Illustration by Andrew Bannecker
Building a culture of evaluation is a good governance practice for a governing board or advisory council/board. Regardless of whether a school has a history of assessing its board, its members, and the presiding officer or if it is establishing a new approach to assessment for the future, there are wise practices to consider. Essential to wise practice in board governance is a commitment to both the board’s own ability to govern well and to the care of the presiding officer. One of the primary ways this commitment is demonstrated is via evaluation.
In order to understand how the board views its own ability to govern, a board assessment is necessary. A wise practice is for boards to engage in their own comprehensive evaluation process at least every three to five years. The terms limits outlined in board bylaws are useful guidelines; they dictate how often a board and its members may turn over. For many boards, every three years at least one third of the board is new to the institution, thus reinforcing the need for regular timely assessment.
The gift of board assessment is not merely the data, although they can provide useful information. Rather, assessment can identify and leverage the strengths of the board, explore opportunities for development, and, perhaps most importantly, focus on those areas in which there is a lack of clarity of the boards’ role or expectations.
Assessment is equally important if a board is not a governing body. Advisory board members often report a lack of clarity in their role as advocates for the seminary and seek input on how they can best serve. Engaging in evaluation offers opportunities for insight into their unique role in supporting the seminary as a part of the wider university.
Who drives the process? Board evaluation is the responsibility of the board itself. Typically, this work is led by the governance committee or individual board members.
Board assessment does not take the place of individual board member evaluation. All members of the board should be engaged in the evaluation process. This may seem too cumbersome or uncomfortable given the dedication of time, talent, and treasure that board members make as volunteers. Rethink the value of assessment. Board members crave feedback, and they are serving on the board because they love the school and its mission. They have a connection. Consider a conversation led by the governance or a similar committee that occurs yearly in which board members are asked how they feel about their board service. What would they change? And ask if the board is putting to use all of its gifts and talents. A school might be surprised by what it learns. And individual board members many understand expectations in their role that they were unaware of. This is a win-win exercise.
The board demonstrates its care for the president by providing an annual evaluation, with a more thorough assessment every three to five years. The annual evaluation offers feedback on priorities, goals, and direction for the future; it does not require formal tools or reports but can provide a dedicated discussion space. Unlike the yearly evaluation, a comprehensive evaluation provides broader stakeholder engagement, which may include an assessment tool or external consultation. This process provides the president and the board with an opportunity to spend time in a rich discussion reflecting on the president’s tenure and the strategic goals ahead. Ideally this evaluation should be experienced as a partnership with the board and an opportunity for a president to leverage identified strengths and learn of development opportunities. The president in turn should encourage the board to engage in its own regular self-assessment. In these ways, the board and president model for others within the institution the importance of assessment and accountability.
A commitment to and practice of evaluation across the institution’s leadership is just good governance.
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