An Evaluation of Boards of Trustees—During and After the Pandemic
By Dr. Joseph Barwick and Dr. Michael Taylor – Executive Leadership Associates, LLP
In its almost 60-year history, the North Carolina Community College System has faced some significant challenges beyond the normal ups and downs associated with enrollments and budgets. For example, in 1990, Operation Desert Storm took many of its military students out of the classroom. Hurricanes that play havoc with the coast almost every fall have also disrupted the schedules of community colleges over the years, including Hugo in 1989 and Florence in 2018. The great recession of 2008-2009 saw budgets cut and enrollments spike.
Yet it is safe to say nothing has impacted the entire system, or the entire world for that matter, as COVID-19. When Governor Roy Cooper announced on March 14, 2020, that North Carolina public schools were closing, it was obvious community colleges would soon follow. Just four days later, then system’s president Peter Hans made it official: almost all instruction would move online.
A system that prides itself on being able to nimbly deliver education quickly to individuals, business, and industry had to totally change directions. It goes without saying, nobody had a Global Pandemic Emergency Plan in the files. For a system with 58 colleges serving approximately 700,000 students, March 2020 created a whole new ball game.
A significant portion of community college instruction was already online prior to campuses closing, but almost of all of those students were taking online instruction by choice. By necessity, online instruction became not a choice, but a requirement to stay enrolled.
As the role of the student changed dramatically, so did the role of the community college trustee. Most trustee orientations do not include a seminar on how to support a college president during a global pandemic. Additionally, it is likely that at the start of the pandemic, many trustees were not familiar with virtual meetings.
However, the broad role of the trustee remains the same: to hire and support a president; and to serve both a fiduciary and a policy-making function at the college. But during this pandemic, that role has become more challenging. Some examples of issues trustees have had to address are further explained below.
–The board has always had a responsibility for the fiscal well-being of the institution. This past year, the trustees also assumed a responsibility for the physical well-being of students, faculty, and staff at the college.
–A trustee board should always work as a unit. Trustees’ power is collective in nature, not vested in individual trustees. Under the new “rules of engagement,” meetings became virtual. Board unity was more important than ever, but also more difficult to achieve.
–The role of hiring and evaluating a president became more difficult. During the hiring process, Zoom interviews sometimes took the place of in-person conversations and campus visits. Evaluating the college chief executive also depends on interpersonal interaction with the president, but that too became problematic.
–North Carolina Session Law 115D, which governs community colleges, including how trustees are appointed, stipulates in section 12(b) that trustees must reside in the administrative area of the college. Clearly, the intent is that Boards of Trustees not only represent the college in the community it serves, but they also have a duty to bring the community’s needs, challenges and opportunities to the college. Trustees are required to approve ALL new programs as an assurance that college programming addresses only the needs of the community it serves. Now is a good time for Boards to do a serious self-assessment as to how well they maintained that link between college and community during this disruption. For example, did the Board exchange pandemic information shared by the governor and department of public health that changed daily? Did the Board share information in terms of how these mandates would impact the college and ways the college might respond as a community resource?
–Our system was designed to allow the local college to address local needs. As the pandemic progressed, community colleges responded with different approaches designed by the local president and implemented by the staff. Was the Board in agreement that the local approach was the best for the community within the resources available? Was the Board listening to the local business community in order to support the president as the college had to rethink and revamp how it delivered workforce training, small business support, and even programs preparing essential workers, such as nurses, EMTs and CNAs? Is the Board knowledgeable enough to legislatively advocate for the college so the college is held harmless for the impact on enrollment? Regardless of whether Boards “meet” monthly or quarterly, Board connection with both their college and the community is constant. There has never been a better time for Boards to take that “big picture” look at how strong and effective that link is now.
–As normal systems of instructional delivery changed, ensuring the college had a plan to monitor institutional effectiveness became even more important this past year. Do trustees know how this massive shift from in-person, in-class instruction to mostly online instruction impacted the effectiveness of their college?
Hopefully, the pandemic is grinding to a laborious demise. However, the college and the community it serves now have to start picking up the pieces. This means accelerated workforce training and preparing the campuses for what is hopefully, an influx of students. Remember, students have been working in isolation and juggling family and personal responsibilities in preeminent ways. An essential question to ask now is: How did we do as a Board? That question leads to the next big question: Where do we go from here?
Part of a trustees’ responsibility is to be a visionary for their college. If ever there was a time to be that visionary, it is now.
Dr. Joseph Barwick and Dr. Michael Taylor are two of the partners in Executive Leadership Associates, LLP, and former NC community college presidents (Carteret CC and Stanly CC respectively). Dr. Barwick was also interim president at A-B Tech when the pandemic hit. Visit www.executiveleaders.net to learn more.