The 10 Most Essential Attributes of an HBCU Trustee

Throughout my career in higher education, I had the privilege of serving as a trustee or director of numerous national, regional and local boards. These included higher education associations, banks, foundations, think tanks, economic development entities, youth-serving organizations and school boards, among others. Even in retirement, I have the opportunity of contributing to the commonweal by serving as a trustee on more than a half-dozen, national or local non-profit boards. As a lifelong activist and advocate for social justice, I cannot think of a better way to serve the needs of the community than as a board member of a non-profit organization. I am just as enthusiastic about being a trustee today as I was when I was appointed to the Pine Bluff Arkansas Bi-racial Commission as a 19-year-old college student at the height of the Civil Rights movement.

Like many of my friends and colleagues, I have been struck by recently alleged behavior attributed to some HBCU trustees. Unfortunately, the alleged behavior of a few has a way of imputing the character of all HBCU trustees more so than appears to be the case at PWIs. Having held leadership positions at multiple PWIs and two HBCUs, I know from first-hand experience that HBCUs do not hold a monopoly on trustees whose motives are suspicious or whose actions are inconsistent with the values of the university on whose board they serve.

In reflecting on my own service as a trustee, and in the context of the governance challenges faced by a growing number of HBCUs, I thought it might be useful to identify the essential attributes of an effective university trustee whether the person is affiliated with an HBCU or PWI, a profit or non-profit organization. I am convinced that an effective trustee is an effective trustee no matter where the person happens to serve. So, what are the prerequisites for effective trusteeship? What follows are ten essential attributes.

1. There is no substitute for integrity. Either board members behave in an ethical, honest and unconfutable manner or they do not. There should be neither whispers nor audible sounds about the motives or actions of board members individually or collectively.

2. Trustees must believe passionately and unreservedly in the mission and role of the institution on whose board they are honored to serve. This doesn't mean that one should not ask questions. Rather, it means that one's questions should not challenge the primary mission of the institution or the premise upon which it was established. These questions should have been before agreeing to join the board.

3. An effective trustee understands the policy role of the board and respects the administrative authority of the CEO of the organization. Equally as important, he/she respects the consensus of board and abstains from leading efforts to produce a different outcome.

4. Influence, affluence and expertise are typically among the most important criterion for being appointed to a particular board. Trustees must bring something to the board other than their physical presence or personal interests. Too often, however, the relationship between the appointing officer and the person appointed trumps everything, including expertise.

5. It is impossible to be an effective trustee without coming to every meeting prepared to fully participate in all discussions and deliberations. There is no substitute for preparation. Dwelling on a question after it has been thoroughly addressed in board materials or in person is unwarranted and inexcusable.

6. While an effective trustee supports the vision of the CEO, he/she is not hesitant to ask critical questions that clarify or focus the actions and directions of the university or organization.

7. Deferring to the CEO or failing to address issues surrounding succession planning is inconsistent with the behavior of effective boards. No matter how effective or beloved a CEO may be, there is always life after his or her tenure; and for the sake of the university/organization, the board cannot afford to ignore that reality.

8. No matter how committed trustees may be, at the end of the day they have responsibility for the well-being of the organization, not just the interests or well-being of the CEO. Although the CEO is an important part of the university/organization, he/she is not the organization. An important role of trustees is to evaluate the performance of the CEO.

9. Effective trustees, individually and collectively, engage in continuous learning and professional development.

10. An authentic and effective trustee understands the difference between being a trustee and being the boss!

Just as executive leadership is an important dimension of institutional effectiveness, so is effective trusteeship/stewardship. Unless trustees of HBCUs and other organizations are prepared to be true stewards of the university, they should resign without being asked to do so. The bottom line is this: HBCUS cannot afford the luxury of having board members who are not on board.

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