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What is the optimal size for a board of trustees? Do small boards work better than big ones? And how do you define big


A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education discusses the risks of having a board that is too big to function appropriately, including poor communication, disengagement, diluted accountability, and the possibility that a small faction will be able to seize control. 


Walter D. Scott, professor of management at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, who has served on more than a dozen corporate boards and 20 nonprofit boards, says that unless the number of board members is kept reasonable, meetings will be dysfunctional. 


The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges notes that the average private college board has 29 voting members, but that some exceed this average by quite a bit (for example, the University of Miami board has 74 voting members). The typical public college board has about 12 voting members, but again there are outliers. Pennsylvania State University, which is considered quasi-private, has 32 members. (In the wake of the recent sex-abuse scandal at the institution, poor board communication was cited by some as a contributing factor.) 


Some schools are in the process of shrinking their boards. Johns Hopkins University voted last year to reduce its 65-member board substantially, setting a goal of 35 members by 2015. 


“Those boards that exceed the average by dramatic numbers can be unwieldy, and it is difficult to coordinate and get the policy work done,” says Richard D. Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards. “I applaud those institutions that are taking a hard look and making reductions to become more efficient.” 


James W. Gauss, chairman of board services for Witt/Kieffer, and executive search firm, notes that in spite of the known risks of large boards, there is no guarantee that replacing a large board with a small one will result in better governance. 


Has your board ever had a discussion about the optimal number of members? 


Read the full article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (available to individuals with subscriptions only).

Guest blog post by Emilie Babcox
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