Regents retreat focuses on big-picture trends facing higher education, how they work as a group

By Staff

Estes Park – The University of Colorado Board of Regents used its annual summer retreat to consider big-picture factors affecting the challenging environment in which the university operates, now and in the future, as well as to find ways the board can better work together to advance the university.

In the initial session, “Higher Education in a VUCA World: Harnessing the Power of Foresight,” facilitator Ron Gage stressed the importance of planning, despite a seemingly chaotic world. VUCA is an acronym for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

“Leaders are really struggling to make sense of a rapidly changing, rapidly shifting, rapidly evolving world,” Gage told the board.

The board, president, chancellors and president’s executive staff broke into small groups to brainstorm about trends and disruptions buffeting higher education and their implications. The consensus among the groups was that the primary trends include diminishing public perceptions about the value of higher education, increasingly tighter sources of funding, a changing student population in terms of age and diversity, technology’s pervasive impact and the ways people learn.

The notion is that those trends and disruptions drive insight, which informs strategy formulation. Board members said the exercise will help as it plans and budgets for the future.

In the afternoon session, CU Boulder Law Professor Scott Peppet worked with the board to focus on its governance processes. He led the board through an exercise that mapped out their role, articulated obstacles to effective governance and provided some tools to improve their processes.

“Three things happen simultaneously when we work together – the substance or what we’re working on, the relationship or how we get along, and the process or how we do the work,” he said.

He noted that the board has formal power as a group, not as individuals, and that they are tasked with setting strategic policy. He asked the board to consider gaps between what the governance process is supposed to look like and the reality of their work. He suggested that on the occasions when the board reaches sticking points, different personalities and perspectives are seemingly the reason. But a less obvious reason, and one the board should closely consider, is a challenging structure of their decision making that includes different experiences, the fact that they are publicly elected, different geographic bases that inhibit relationship building, the environment of public scrutiny in which the board works and time constraints.

Peppin suggested that board members be more curious about each other’s perspectives and motives, balancing advocacy with inquiry. He stressed the importance of thinking about long-term interests for the university, not just the issue at hand. He also said it was important for board members to look for ways to build personal relationships to better understand their colleagues.

“Think about their choice from their perspective, not from yours,” he said. “To influence their choice, you have to understand it as they experience it.”

Board members had universal praise for the session, with several saying they have a better understanding of their roles and some tools to enhance their working relationship.

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