Keys to a Productive External Advisory Board, Part 1: Establishing Board Membership

Many of our universities use school- or college-level external advisory boards (EABs) for a variety of reasons. Some departments employ such boards as well. Academically related areas where boards can be particularly useful are providing curricular advice to academic departments, assessing the quality of graduates, and offering employment opportunities and internships or other forms of engagement to students. These board roles are particularly relevant for professional schools (e.g., business) and programs (e.g., IT-related) that prepare students for specific workplaces or positions in which changes in knowledge and skills are anticipated and must be addressed immediately. Other board roles may include providing insight into material and fiscal opportunities, such as the donation of used equipment, industry grants, and contract work that may otherwise be available to outside bidders; assisting with philanthropy, both corporate and individual; offering advice on dealing with the local political environment; providing feedback on new initiatives; and being conduits to their colleagues and other well-placed individuals on the excellence and value of the institution and school (or department).

While all these outcomes promise to be of great value to an institution and school, it seems that in many cases EABs fail to regularly produce them. At least in the cases with which we are familiar, this is due to avoidable flaws in the establishment of the EAB and how it operates. We have taken several steps that have resulted in the creation of a successful EAB at the Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis School of Science. In Part 1 of this article, we discuss establishing the board; in Part 2, forthcoming next month, we will reveal ways to maintain the board’s interest and enthusiasm.

To be successful—for instance, to increase philanthropy, raise the institution’s profile and reputation, or increase engagement with the community—the board should comprise individuals who are of sufficient stature to influence colleagues in their organization as well as other highly placed individuals in the community and who demonstrate enthusiastic commitment to the institution and school. The dean (or academic chair) should be active and comfortable working with individuals from outside higher education (external visibility required) and would be responsible for creating the enthusiasm and excitement about the institution and school that the board members would reflect in their work on behalf of the school. Board members who are not in prominent positions within their organizations or who serve on boards to check a box on their employee records or to add a line to the resume generally do not work well. Likewise, deans who shun external visibility and who are not attentive to promoting the board’s work might have less successful outcomes.

Assembling the EAB

Let’s start the cycle with the recruitment of a new dean. Major variables include whether the dean is an internal hire or comes from a distance and whether there is an existing board. An internal dean has the advantage of familiarity with at least a subset of the board and with some external contacts in the community. External deans would be starting at ground zero, which means they should consider meeting with the board chair prior to starting their appointments. From there, introductions to other board members and key community constituents could be arranged. It is important that a new, functional board be established in a timely fashion so that neither momentum nor opportunity is lost.

Again, assuming the existence of an EAB, the new dean would typically call a board meeting to tell board members what the school expects of them and what goals the school needs their help to achieve. Under normal circumstances, a savvy dean will invite all board members to continue their service on the board knowing that some will choose this time to withdraw. The changing of school leadership allows those who have served for several years to give others the opportunity to participate. It also is a time when board members whose interests and loyalties lie with the previous dean and those who are not enamored of the new board expectations can gracefully bow out. This transitionary process should leave the dean with a core of experienced, committed board members—and perhaps several vacancies. A major, initial goal for the dean and the board will be to fill those vacancies with the right people.

The dean can contribute to the board by keeping an eye out for board talent as she makes her rounds in external settings, both professional and social. During these gatherings the dean must be prepared to list the accomplishments of the school and its faculty, summarize the successes of its graduates, project her vision and future goals, and indicate where she will require assistance to achieve these ends. This type of disclosure will typically result in side conversations at the event or subsequent ones with individuals who are intrigued by the prospects for success and who have ideas about how to make them a reality. Conversations would continue between the dean and these individuals, and a request to serve on the board may be made. It should be understood that recruiting individuals to serve on the board in terms of benefit gained is not a one-way street. Many of those recruited are with large organizations that employ many people, and the better the local source of talent, the easier it is for them to identify great candidates. As highly placed individuals in the local community, these board candidates are also interested in seeing the region prosper, so many are pleased to help even when their organizations do not benefit directly. Similarly, individuals who come from different disciplines (e.g., a high-placed area lawyer serving a nursing college EAB) can add considerable value to a board because they operate with the overall value to the community in mind.

The existing board members can also make major contributions to filling out or expanding the board. These individuals routinely interact with similarly placed peers within their organizations and with counterparts in other organizations. As part of their charge, board members can bring up the institution and the school at appropriate times during conversations about new hires, innovative technology, employee needs, research findings, and related topics. Those whose interest is piqued by the discussion’s university and school components could make excellent board prospects. The board member will report this interest to the dean, who can arrange through the board member to meet the potential candidate. Many deans will do this even if there is no urgency to create or fill a position on the board. Unless there are limitations on board appointments, it is wise to bring an outstanding individual onto the board immediately rather than wait for a board vacancy.

Alumni are another potential source of board members. This represents a common starting point should there be no existing board at the time of the new dean’s appointment. In keeping with the previous option of appointing difference-makers in the community, the first alumni on the list should be successful alumni who own their own businesses, who are highly placed in their organizations, or who have significant public recognition (e.g., entertainers, former athletes, and politicians). Alumni come with institutional and school enthusiasm and commitment and are very familiar with its culture and many of its people. They make excellent representatives of the school and its quality.

Right-sizing and board composition

The final questions about establishing an EAB are how large it should be and whether the school has preferences about member background, affiliation, and personal characteristics. Size is a matter of the dean’s preference. Each discipline within the school should have a board member who can both represent it and recognize external opportunities for it. This does not mean a board member for each discipline; one person can do these things for related disciplines. A key consideration is having a board that elicits input from everyone at its meetings. Thus, modest-sized boards composed of the right individuals are probably best. Whatever the decided size, the dean should exercise the option to bring on additional members who promise to bring exceptional opportunity to the school.

There are occasions when everyone acknowledges that the school should have a board member from a specific organization. For example, a school of science located 20 miles from a major manufacturer of research instruments would certainly be well-served with a board member from the company. Likewise, a school with a clinical psychology program located near a facility specializing in treating mental illness would welcome a board member from that institution. These two examples alone increase opportunities for research collaborations, internships, instrument access and acquisition, curricular and training feedback, and employment for graduates.

The final consideration in establishing an EAB is what its overall composition should be. Even with recent advances in diversity, the great majority of our organizations remain headed by white males. But women and people of different ethnicities have been rising in the ranks of corporations and other external entities. The CEOs at most of these organizations, even if they believe fervently in the institution and school, will not have the time to devote to the cause and instead will suggest a VP or unit director to serve on the board. The business world is well aware that organizations generate better ideas and reach better decisions when discussions involve a culturally, racially, and gender-diverse mix of participants. In their discussions with the CEO, the dean or board members can indicate a preference that helps to satisfy the diversity interest. Other ways to ensure diversity on the EAB are to select alumni to serve and to use the university’s list of women- and minority-owned businesses (which many institutions compile to ensure that all aspects of the private sector reap the benefits of the goods and services the institution requires) to identify potential board candidates.

N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is professor and chair emeritus of biology and former associate dean for planning and finance in the School of Science at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.

Lindsay N. Heinzman is executive director of development and alumni affairs in the School of Science at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.

Simon J. Rhodes, PhD, is provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of North Florida and former dean of the School of Science at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.