Friday, June 20, 2008

Boards Must Have Balance, Integrity

Because of the ongoing turmoil at West Virginia University, the subject of appointing directors to the university's governing board has been a much-discussed topic. Let's take a moment to consider the right people for the job.

When selecting a board member-- and this applies to every organization -- the candidate must have a common interest or commonality of purpose with regard to the institution. If not, why bother?

While this requirement seems simple enough, it never fails that two undesirable types of people pass the commonality test--the proverbial "yes" man and the parasite. Even the most diligent screening process cannot always weed out these people.

Sitting on a board can have an intoxicating influence on even the most well-intentioned people. Directors find that the title of board member does afford them status in their communities, and at some point they might become "yes" men or women so as not to jeopardize losing their directorships. No director that I am aware of was ever fired for toadying.

Other well-intentioned people have compromised their fiduciary duty by doing business with the very institution they are appointed to oversee. Most often, these business arrangements begin as symbiotic relationships with all parties benefiting. When greed sets in, the relationship turns parasitic.

The faculty has expressed that the governing board should have more faculty representatives. This sounds wonderful in theory. But the reality of the campus is that professors rarely know what goes on outside of the buildings they teach in.

Professors also specialize in their field of learning. So who do you pick? The botanist who studies aphid damage? The physicist who looks for dark matter? The historian who debates the cause of the Civil War? Or do we consider the education professor who knows everything about running a classroom but precious little about running a school? Would a professor of proctology even stand a chance?

For the faculty's sake, they should speak collectively through their elected senate rather than through one or more board members. And the faculty senate should have stronger powers, especially so with regard to the presidential selection process. If a presidential candidate can't win the hearts of the faculty senate during his or her interview, then the candidate has no business applying for the job.

There are probably 100 million people on this planet who know who Pat White and Kevin Pittsnogle are. Ten times that many know who Jerry West is. In terms of dollars and cents, WVU's athletic program is not a huge budget item. But in terms of publicity, athletics brings WVU its most attention.

Candidates for the Board of Governors need to be serious about athletics -- and just as serious about demanding a scandal-free athletic program. The football stadium may be named in honor of Milan Puskar, but it will always be remembered as the house that Don Nehlen built. Coach Nehlen was a winner, but let us not forget that he was respected for his integrity from coast to coast.

The Health Science Center is an important part of WVU, and the board needs a few members who are up to speed on modern medicine. While drug company representatives don't get much respect, I will tell you for a fact that they know everything that goes on in the medical community.

I am not recommending a drug pusher for the board. So don't choke.

I point this out, however, because WVU needs to consider people in the medical field who get around and also are knowledgeable of the financial side of the medical business. This is definitely the area where WVU has to think outside the box for recruiting board members.

When Netscape developed JavaScript in 1995, I remarked that java scripts had been around for years. When questioned about my observation, I quipped that boards of directors were in the habit of using the chairman's report as coffee cup coasters to protect their mahogany conference tables.

Bad jokes aside, a board member must be involved and not consider the board meeting a coffee klatch.

A board member's responsibility can be compared somewhat to that of a juror's. When the door is closed, people trust them to make the right decision. Sometimes, those decisions are incredibly unpopular, while at other times they are routine. But all individual decisions made on behalf of a community test a person's resolve, conscience and ethics.

From personal experience, I have seen the damage that self-serving directors can do. I have also seen the good work that responsible directors can do. The final test for selecting a board member is this simple: Picking from the former guarantees a train wreck, while picking from the latter guarantees success.