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Practical Wisdom: Thinking Differently About College and University Governance

reviewed by Sunil B. Gupta , Harry Mars , Manuel Romero & Jessica Ostrow - April 20, 2020

coverTitle: Practical Wisdom: Thinking Differently About College and University Governance
Author(s): Peter D. Eckel & Cathy A. Trower
Publisher: Stylus Publishing, Sterling, VA
ISBN: 1620368390, Pages: 228, Year: 2018
Search for book at Amazon.com

Although colleges and universities are organizations (just like hospitals, businesses, and political coalitions), they are unique given their prominent educational role through the use of shared governance to make decisions (Birnbaum, 1989; Drucker, 1992). Within the domain of governance, there is an expansive body of literature on college presidents and their administrations (e.g., Birnbaum, 1992; Fisher, 1984; Sporn, 2007), as well as faculty, particularly their participation in academic senates and unions (e.g., Birnbaum, 1991; Piland & Bublitz, 1998; Trow, 1990).  Comparatively, though, much less has been written about best practices in participating and improving the work of boards of trustees and their role in shared governance. In this vein, in Practical Wisdom: Thinking Differently About College and University Governance, Peter D. Eckel and Cathy A. Trower offer advice to help higher education institutions define strategies to meet key objectives in institutional governance.

Originally a series of essays on governing that informed articles published in Inside Higher Education, the essays have now been transitioned by Eckel and Trower into this book, wherein they provide additional examples to emphasize the qualities of creativity, commitment, collaboration, and delegation as essential principles of effective governing boards. They contribute this insight through exploration of best practices, speaking to collegiate and corporate professionals, and providing consultation to boards.  

The book begins with Chapter One, which sets up the principles that are the basis of their hypothesis that the states of structure, content, and culture are the foundation of all boards. Additionally, they discern that most board work is of three types: oversight (retrospective), problem-solving (present), and problem-finding (future). In order to help boards better understand their work, this first chapter presents Eckel and Trower’s views about organization.

Chapters Two through Five explore the make-up and expectations of boards.  Throughout these four chapters, Eckel and Trower describe the inherent malaise of underperforming boards and the steps boards can take to profoundly improve their effectiveness.  It is this “practical wisdom” approach that the authors continuously use to encourage the reader in having board members ask productive questions. This is part of a continued effort to add value while also realizing that boards have precious little time in which to accomplish their complex work. In an interesting manner, Eckel and Trower have composed a working manual, composed in an easy-to-read, non-jargon format that does not require the reader to be immersed in the world of boards or higher education institutions. Nor does this technique impinge upon the book’s overall quality and research value.

In light of the present-day concerns about governance, public sector fiduciary responsibility, and ethics, the authors provide the general principles as a guide anchored in the institutional mission. By covering various roles and characteristics, as well as the role of external stakeholders (i.e. the general public and media), this publication offers readers a comprehensive view of how institutions respond to external groups and internal matters, and how this impacts institutional governance and decision-makers.

Chapters Six through Nine provide strategies and tactics that boards can use to spend their time efficiently and to elicit valuable information with less wasted time in their meetings. In Chapter Seven, which we suggest is one of the most important in the book, Eckel and Trower address the impact of boards in the contemporary accountability landscape. Here, Eckel and Trower highlight how boards can get ahead of the accountability curve to help their institutions. This is important because boards are central to the system of nonprofit and higher education accountability, however their effectiveness has been increasingly questioned by policymakers, media, researchers, and others. There is good reason to be concerned about board performance; but no alternative mechanisms have been proposed. Therefore, understanding how boards function and identifying strategies for strengthening them remains key to enhancing institutional accountability (Ostrower, 2014).

Moving forward, Chapter Eight offers an examination of why all boards should inspire a healthy curiosity that encourages members to ask meaningful questions. Eckel and Trower eloquently provide, as noted, a formulaic process for board members to first understand what the broad campus issue or problem appears to be, followed by a gentle probe to identify the specific technical problems, and finally, to ascertain the adaptive challenges at a campus. This sequential thinking is further supported by the authors through the provision of worksheets to facilitate the examination of priorities through a technical or adaptive lens. This chapter is of importance because it is critical that board members ask meaningful questions; as boards are legally required to meet basic standards of accountability derived from the law of trusts and the law of corporations. These standards require boards and their members to uphold the duties of loyalty, care, and obedience (Fremont-Smith, 2004; Ostrower & Stone, 2006). The duty of loyalty requires trustees to act in the best interests of the organization, rather than in their own or someone else’s self-interest.

Chapters Ten and Eleven delve into the little-known internal cultural and political realities that have an unofficial but significant impact on members’ influence, engagement, and power to effect needed changes. Chapters Twelve to Fifteen orient boards with their president, the community, and plans for the future within an environment of shared governance. Chapter Sixteen provides historical information from the eighteenth century to demonstrate the similar challenges that have faced various boards across time immemorial. In conclusion, Eckel and Trower invite the reader to draft the remainder of the book through their own work and individual perspectives. Through these chapters, the authors try to inform readers on “how to think,” as opposed to “how to do,” because, as they argue, all too many boards are underperforming due to their adoption (or continuation of) ineffective practices.

The authors recommend that the book be used as a reference manual for trustees (board members), presidents, administrators, and interested faculty and students. It is also written and organized to read comfortably from cover-to-cover. As such, we suggest that this book is ideally suited for new board members with little experience in higher education institutions, struggling administrators who feel that their boards have not been effective, and for anyone who is seeking to diagnose how to work effectively as a board member or with them.

One main strength of the book is its practical wisdom steeped in years of research and theory and packaged into easily digestible chapters, deftly written in a manner understandable by the majority of readers outside the often veiled and secret world of higher education institutions. Therefore, its value lies in innovative thinking about college and university governance, especially in its accessibility to the new or green board members who may feel like outsiders. A review of the book clearly distinguishes it as the result of decades of professional research from the eminent Eckel and Trower, who also provide readers with an infusion of recent research citations that likewise refresh and support their work.

However, while a strong contribution to the literature, this book is not without several noteworthy limitations. For one, we wonder whether the majority of the book’s theories are universally applicable across varying institutional types. What are the prevailing headwinds that create unique challenges when dealing with community colleges instead of more traditional four-year bachelor-degree granting institutions? In an increasingly globally connected world, does the implementation of the book’s frameworks change? Does this implementation change across university system boards versus smaller institutional ones? We offer concern about the practicality to institutions that might organizationally differ from more traditional four-year bachelor degree-granting institutions and question how it would work in minority-serving institutions, community colleges, and online institutions that serve our most vulnerable populations.

Practical Wisdom: Thinking Differently About College and University Governance is not a one-size-fits-all guidebook, but rather more akin to a handbook based upon practical theories supported by short case examples to reinforce each of the chapter theories. Eckel and Trower’s work brings a fresh and useful tool to increase the effectiveness of a board and to diagnose any areas that need attention. As stated by the authors, “Boards are groups, and the best boards function like teams. The best teams understand the contributions of each team member and have expectations for the skills and competencies each must bring” (p. 105). With “Practical Wisdom,” higher education institutions can develop a winning team by building the right infrastructure to address objectives that will effectively strengthen their own particular institution.


Birnbaum (1989). How colleges work: The cybernetics of academic organization and leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Birnbaum, R. (1991). The latent organizational functions of the academic senate: Why senates do not work but will not go away. New Directions for Higher Education75, 7–25.

Birnbaum, R. (1992). How academic leadership works: Understanding success and failure in the college presidency. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Drucker, P. F. (1992, September/October). The new society of organizations. Harvard Business Review.

Fisher, J. L. (1984). Presidents will lead–if we let them. AGB Reports26(4), 11–14.

Fremont-Smith, M. R. (2004). Governing nonprofit organizations: Federal and state law and regulation.

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ostrower, F. (2014). Boards as an accountability mechanism. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

Ostrower, F., & Stone, M. M. (2006). Governance: Research trends, gaps, and future prospects. In R. Steinberg & W. Powell (Eds.), The nonprofit sector: A research handbook (pp. 612–628). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Piland, W. E., & Bublitz, R. F. (1998). Faculty perceptions of shared governance in California community colleges. Community College Journal of Research and Practice22(2), 99–110.

Sporn, B. (2007). Governance and administration: Organizational and structural trends. In J. Forest & P. Altbach (Eds.), International handbook of higher education (pp. 141–157). Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer.

Trow, M. (1990). The academic senate as a school for university leadership. Liberal Education76(1), 23–27.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 20, 2020
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23271, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 12:25:37 PM

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About the Author
  • Sunil Gupta
    Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY
    E-mail Author
    SUNIL B. GUPTA is the Dean of the Center of Adult Continuing Education and Workforce Development at Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY. Dean Gupta previously sat on the Board of the National Council for Continuing Education and Training (NCCET), as President, and also served on the Board of the Continuing Education Association of New York (CEANY) and on the Board of the New York City Employment and Training Coalition (NYCETC). He is currently a board member of the AACC affiliate organization COMBASE, as well as a doctoral student of Administration and Supervision in the School of Education at St. Johnís University.
  • Harry Mars
    St. Johnís University
    E-mail Author
    HARRY MARS has been the Director of Student Activities at Borough of Manhattan Community College since 2004. He received his Masterís degree in Higher Education Administration from Baruch College and is currently a doctoral student in Educational Administration and Supervision at St. Johnís University.
  • Manuel Romero
    Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY
    E-mail Author
    MANUEL ROMERO is Executive Director of Public Affairs at Borough of Manhattan Community College and a doctoral student of Administration and Supervision in the School of Education at St. Johnís University. Romero earned his Masterís degree in Mass Communication from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, and his Bachelor of Science degree in Broadcasting from Northern Arizona University.
  • Jessica Ostrow
    University of Michigan
    E-mail Author
    JESSICA OSTROW MICHEL, Ed.D., is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan. She received her Ed.D., M.Ed., and M.A. in Higher and Postsecondary Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and her B.A. from the State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz.
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