Building a Board of Trustees: Diversity in Action | James Wickenden | 2 Min Read

TIME, TALENT, AND TREASURE. These traits have long been the guidelines for creating an outstanding Board of Trustees. But unless a Board Chair is given the opportunity to create a governance body for a new school, the vast majority of Board Chairs inherit their team of trustees, with some being superb and others receiving mediocre marks. But for the purpose of this article, I will approach the topic as if I have been asked by a newly appointed Board Chair to specify the criteria to be used when building a Board. My advice is as follows: 

Approach this issue as if you are the owner of a professional football or baseball team. I am using this analogy, not because I love sports (which I do) but because every football or baseball team needs to recruit and develop athletes with different skills. The same is true with a Board of Trustees. Rather than have a homogeneous Board composed only of wealthy alumni or parents (though these are important to include as well), I recommend that the Chair of the Board, working collaboratively with the Head of School, adopt the philosophy of recruiting individuals with different skill sets. Consider these professional profiles and what their expertise could add to a school:

  • Physical or Technology Engineer
  • Building contractor
  • Doctor
  • Lawyer
  • Accountant
  • Political leader
  • Teacher
  • Insurance Actuary
  • Retired military
  • Corporate CEO
  • Artist
  • Startup entrepreneur
  • Law enforcement leader

Obviously, this is a sample. Some of these professions wouldn’t be necessary or appropriate for every school. Schools with different missions will have different needs, but it is critical for Board Chairs both to identify these needs and to be aware of the gaps in the areas of expertise among board members. For example, the Head of an inner-city school that is concerned about the safety of those who attend the school may seek to appoint a police officer to the Board. Also, having a gender balance and respect for diversity within the community are both critical. 

This consideration and review of the Board’s skill sets should be addressed annually. Most important, the Chair of the Board, working hand-in-glove with the Head of School, should make a concerted effort to avoid the recruitment of individuals whose integrity, respect for others, and reputation in the community are questionable. 

I’ll now offer advice to those who have been approached by the Chair of the Committee on Trustees: Although you may be very successful in your respective professions, and although you may be a loyal supporter of the school you attended or the one where your children go, I believe that your knowledge of schooling has been overwhelmingly influenced by your experience at the school you attended. To offset this, I strongly recommend that you make a concerted effort to learn about the challenges that are facing the public and private K-12 schools. How might you close that gap? If you are taking seriously the role of trustees at a school you love, please buy Ted Dintersmith’s book, What School Could Be. It’s not a quick and easy read, but it is full of ideas that deserve to be considered. 

While it would be presumptuous of me to tell you what initiatives you should pursue in the school where you have a major responsibility of governing, I can promise you that Dintersmith’s book is full of examples of programs or initiatives that simply did not exist when you were in high school. In essence, do yourself, your children, and your school a favor by reading this book to determine what, if any, changes might be made in the school you love and respect. 

Jim Wickenden

Jim is a Principal at DRG and Founder of Wickenden Associates, an affiliate of DRG. Having been the CEO of one of the premier education executive search firms in the United States, Jim brings unparalleled experience and networks to best serve clients. With over 30 years of experience identifying and guiding Heads of Schools and other senior administrators of schools across the country, Jim approaches each search with flexibility and openness that responds to the individual needs and concerns of schools and their leaders. Before founding Wickenden Associates, Jim served as the Dean of Admissions at Princeton University and Director of Student and Alumni Affairs at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A graduate of Tabor Academy and Princeton University, Jim holds a master’s degree in Counselor Education from Rutgers University, a master’s degree in the General Purposes of Education from Harvard University, and a doctorate in Counseling Psychology from Boston University. As a former member of eight boards of independent schools with a wide range of missions and resource levels, Jim also knows firsthand the responsibilities shouldered by today’s trustees; and knows how to guide boards through tough transition processes and on good governance practices. Jim lives in Princeton, NJ, and when he is not at the office he enjoys reading enlightening books.

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