Right-Sizing Your Board

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by David Shufflebarger,
Senior Partner


We are often asked “What is the ideal size for our board?”

One response is simply, “Not too large and not too small.” Another is, “It depends.”

While there is some merit in both answers, neither is very helpful without delving deeper into the board’s role at an individual college, university, institutionally-related foundation, or advisory body.

This is a somewhat hot topic for both public and private colleges and universities in light of governance crises at Penn State and the University of Virginia and challenges illustrated in last month’s The Chronicle of Higher Education article Too Many Trustees Can Burden a Board, More Colleges Realize . It cited AGB data showing the average size of the board at private institutions as 29 and for public institutions as 12. We have seen institutionally related foundation boards from a low of seven members to a high of more than 300, and advisory groups from five to 50.

The article leads with how the 1987 football death penalty at Southern Methodist University precipitated the Board’s decision to downsize from 75 to 40 members. Noting that the University of Miami has 74 board members and Syracuse University 60, the article goes on to describe how Transylvania University is moving from 65 to 36 members, Johns Hopkins University from 65 to 35 and Birmingham Southern from 72 to 39.

The size of public institution boards is usually set in state law and not easily changed, although at one regional public university I served we were able to increase the Board from 13 to 17. That allowed us to broaden membership statewide, add four very strong members and better populate our four core committees.

We think the right size for a board depends on a number of factors starting with its mission. For instance, a governing board needs to be large enough to have sufficient membership on its core committees. The committee structure may vary from institution to institution but one might argue that the core functions of trusteeship/governance (including nominations at private institutions), academic affairs, student affairs, administration (finance, audit, investments, building and grounds), and institutional advancement are core oversight areas for the board meriting at least five committees and possibly some subcommittees, plus an executive committee.

An institutionally related foundation, on the other hand, might see the need for only three core committees – trusteeship, development, finance and an executive committee.

And an advisory body, say for a college or department, might not need any committees, although some do include committees effectively.

The risk of having an oversized board is that most trustees could be disengaged and even disenfranchised by an executive committee. The risk of being too small is not having enough folks to do the critical work of core committees.

So, as we began: not too big, not to small and it depends.