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Better Governance Conversation Starters

Boards often look for meaningful questions that can help them move ahead. The prompts below can be used in board meetings, by the governance or executive committees, or by administrators to frame meaningful board discussions.

Time on Task

To what extent did the board spend its time on the right issues over the last year? What prevents the board from spending more time on the right issues?

Board Assessment

How well does the board assess its own work? When did the board last assess itself? What was the result of that assessment? How did it use the results to improve its effectiveness?

For Graduation Time

When is the last time the board reviewed the institution’s honorary degree policy and process? To what extent is the board comfortable with the process? In what ways is the board monitoring the reputational risk of awarding honorary degrees? (What due diligence is done before awarding degrees?)

Board Performance

Ask each board member to give the board a GPA (4.0; 3.5; 1.5, etc.). Why did you give it the marks you did? How consistent were the grades awarded across the board? What does the similarity as well as the grade tell you?

Problem Solving and Readiness

Find a recent news story about a university challenge (or a board problem), and there are many. Discuss what the board’s reaction should be if that event happened at your institution (or in your board room). To what extent are you as a board prepared for such a headline?

Board Culture

Ask each board member to write down on notecards five descriptors about the board’s culture. To what extent are there common elements across the notecards? If not, why not? How clear is the culture of the board to newcomers?

Trustee Expectations

What are the expectations that we have for each other regarding: coming to meetings prepared; meeting attendance; time spent on board- or institution-related work outside of board meetings; philanthropy?

Committee Leadership

How do we define the term “good committee chair?” What do good chairs do?

Board Dynamics

What are the top five competencies that make for an effective trustee on this board?

A Future Focus

If there is one issue that the board thinks it needs to know more about by this time next year to govern well, what is that most pressing issue? What makes that issue most compelling? (And how do you choose just one?)

Asking Good Questions

What have been the most important questions raised at the last two board meetings? What about those questions make them so insightful or impactful? What is the balance in the board room between a) comments, b) clarifying questions, and c) probing questions that shape decisions and drive discussion?

Committee Activity

Think about the workload across committees. Which single board committee is the most overloaded with work? Which single board committee seems to most be looking for things do? Why are these so?