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The Case for Board of Trustees to Embrace Academic Acumen

Dr. Joseph L Jones

In the ever-evolving landscape of higher education, the role of governing boards, such as the Board of Trustees, is of paramount importance. These bodies are entrusted with the responsibility of setting the strategic direction, ensuring financial stability, and upholding the mission and values of their respective institutions. However, to effectively fulfill these duties, it is essential for board members to possess a deep understanding of academic acumen.

I define academic acumen as a wide range of knowledge and skills related to teaching, research, and knowledge creation within the higher education context. It goes beyond financial acumen or business expertise, emphasizing the unique challenges and opportunities inherent in the academic enterprise. By embracing academic acumen, board members can better comprehend the complexities of higher education and make informed decisions that advance the mission and goals of their institutions.

Dr. Joseph L. JonesDr. Joseph L. JonesAs of late, there have been several headlines that have brought to bear the dearth of academic acumen among board members and policy makers. The State University System of Florida Board of Governors decision to eliminate all diversity, equity, and inclusion programs from the University of Florida is the latest example. Earlier this year, former Harvard University President Claudine Gay resigned after receiving mounting pressure from the Harvard Corporation, its governing body, over issues of censorship and alleged plagiarism. The Georgia Board of Regents in 2023 ended the practice of providing diversity statements for faculty hiring.

One key aspect of academic acumen that is particularly relevant to governing boards is shared governance. Shared governance is the principle that decision-making in higher education should involve collaboration and consultation among faculty, administrators, students, and other stakeholders. It recognizes the expertise and perspectives of various individuals within the academic community and ensures that decisions are made with the best interests of the institution in mind. For board members to effectively govern their institutions, they must understand and respect the principles of shared governance, engaging with faculty, staff, and students in a collaborative and transparent manner.

Furthermore, board members must recognize that results in higher education often take years, if not decades, to materialize fully. Whether it be the impact of research discoveries, the development of critical thinking skills in students, or the cultivation of a vibrant intellectual community, the effects of higher education are often long-term and multifaceted. Board members must adopt a patient and forward-thinking approach to governance, recognizing that the outcomes of their decisions may not be immediately apparent.

Additionally, board members must appreciate the role of academic freedom in the academic enterprise. Academic freedom is the principle that scholars and students should have the autonomy to explore ideas, challenge conventions, and pursue truth without fear of censorship or reprisal. It is essential for fostering intellectual curiosity, advancing knowledge, and promoting diversity of thought within the academic community. By upholding academic freedom, boards can create an environment conducive to scholarly inquiry and innovation.

Moreover, the role of board members extends beyond traditional governance functions to encompass advocacy and support for their institutions. Board members serve as ambassadors for their colleges and universities, advocating for resources, building partnerships, and promoting the value of higher education to stakeholders both within and outside the institution. To be effective advocates, board members must possess a thorough understanding of their institution’s academic mission, programs, and accomplishments as well as the broader trends and challenges facing higher education.

Finally, inherent in academic acumen is a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).  The role of the university is to commit to understanding and embracing a diverse student body, faculty, staff, and administrators. It also requires developing policies that seek equity in teaching and learning. In addition, it demands that all people are included in the decision-making process and are allowed to be their authentic selves. Boards of trustees must reflect and support DEI efforts at institutions of higher education.

Governing boards play a crucial role in shaping the direction and success of colleges and universities. To effectively fulfill their duties, board members must embrace academic acumen, understanding the principles of shared governance, recognizing the long-term nature of academic endeavors, upholding academic freedom, serving as advocates for their institutions, and embracing DEI. By doing so, boards can ensure that their institutions remain vibrant centers of learning, inquiry, and knowledge creation for generations to come.

Dr. Joseph L. Jones is an associate professor of political science and executive director of W.E.B. Du Bois Southern Center for Studies in Public Policy at Clark Atlanta University.

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