Trusteeship in Our Era of Accountability
April 2014, Volume 27, Number 4
By James Kelly
There is little doubt that community colleges are in an era facing increased accountability and improved outcomes. Discussions of various forms of accountability are ubiquitous in today's environment (e.g., AACC's Voluntary Framework of Accountability). Regulators, legislators, professional organizations, and others are struggling to develop appropriate measures, define success, and implement effective practices to improve outcomes. Moreover, these conversations are occurring despite the lack of a consensus on what defines success.
One group noticeably absent from many of these discussions is the individuals who govern and theoretically represent the community in community colleges—namely, trustees. Trustees, whether appointed or elected, have resisted urgings to significantly engage in these issues. Although many factors contribute to this lack of involvement, two must be confronted and overcome prior to genuine trustee involvement in these issues.
The first factor relates to trustees themselves. Specifically, community college trustees, frequently fearful of usurping the rightful roles of their presidents and senior administrators, are often reluctant to delve too deeply into data such as performance indicators, question outcomes, or consider the efficacy of their institutions and their programs. Collectively, trustees are urged to consider only the big picture, cautioned against getting into the weeds, and are coached to defer to the president, senior administration, and existing internal shared governance structures in all things academic related.
The second factor relates to community college presidents. Presidents, for their part, are often reluctant to share excessive detail with their board, for fear of encouraging a breech in the careful demarcation between the trustee's governance role and the president's leadership and administrative roles. Additionally, an ostensible reluctance from the administration to provide performance outcome measures and similar data that might be misunderstood without appropriate context appears to exist.
Our era of accountability demands more from both trustees and presidents. Clearly, there are external forces ready to define our success, quantify our contributions to our communities, and dictate our finances, as well as mandate policies. If our institutional communities are not fully engaged and prepared to proactively and collectively address demands for greater accountability, we may be abdicating our responsibility to others.
Roles for Trustees
Trust and empower your president. You hired the president for a reason. Be supportive of initiatives that foster student success and enhance outcomes. Although easily said, be aware this may require reassessing budget priorities, mandating unpopular but necessary developmental courses, eliminating programs, or foregoing otherwise attractive programs and initiatives that do not directly contribute to these initiatives.
Recognize that the emphasis on accountability and outcomes may mandate some tough decisions for which you will ultimately be responsible. For instance, with emphasis being placed on student completion, trustees should be aware that if completion comes to mean only a certificate, diploma, or successful transfer within a specified length of time, it could threaten our fundamental mission of being open access institutions.
Ask questions and help focus institutional priorities. Be aware of the importance of accountability and outcomes while fostering an environment that reflects these priorities. Question how programs and projects will be assessed, what their contributions are to student success and accountability, and what alternatives are being foregone in order to support these initiatives. Questioning will help your institution's administration hone their arguments and the rationale for projects and priorities for which your college will be answerable.
Examine processes and services from the student's perspective. Ample research identifies a good number of the barriers students encounter and offer a number of techniques to address them. The trustees and president must possess the will, as well as the means, to implement them. This must be part of the focus.
Seek training and information. Issues involved in accountability and student success can be both simple and complex. For instance, understanding the connections between student engagement in extracurricular activities, student success, and ultimate accountability measures may not be so apparent at first. Additionally, it might not be entirely clear why students who endeavor to work while taking a class or two each year for several years could be deemed a failure in some scenarios. Take the opportunity to participate in conferences, learn from those who are knowledgeable, and improve your understanding of these issues. Such knowledge is critical for your success as well as that of your institution.
Advocate for your institution and community colleges. Community colleges have received unprecedented attention of late. Perhaps like no other time, our country's President is being joined by governors, legislators, accrediting bodies, foundations, and other entities in calling for various models for assessing the effectiveness of our institutions. As representatives of their communities, trustees are extremely well positioned to help sway this public debate, frame the issues, and contribute to a meaningful and useful definition of success. Trustees must assist in efforts to educate legislators and others regarding the mission of the community colleges, as well as the unique niche we occupy in higher education.
Roles for Presidents
Provide trustees with knowledge and context. Accountability is fraught with various nuances and can be challenging to the uninitiated. Provide opportunities for your trustees to learn about issues and their relevance to your institution. With the knowledge gained through appropriate and ongoing training, trustees will better understand the complexities of our new era of accountability and its application to your institution. Data will become more comprehensible as well as less likely to be misunderstood. As educators, we have a responsibility to use these skills to engage and educate trustees.
Trust and empower your trustees. Stories of trustees undermining their presidents, confusing their governance function with the role of the president, and the like abound. The rouge trustee of O'Banion (2009) is real and presidents can often cite examples. While such individuals exist, they do disservice to the public trust and you should not function as if it is the norm rather than the exception. Notwithstanding these outliers, trustees are more often dedicated, committed individuals working on behalf of their communities and institutions. Given the proper tools, and with knowledge gained through appropriate training, trustees can be trusted to act on behalf of your institution and be supportive of accountability efforts while also serving as valuable ambassadors to the community.
Appreciate questioning and be responsive. Once focused by means of knowledge and insight, value the questioning and constructive input of trustees. Assume good intentions and trust that questions do not reflect reservations about your performance or recommendations; rather seek greater understanding as well as fulfillment of the trustees' oversight role. Recognize as well that to the extent that you fear trustees will misconstrue or misuse data, you may have not fulfilled your educational responsibility to the trustees.
The relationship between community college presidents and their trustees is critically important to their mutual success, and that of their institutions. All too often, though, there are undertones of mistrust, the lack of mutual respect, and the collegiality of reciprocally supportive relationships. In such instances, powerful allies to the community—the trustees—are left out of the discussions and planning for accountability and success initiatives. This is not a desirable or even sustainable model; nor does it bring to bear all of the institutional resources in a unified and effective manner.
Trustees have a crucial role to play as others attempt to define and regulate the very institutions we are charged with governing. However, we must take steps to educate ourselves and understand the various measures of success and the variables that contribute to such assessments. Further, we need to appreciate our role and its boundaries, as well as those of the college president and administrators. And, our primary aim should be to support presidents in enhancing their colleges' performance to the extent that is necessary and desirable.
A college's success is commonly determined by those unfamiliar with its unique characteristics and challenges with only minimal input from those charged with local governance. Trustees have a responsibility and obligation to join discussions about accountability and improved outcomes. Likewise, college presidents have a role in informing, educating, and empowering their college's trustees, and entrusting them with this crucial function. Neither should be willing to abdicate these roles—the stakes are too high as community colleges fulfill an extraordinary role within our communities and society.
American Association of Community Colleges. (2012). The voluntary framework of accountability: Developing measures of community college effectiveness and outcomes. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://vfa.aacc.nche.edu/Documents/VFAOutcomesReportWebFINAL.pdf
O'Banion, Terry. (2009). The rogue trustee: The elephant in the room. Phoenix, AZ: League for Innovation in the Community College.
James Kelly is a student in Ferris State University's Doctorate in Community College Leadership program. He also serves as an elected Trustee at a major mid-western community college.
Opinions expressed in Leadership Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.