Overseer, Ambassador, Matchmaker, Rainmaker

Focus on the Presidency column written by Tulane President Scott S. Cowen

September/October 2005

Clear membership criteria helped our board reinvent itself.

Eight years ago, the board of trustees of Tulane University decided to reinvent itself.  The move was prompted by a realization that the board needed to evolve in a manner consistent with the university’s rapid growth and development.

During the latter half of the 20th century, Tulane had become a national and international institution with an academic profile consistent with other nationally-recognized universities. Yet the board’s composition and focus remained primarily regional. Hence, the “old” board decided it must become more reflective of the new Tulane and the direction in which it continued to move. 

Today’s board embodies that reformation, and substantially differs from the old board. The change is one of the major factors in the university’s success and demonstrates the strategic role a board can and should play in a university’s development. The Tulane board altered its size, composition, terms of service (including the term of the board chair), committee structure and charges, the role of emeriti trustees and criteria for board membership—all changes that have had a profound impact.

Among the secrets to creating an effective board is to articulate clear membership criteria and to be disciplined in applying them when considering prospective members. At Tulane, we now select trustees capable of performing four interrelated, strategic roles: overseer, ambassador, matchmaker and rainmaker.

To be an effective overseer, a trustee must understand the place of universities in society and how this role shapes an institution’s mission and culture. The ideal trustee understands the challenges facing higher education and has an appropriate context to guide his or her actions.

As an overseer, a trustee can make significant intellectual and practical contributions to ensure that the institution establishes appropriate goals and priorities and develops ambitious long-term and short-term plans to realize these goals. The trustee also ensures that the university president allocates resources consistent with the plan, assembles a senior team commensurate with the institution’s challenges, and creates and monitors a performance-management and accountability system.

The effective overseer is inquisitive, presents and frames issues from the perspective of what is in the best long-term interests of the entire university, and engages actively without micromanaging.  The result is that possible conflicts of interest are properly managed, and individual egos are subordinated to the needs of the institution.

The roles of ambassador, matchmaker and rainmaker are interrelated. Trustees can be effective university ambassadors by “spreading the word” about and being strong advocates for the university in their respective communities. Given their institutional knowledge and personal stature, trustees can make the strongest case for a university to donors and civic and political leaders. The multiplying effect of such advocacy can have a profound impact.  

Trustees are also in a unique position to open otherwise-inaccessible doors into the community and in far-flung private enterprises. These expanded contacts can be financial, educational or administrative. The largest financial gifts Tulane ever received resulted from trustees’ matchmaking capabilities, and trustee contacts have assisted in everything from securing commencement speakers to faculty recruitment. Because the matchmaker’s value to the university in so many areas, trustees are now explicitly expected to fulfill this responsibility. In the past, either we were hesitant to ask for this assistance or we did not select board members who possessed such capability.

Finally, trustees must be rainmakers, either by giving, helping attract donations or both. This expectation is sensitive because it suggests that only the rich can serve as trustees, precluding other talented, but less wealthy people. While a person’s ability to give a gift should not be a prerequisite for board membership, all trustees should be expected to make an annual donation according to their means while also assisting in persuading others to give. If those closest to the university do not lend financial support, why should anyone else? At Tulane, the board’s transformation was aided significantly by our clearly articulated membership criteria. These guide the identification of prospective members and aid in their recruitment by clarifying responsibilities and setting clear performance expectations. Without them, other reform initiatives will fall short.

Scott S. Cowen is president of Tulane University.

Section: Focus on the Presidency
Volume 13, Number 5, Page 5