By Dave Newport
Transparency. Accountability. Openness. Diversity. Inclusion. Justice.
Those of us in campus sustainability say—and use—those words and principles a lot. We teach that these concepts are required elements of any sustainable project, program, or organization. Even the Association of Governing Boards (AGB) supports many of these elements as best practices for boards.
Yet as recent events have reminded us, few campus boards fold those practices into the machinations of their own governance processes. For instance, the University of Virginia and Penn State sagas keynoted a very bad year for the cloistered, elite, and opaque governance apparatchik typical of college boards.
As an unabashed sustainability proponent, I wonder how last summer’s news might have played out if those boards had embraced the principles above. Other colleges tout their sustainability programs, but can sustainability thrive on campuses when its central tenets are anathema to academe’s insular governance paradigm? Moreover, how do most boards measure up to those tenets?
Diversity: Campus leaders frequently talk about the importance of diversity. However, campus trustees are still predominately rich old white males.
As The Chronicle (CHE) recently reported, more than three-quarters of trustees are white, male trustees out number women two to one, and a vast majority are over 50. Bottom line: trustees are getting whiter and richer while our nation gets more diverse and poorer, the Chronicle noted.
If colleges are serious about making their boards more diverse – as they often say they want to – they could eliminate some of the “old white guy” board slots. This is not about quotas. It’s about the worldview that dominates governance discussions. Is it solely the business-centric, white privileged worldview, or can a culturally diverse, people-centric worldview get in a few words?
Transparency: Transparency is a foundational principle of sustainability because it builds trust between organizations and their stakeholders. For today’s boards, seemingly preoccupied with protecting campus brand, robust transparency should be the default as trust underpins reputation and brand. Yet recent foibles indicate that boards have an aversion to transparency that is unrealistic; in a WikiLeaks world, secrets will surface.
Accountability: Once installed, trustees can occupy a chair for however long their bylaws or state rules allow. Rarely is a trustee uninstalled or even publically evaluated. The Chronicle frequently reports on presidents resigning or getting ousted, but trustees are rarely vanquished.
AGB and others recommend board self-evaluations. Yet it is unclear how vigorously boards heed this advice. Indeed, given their low resignation or termination rates, one might conclude that either virtually all trustees are performing well—or their accountability process is ineffective.
Inclusion: If the only trustees at the table are the elites, decisions are less informed -- and less accepted by stakeholders. For sustainable outcomes, a range of cultures, communities, and age groups need a place in the process. Sustainability calls it “active inclusion.”
David Crockett, former sustainability director for Chattanooga, Tenn., had a “shoe test” for inclusion: At the start of any meeting, look under the table at the shoes. If they are all wingtips and oxfords, stop the meeting and also include people who wear work boots, sneakers, and flip-flops.
Openness: Four states directly elect public institutions’ trustees in general elections. For remaining states, governors appoint 77 percent of trustees. Of course, appointees usually come from a governor’s political party, or have raised money or worked for the state leader. Patronage is alive and well.
For private institutions, fewer legal covenants prescribe board composition so a different kind of patronage ensues -- they call it “self-perpetuating.” New board candidates -- often successful businessmen or alumni -- have strong campus ties, pockets full of cash, or wealthy friends. Installation is a private affair in closed meetings.
These secretive, patronage-driven paths blunt sustainability. A lack of stakeholder involvement in the process limits perspectives and buy-in. A bias towards the rich and powerful disconnects from reality. White privilege is self-perpetuated -- and thus board vision remains insular.
Justice: Historically, perhaps the most notable social justice advocacy by college boards was in opposition to apartheid. More than 150 college boards voted to divest of South African-related investment. However, the routine vetting of campus investment into socially responsible investment (SRI) has not followed. While the nation’s SRI industry has grown to over $3-trillion, campuses have not kept up, the Chronicle reports.
Today’s college boards seem to understand their fiduciary responsibilities as separate from their social-justice responsibilities.
Reforms: What might open the Ivory Tower’s doors to full sustainability?
For starters, trustees should be installed in sunshine, not shadows. That process should include input from knowledgeable, active, and diverse people from a range of community interests and incomes. Under an open process (which could tear down town-gown walls), colleges would get broader perspectives, create more strategic conversations, and foster a sense of collective responsibility between the campus and its community.
This new openness, focused on more than just the institutions’ wealthiest patrons, could bolster the colleges’ commitments to socially responsible investment and action – with profound benefits. The University of Florida and Yale have addressed social justice and inclusion by, say, supporting low-income housing weatherization and energy efficiency efforts. They have gotten carbon reductions and good will from the efforts — all while creating jobs and student-service opportunities.
Finally, management literature amply details the most profound upside of transparency: Trust. Stakeholders including students, alumni, and donors trust organizations more when told the truth, warts and all. Failure to heed this principle devastated the UVa and Penn State boards.
Jo Ann Gora, the president of Ball State University, and Robert Koester, a professor of architecture there, have shown how to nudge boards towards sustainability tenets by keeping them informed of the latest innovations in sustainability, discussing plans in terms of their whole-system implications, and “socializing” them in the sustainability culture of the rest of the campus. As a result, Ball State has emerged as one of the leading campuses in sustainable practices. Many other writers have detailed governance reforms. AGB has been trying to gently reshape board governance for years. The tools and ideas exist.
Visionary leaders have the keys to unlock Ivory Tower doors to a new governance covenant, one informed by sustainability’s principles and practices, and thus relevant to the unprecedented challenges we face on campus—and on the planet.
DISCLAIMER: I am an old white guy. I have served on numerous private and public boards for different organizations over my career. I have never served on a college board—and after this blog I don’t expect a lot of phone calls. I am currently a part of the white supermajority on the 14-person AASHE board. I will term limit off of AASHE’s Board next year. I am decidedly not rich by US standards—but very wealthy compared to the 80% of the planet’s population that lives on <$10/day. I understand my white privilege.
NOTE 1: A session at the upcoming AASHE conference in LA will be devoted to this subject—and will feature some campus presidents, trustees, and AGB expert. More details here.
NOTE 2: Several trusted colleagues reviewed and suggested changes to this piece before publication. Helped a lot. You know who you are. Thanks very much.