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University Board of Trustees

University Board of Trustees—Their Roles and Importance in 2020

by Angelique Ofrasio on and last update on May 26, 2020

Highly publicized stories in the media that mention tertiary institutions have brought a renewed focus on governing these important entities of modern society. What exactly is a university board of trustees and how do they affect the future of the organization?

Being part of the management may be similar to running a business in some respects, but an educational center has more pressing goals than being profitable. What do these roles entail?


Who are They?

We’ll begin by saying that each board of trustees is unique, based on the needs of the institution as well as its charter. This charter will also outline the power and authority the trustees will carry.

In short though, the trustees often act as advisors to the president of the college or university. This group is often also seen as the ‘owner’ of the organization, and they have to act as the legal agents where necessary.


What Does a Board Look Like?

As mentioned, each group of trustees will be different, but in many cases it will be a group of 30 to 45 individuals. Among the various roles you’ll find labels including:

  • Board chair
  • Secretary
  • Treasurer
  • Committees


The board should include members with various skill sets and experience. They can be sourced from anywhere, but often they are drawn from the network of people who show an interest in the university. This could be alumni or perhaps ex staff members.

This diversity empowers the board with people of different perspectives and strengths. When a situation arises, there will probably be someone with the necessary insight to help the board make the best decision.


Election of Members

You can be appointed or elected to a role on the board of trustees. Nominations and appointments will be made by the board itself, or external role players. For example, if it concerns a public institution the local governor may provide names and have power to elect trustee members.


In many cases your participation will be for a certain term, which can be renewed if all parties so wish. Individuals who have drawn exceptional respect from other participants may be offered a lifetime membership on the board.


The rights of trustees, for example their level of voting power, will be determined by the institution’s policies.


It’s important to ensure trustees don’t have conflicts of interest when they join.


Responsibilities of Trustees

As a trustee, in the role of advisory committee to the university president, you’ll be part of a range of tasks.


Take note: the day to day running of the institution is usually left to the president and his or her team. But in support of the president and in the interest of the institution’s long term success, trustees will support and advise. We name a few examples to provide a realistic idea of the wide range of areas a trustee becomes involved in:

  • Mission and vision: Ensuring the university acts according to its mission.
  • Finances: Looking after the entity’s fiscal health, reviewing financial reports, and ensuring the university acts according to relevant legal requirements. Trustees are often expected to provide financial support or obtain it by fundraising or sourcing sponsorships.
  • Education: Reviewing the curriculum of the university. They can offer insight into the number of degrees as well as the subjects the institution should specialize in. In the 21st century, the trustees may have to investigate the value of online programs to meet the need of students that are used to a new, global online community.
  • Strategy: Joining forces with the president and various departments to ensure long term success of the institution. This requires strategic thinking and it is for this reason boards should include professionals who are known for their knack in strategic leadership.
  • Management: Managing risk. Whether it’s against adverse weather conditions or legal matters, the board will assist.


The Board vs the President

As stated, the university president carries responsibilities of day to day management of the campus. However, being the appointing body, the board is free to and should offer criticism on management procedures when necessary.

During board meetings, the president along with the board chair will usually set the agenda.

It’s important that everyone involved should see it as working WITH the president, not against each other. In extreme cases it is usually within their power to remove him or her from office if they deem it necessary.



Universities and colleges form an important part of many young people’s futures. That amplifies the importance of the role of the board of trustees: your decisions affect the lives of many people preparing for their futures.

By using the power offered to trustees, you can ensure long term impact on generations to come. That’s a legacy in itself.

Governance and Leadership
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