Why Howard Phasing Out Student, Alumni, Faculty Seats on Trustee Board May Not Be a Bad Thing

INC.com’s Michael Schneider once wrote about the five questions that selfless leaders can affirmatively answer about their management skill and style.

1. Do you take the initiative to serve others?

2. Are you flexible and view interruptions as opportunities?

3. Are you a cheerful giver?

4. Do you use your words to encourage rather than criticize?

5. Do you balance speaking with listening?

While there are few leaders in any organization who can answer all five in the affirmative, and even fewer leaders on organizational governance boards who can do the same with collective certainty, they are the ideal set of values for which any leader or leadership structure should aim.

As Howard University rolls out plans to phase out of the student, alumni and faculty trustee roles from its governance board, the community anxiety about the change is legitimate; why are these important groups no longer represented in decision-making? Why change after generations of these roles being useful to the direction of America’s signature historically Black institution?

And loudest of all “what are the other trustees trying to hide?”

When you know higher education, you understand there is very little that can be hidden from a review of tax documents, Freedom of Information requests and intentional human sources within an organization. Following money and insights gets you far, and the same is true for Howard and every other HBCU.

To this end, there is no conspiracy behind why trustees voted to purge their own roll of auxiliary campus-based members; it is difficult because of their station at or around the campus, their view of the bigger picture that is Howard, and their allegiances to varying subgroups associated with the campus, to meet the five tiers of what makes for an effective leader.

Every trustee is burdened with specific priorities they want the university to fulfill to meet their expectations of growth and success. Some executives think enrollment, capital construction or philanthropy as the top priorities. Other think athletics, corporate partnerships and college and university rankings are the language of excellence.

There are those who could argue, and effectively so, that any trustee bearing the label of a stakeholder group cannot effectively provide fiduciary loyalty and birds-eye view vision of what can make an institution successful. In saying their names, “student trustee,” “alumni trustee” and “faculty trustee,” there is belief around the boardroom table and the campus that any meeting or decision impacted by their vote will be cast in benefit of their corresponding subgroup.

This is a difficult proposition for the board and for the trustees themselves. How can a faculty trustee cast votes for measures to increase student services if it means reduced positions or salaries for fellow instructors and researchers? How can a student trustee participate in homecoming committee meetings where the interests of alumni activities may cut into the profile or execution of student activities and concerts?

How can any of these representatives voice the concerns of their constituent groups, when most conversations require every group affiliated with a university to give a lot to get a little? This tension between what’s best for the university and what’s best for its stakeholder groups often leads, at any institution, to auxiliary trustee members being bullied, co-opted or outright silenced by non-auxiliary members to get certain measures passed.

According to board leadership, phasing out these positions also mandates that the board to listen more closely to bigger and broader cross-sections of these stakeholder groups on campus. They have promised listening sessions, dinners, and other methods of engagement to be sure that they hear from more students, and graduates, and more of the professors and instructors who raise them up and send them out with degrees.

If Howard trustees can keep to this promise, and bring the perspectives of these groups into committee meetings and full assemblies of the board, then chances are good that when decisions must be made impacting these groups, there is a more comprehensive view of what people on campus are actually saying, versus the voice of one person who represents the interests of hundreds or thousands of people.

Howard is not exempt from human behavior and pattern. If there is a way to shield members from undue pressure, and for the university to have the purest form of stakeholder interests equally represented, why not at least try it?

The Mecca deserves the opportunity to do something new that may push the institution from good to great. Students, faculty and alumni deserve the opportunity to speak to and to hear directly from trustees more often than they do now.

And the HBCU sector deserves an example of a board which is now more compelled to listen, give, and encourage in public more than it has ever been, to see if it can create a sector-wide culture of transparency and conspiracy-free leadership.

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