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Time to Talk about Boards: Lessons from OpenAI and the Crucial Role of Collaborative Governance

Dateline: Thanksgiving weekend. Yikes! What a week we’ve seen over at OpenAI, buffeted by turmoil and mistakes made by its Governing Board. How could four people nearly destroy one of the most successful companies we’ve ever seen ($80 billion valuation and mind-boggling innovation) overnight? Who would fire Silicon Valley’s golden boy, visionary entrepreneur, and hugely beloved Sam Altman? OOF, I say. And what might the week at OpenAI teach higher education about fearing innovation?* We can’t stop pondering these questions, so here’s a few first thoughts:

Mobilizing Collective Leadership

In the dynamic and ever-evolving landscape of higher education, collective leadership stands as a cornerstone of effective institutional leadership. This collaborative approach, (president/chancellor, faculty, and governing board), aims to balance decision-making, foster transparency, and harness the collective expertise of mission, outcomes and diverse goals of key stakeholders. While the president/chancellor and faculty play vital roles in shaping the academic direction of the institution, the governing board holds the ultimate responsibility for ensuring the institution's financial health, legal compliance, and overall well-being.

Despite its significant authority, a board’s involvement in on-campus collaborations is often limited. This can be attributed to several factors, including a lack of understanding of its responsibilities, political appointments of disengaged members, perceived differences in their roles and priorities, and a reluctance to engage in open dialogue. However, given the board's power to hire, fire, and overturn decisions made by the president/chancellor, it’s become essential to bridge these gaps and foster a more inclusive and collaborative approach to collective leadership.

Governing Boards as Strategic Partners

To effectively navigate the turbulence now facing higher education, governing boards must embrace their role as strategic partners in institutional decision-making. This requires a shift from a traditional, distant parent approach to a more inclusive and participatory model. Boards should actively seek input from stakeholders, demonstrate a willingness to listen to diverse perspectives, and consider alternative viewpoints. Doing more than remote oversight, boards need to collaborate in mission building for many institutions to survive and thrive. By fostering open communication and transparency, boards can build trust and create a more cohesive, collaborative, and effective governance structure. Without it, campuses will continue to resist the changes necessary if we’re to navigate the challenges and opportunities ahead.

By deepening their knowledge of the institution's internal dynamics and the broader external environment, boards can make informed decisions that align with the institution's long-term strategic goals and the needs of a changing society. By embracing collective leadership and enhancing their understanding of the institution's changing context, boards can play a pivotal role in guiding their institutions toward a more inclusive, sustainable future.

Change happens whether we feel prepared or not. Ostriches and children can hide their heads and believe they’re safe, but governing boards no longer have the option to sit back, resisting change. By taking responsibility for more engaged decision-making, their institution will remain relevant, grow, adapt, and thrive. 

"Once more, into the breach!"

Note: These ideas were influenced by Tim Gilmour’s upcoming paper “Needed: A New Leadership Framework for Higher Education” and OpenAI’s chaotic week in the news. 


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