New members of the governing boards of Virginia's colleges and universities go back to school in an annual training session.
By Greg Weatherford
Balancing legal, ethical, financial and educational duties can be challenging, new board members learned.
Financial realities. Ethical duties. Fiduciary responsibilities.
Those were among the topics discussed at a recent orientation for recently appointed members of the boards that govern Virginia's public colleges and universities.
The orientation gathered 58 recent board appointees to higher-education institutions across the Commonwealth for two days at the state Capitol to learn how to guide enterprises as complex and important as a public college or university.
"Be bold, be creative," Governor Terry McAuliffe urged the board members at the opening of the session.
The governor reminded them how important it was to keep the public institutions affordable and accessible to all: "Make sure the doors of your institutions are open to those most in need." McAuliffe also underlined the importance of higher education to the state's economy, as both the source of a skilled workforce and through direct economic impact.
The State Council of Higher Education has held the annual training for new board members for many years. In 2013, the General Assembly made attendance mandatory for newly appointed members.
Unlike many other state systems of higher education, Virginia's public institutions are run by independent, unpaid boards of visitors -- the term dates back to 17th-century England; other states call them trustees -- who are appointed by the governor for staggered six-year terms. Board appointments are rare honors, since the boards usually have fewer than 15 members.
Becoming a member of a board of visitors is a chance to make a mark on the future of the Commonwealth, board consultant Susan Whealler Johnston, a Radford board member and chief operating officer of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, told attendees.
But the role also can raise challenges for appointees, many of whom are successful business leaders used to running things directly, Johnston added: "Some boards can be like a huddle of quarterbacks."
In a keynote, Kim Hunter Reed, U.S. deputy undersecretary of education, outlined the challenges facing higher education today. She cited a decline in state financial support, increasing need for student support and security, rising tuition and debt and the scourge of sexual violence on campus.
"Think students first. If students do well, campuses do well." - Kim Hunter Reed, U.S. Department of Education
But Reed also underscored the value of higher education to the financial and cultural prosperity of the state and the nation, and encouraged the new board members to focus on student success.
"Think students first," Reed said. "If students do well, campuses do well."
Knowing when -- and how -- governance boards should be involved in the oversight of such large, complex institutions took up many of the panel discussions.
Panels covered subjects including how public universities are financed, with an emphasis on the declining share of their budgets that is funded by state taxes; the differing roles of governing boards and college administrations; and the responsibilities public boards have to keep their meetings and records open to public.
Participants and panelists included Virginia's secretaries of education, finance and the commonwealth; college presidents and financial officers; experienced board leaders; and legislators.
One lively session delved into ways boards can support The Virginia Plan for Higher Education, the state's strategic plan to make Virginia the best-educated state in the nation by 2030. The plan presents four main goals: access and affordability; student success in work and life; innovation and investment; and cultural and economic prosperity.
"We know we have challenges," said the session's moderator, SCHEV council member Katharine Webb, pointing to changing demographics, rising tuitions and increasing scrutiny by the public of the value of a college degree.
Panelists Steve Landes, a state delegate, and former state Senator Walter Stosch emphasized the way higher education fits into the bigger educational picture. Landes pointed to the importance of beginning to prepare students for college while they are in middle and high school.
Throughout the orientation opinions sometimes varied, but panelists consistently praised the quality of Virginia's public colleges and universities.
"We have extraordinarily respected institutions of higher learning," Paul Trible, a former senator who has been president of Christopher Newport University since 1996, said in the final panel. "In Virginia we have a great deal of decentralization and independence. We have a marvelous mosaic of institutions. As a consequence, we can pursue excellence with abandon."
Agreed fellow panelist W. Taylor Reveley IV, president of Longwood University: "Virginia has the best education system in the known universe. And that is not something we beat the drum about enough."
To learn more about SCHEV's Board of Visitors Orientation, including an agenda, full list of attendees and biographies of panelists, visit schev.edu/bov.