Last October in this space I analyzed the Policy Governance® model that originated with Dr. John Carver and has been adopted by an increasing number of Christian organizations, including educational institutions. While admitting that there were good reasons to find the model attractive and efficient in theory, I suggested that in practice its considerable flaws should warn boards away from adopting it wholesale.
First, it expects too much of members of a volunteer board in ensuring the continuation of the organization’s mission, especially in the absence of multiple sources of information about the life of the organization. Without such information, the board will not be able to exercise sufficient oversight, the likely result being a loss of the mission.
Second, it removes the board from the life of the institution, which is precisely the opposite of what should happen. The board needs to be aware of what staff are doing, and they need to hear it from the staff members themselves.
Third, it places too much power in the hands of a single person, the chief executive officer (CEO), who is expected to be the sole source of information to the board on the state of the organization as a whole. If the CEO errs in his or her estimation of the health of the organization, the board may not discover this until too late, because it has not heard other, possibly dissenting, voices.
Plato famously thought that the best form of government would be rule by one or more philosopher-kings. The problem with his prescription is that, even in the best of circumstances, philosopher-kings are rarely available. This reality prompted Plato’s successors, including Aristotle, to opt for a second best, namely, the rule of law. John Carver seems to be a modern Plato, arguing for a board governance model that takes insufficient account of human nature and assumes too much of the CEO. So what is the alternative? I have three suggestions for alleviating the defects of the Policy Governance model.
Three crucial checks
First, there should be structured opportunities for interaction between board members and employees. If this is an educational institution, then faculty, who are on the front lines of its mission, should definitely participate. This will prevent board members too easily accepting the notion that what employees do is “completely immaterial,” as Carver unwisely puts it, to the board’s work. Such interaction could be as informal as assigning a few board members to circulate among staff (or faculty) on a normal workday to hear what things are like in the trenches, or it could take the form of regular gatherings with an agenda set by the board. It is preferable to have multiple sources of information available rather than leaving all communication in the hands of a single person.
Second, if the organization is a Christian university, the board should be formally interviewing faculty when they receive tenure, promotion and renewal of tenure. The board should retain responsibility for approving these matters and not delegate them to the CEO.
Third, in a Christian institution of higher education, any effort to dismiss faculty or administrators should have the input and approval of the board and should not be delegated to the CEO alone. This will lessen the possibility of abuse.
An anonymous 19th-century Russian once observed that every country has its own constitution and that his country’s was absolutism moderated by assassination. I would not go so far as to liken the Carver model to such unstable political rule. Nevertheless, a workable form of board governance must find middle ground between giving the CEO a free hand and sacking him or her. The Carver model lacks this flexibility, at least without the checks I’ve proposed here.
As a people steeped in a biblical understanding of humanity and creation, we can surely do better than the Carver model. In the meantime I offer these three proposals for mitigating its worst features.