization is also likely to open an employment pipeline for graduates and create opportunities for faculty-industry collaboration. The relationship is clearly a two-way street.

Seek their assistance

The board members were chosen in part because of their success in their organizations. They have risen to the top because they have developed multiple skills that include problem-solving and are well-networked in their areas. They can be a tremendous asset to the dean when there is a challenge that is beyond the dean’s experience. Situations where the dean requires the support of a politician they do not personally know, needs advicein dealing with a local organization, or seeks help with a sensitive personnel issue that has community implications are all instances where the dean may benefit from the experience and wisdom of the board. The point here is not to be reluctant to ask. As successful people, the board members have dealt with challenges like these for years. They want their service on the board to be of value, and tackling tough issues is a way to meet that expectation.

Thank the board

Board members are talented, busy people who volunteer their time and expertise on behalf of the school. Thanking them often, both privately and publicly, will solidify their commitment to the school and is, of course, the right thing to do!

N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is professor and chair emeritus of biology and former associate dean for planning and finance in the School of Science at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.

Lindsay N. Heinzman is executive director of development and alumni affairs in the School of Science at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.

Simon J. Rhodes, PhD, is provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of North Florida and former dean of the School of Science at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.