The first boards of trustees at Catholic colleges and universities were formed in the late 1960s – convivial gatherings of enthusiastic alumni who wanted to do good for their alma maters and others who wanted to help. Oddly, at institutions of higher education, not a lot of thought went into forming them.
There was also a paucity of literature about board governance, even as years passed and the complexity of helping presidents shepherd colleges, universities and later high schools grew exponentially. Today, it’s daunting.
“The challenges and dilemmas facing institutions of higher education include the increasingly competitive global workforce, the financial realities of the 21st century and heightened scrutiny of college and university outcomes,” said Rev. Stephen Katsouros, S.J., associate dean at the University of San Francisco (USF) School of Education, who is carving out a niche in measuring board performance and helping trustees be higher performers.
Fr. Katsouros added, “Higher education needs to change to achieve stronger institutions, more efficient methods of delivery, higher academic quality and better educational performance. Boards of trustees need to assert positive change leadership to address those issues.”
The centerpiece of his efforts is a four-day conference on trustee leadership for Catholic higher and secondary education trustees, entitled “Making Decisions to Sustain Your Mission.” Attendance doubled at the second annual conference in July 2013, at which Fr. Katsouros and prominent presenters put an emphasis on ideas for structuring more stimulating and strategic board meetings. The recurring phrase at the conference, in every phase of governance, is this: “Link everything you are doing with mission.”
The third annual conference in San Francisco will be in July 2014, dates to be announced.
Here are a few questions Fr. Katsouros would ask of trustees: Does he or she understand the institution’s culture and its mission? Does he or she know what it means to be serving on a not-for-profit board and keeping up with trends? Does the trustee have good interpersonal skills and are relationships forming so that challenges are more comfortable?
Fr. Katsouros, like Karen Webber, Vice President for Administration at Regis University in Denver, who attended this year’s sessions, likes a devil’s advocate on a board. “They have the ability to see issues through the lens of different stakeholders,” said Webber, who works closely with Regis trustees. “They also stimulate creative thinking, inspire others to think out of the box and discourage complacency. To those who prefer status quo and resist change, they may seem to be a royal pain, but they are essentialinkeeping the institution moving forward in a rapidly changing world.”
There is, of course, another responsibility for Catholic trustees, and Fr. Katsouros places it up front: “I say to lay trustees that this is one of the great legacies of the Second Vatican Council, and particularly the Decree on the Laity, and that is recognition of laywomen and laymen and their leadership in these Catholic organizations."
Fr. Katsouros, 54, came to USF in 2011, having been named director of its Institute for Catholic Educational Leadership. He became an associate dean this year. He was, for nine years, president of Loyola School in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a Jesuit college preparatory high school, and earlier served at schools in the Lower East Side of New York City, Harlem and Jersey City. He earned a master’s degree in organizational leadership at Harvard University and a doctorate in educational administration at the Columbia University Teachers College.
His research was on the characteristics of effective, high-performing boards of trustees, triggered by a trio of educators who had interviewed the boards of more than 20 private colleges and universities and found what they called competencies or behaviors that repeated themselves. The group produced an instrument called the Board Self-Assessment Questionnaire (BSAQ).
But Fr. Katsouros wanted to see if there was a correlation between high-performing boards and high-performing schools, and so he incorporated data markers for success, including academic achievement, the percentage of alumni who donate, endowment size, salaries and more, and wrote a dissertation that made the connection with quantitative data. His research now includes making benchmark associations with similar institutions. Trustees at the conference, in fact, are handed customized analyses of their boards and suggestions for improving productivity.
The stakes are high. A 2012 Bain & Company analysis had the full attention of trustees at this year’s conference: an analysis of nearly 1,700 U.S. public and private non-profit colleges and universities found that one-third have been on a financially unsustainable path in recent years. Fittingly, the conference agenda included alternative revenue streams, reducing redundancies, delivering classes and degree programs more efficiently, mission, and the importance of niche – that which distinguishes a college or university.
Regis University’s Webber said she came away from the July conference having “learned ways to structure business meetings so that trustees participate in governance as leadership.” She added, “We have moved away from the meeting being primarily a series of reports to actively tapping the wealth of expertise among our trustees to advise management in major decisions.”
Rev. C. Kevin Gillespie, S.J., President of Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, attended the conference this year with Robert D. Falese, Jr., Chair of the University’s Board of Trustees. “The conference itself was both informative and formative,” said Fr. Gillespie. “The presentations were excellent and many were cutting edge, done at a high strategic level. Not only did Mr. Falese and I learn from the speakers, but also collaborated on sharing new strategies and tactics for Saint Joseph’s University.”
Meantime, the bar is moving ever higher for trustees. Said USF trustee John F. Nicolai, a 40-year veteran of Ernst & Young, “The work of the board has become incredibly more complex. The entire management of a school, from a debt perspective, especially if you are in the public market, has become very sophisticated.”
His is one of many complementary trustee skill sets that benefit institutions, said Fr. Katsouros. “They represent different stakeholder groups, advocating for different constituencies, bringing to the table their resources. It’s the three Ws: wealth, work and wisdom.”
Photo of Rev. Stephen Katsouros, S.J. courtesy of the University of San Francisco.