How to improve board decision-making at community colleges

Jennifer Rose Hale

As a college board member, you must understand the challenges facing your college — including funding uncertainties, student outcomes, post-pandemic issues, staff recruitment and retention — and also be ready to make critical decisions around those issues.  

You have a lot of information to consider, and each week brings new challenges and opportunities. 

Take the recent partnership announced between the Association of Community College Trustees and the National Head Start Association, which aims to increase free on-campus Head Start and Early Head Start slots on U.S. community college campuses.

This partnership — and the options it opens up for specific campuses and systems — could lead to outcome-changing opportunities for parents of young children who attend or want to attend an open-access higher-education program. As a result, many community college boards will need to decide how to best implement these programs at their campuses.  

And this is just one example of many. So, with constant challenges and opportunities facing community colleges, what happens when a board struggles with decision-making? And how can your board improve the decision-making process from agenda item to implementation?  

Where college boards face challenges in decision-making 

Every board member wants to make a difference and be part of a successful team. So where do community college boards struggle when it comes to decision-making? Let’s take a look at a few key factors, all of which can intertwine and create obstacles to visionary action. 

Trustees bring different experience levels to service. The very factor that makes a team strong — diverse viewpoints and areas of expertise — can lead to issues in decision-making.

Some team members join the board understanding how to use procedural rules to achieve consensus. Others may be well-versed in the issues faced by higher education entities. But most trustees will have at least some gaps in these or related areas.

Until these gaps are filled in through training and communication, decision-making could be problematic or face delays while people get up-to-speed. 

The board prioritizes discussion over decision. Some boards may find themselves stuck in discussion loops that never progress to the decision-making step. With political and cultural conflicts playing a part in so many education-related discussions, prolonging discussion and delaying decision-making can feel like the safer route.

A team may also feel that a decision will come easier with additional information, but those details may never materialize. The same thoughtful consideration that engenders respect among and toward the team can turn into frustration with delayed action. 

The board has too much information. Or too little. Or it’s too disorganized, out-of-date or hard to parse. So many factors impede a board’s ability to quickly digest and use data to inform decision-making.  

The board turns decision-making into rubber-stamping. All the above factors can also lead decision-makers to hastily approve any new items college leaders present to the board, risking the value trustees bring to the organization.  

Best practices for college board decision-making 

So, how do board members ensure they are spending the right amount of time on decisions, and that they’re making the right ones? Consider these strategies.  

Follow a structured agenda — and keep it realistic

The final 10 to 20 minutes of a board meeting can feel a little like a cliffhanger TV episode — a race against the clock for a resolution that will never arrive. Or, of course, the meeting can run long, with trustees pressured into rubber-stamping proposals.

Agendas should be built to allow enough time for insightful discussion and deliberation, and include realistic time limits for each. Additionally, someone should have the role of enforcer, to move the team to the next item when time runs out.  

Implement and follow rules of order

Whether you use Robert’s Rules of Order or another variation of parliamentary procedure, your board’s process should be documented and understood by all participants. It should also define the process by which a topic becomes a decision. A digital board management tool can help support the structure that allows a meeting to progress efficiently. 

Regularly evaluate your decision-making processes

While the board should follow a standard process, it should also stay flexible enough to recognize areas for improvement and implement change based on lessons learned. Each team is unique, and what works for one iteration of a team may need to be reexamined after new appointments or an election. 

Make documentation accessible and data understandable

It can’t be said enough: Board members must be on the same page, literally and figuratively, when considering information related to their decision-making. Multiple versions of documents, inconsistent data, a firehose of irrelevant information — these factors make trustees’ jobs harder.

The board, and the school staff who support them, must share a commitment to creating, presenting and archiving documentation so that more time is spent on effective decision-making. 

Why data-driven decision-making is so important

Better board decision-making for community colleges is achievable, and data, as noted earlier, plays a big part in board effectiveness. Board members must be comfortable using so many documents in their role — agendas, yes, but also minutes from past meetings, policy manuals, strategic documents, infographics and informatics, progress reports, grant materials and more. 

Additionally, boards use data for accountability. By creating and maintaining reliable data that is consistently accessible, boards can be confident that they are making the best decisions for their schools and that those decisions are documentable and defensible.   

Technology offers a key to help boards work with data and transform their governance. Implementing a document storage solution with versioning, consistent templates and automated approvals makes this goal easier to achieve.  

By housing data-related materials (and all materials related to community-college governance) in a digital board management tool, trustees ensure that the right materials are always available at a moment’s notice. 

We at Diligent are here to support you as you use technology to enhance your decision-making and governance practices. Learn how Diligent Community can help your college board.