TOM JOHNSON, UNIVERSITY PRESS OF NEW ENGLAND
Within the university press community, there is no commonly accepted practice with respect to management boards. Some have them, and some do not. Where they exist, management boards vary a great deal in authority and responsibilities from one press to another. Some boards are purely advisory, while some (also called boards of overseers, governors, directors, or control) have considerable authority and a fiduciary responsibility to a press's owner, the parent university. Among those presses that do not have boards, the director reports to a single university administrator.
The rationale for following one model or the other varies from press to press, but considerations in this board/no board decision include organization size, degree of actual or desired independence, strength of press management, knowledge and involvement of university administration, and tradition.
Purpose of Management Boards
Presses help universities fulfill their educational mission by disseminating the fruits of research, by providing course texts, and indirectly by increasing the visibility of the institution. Because publishing is a very different activity from, say, the research and teaching activity in the history or chemistry departments, and because a press must operate at times in a commercial environment, universities are wise to delegate considerable authority to a board of experts. Indeed there is considerable danger in having the press director report to a single administrator who may not understand publishing.
While it is not a universal practice, the most effective management boards typically have representatives from each of three areas: the university administration, the faculty, and the nonacademic sector, usually publishing. The reasons for having these three groups represented are worth explaining here. The administrator is often the financial/budgetary voice and the individual with the direct line to the ultimate authority, the university board of trustees. A faculty member's view is an important reminder that the university press is, after all, part of an academic enterprise. The faculty member should be the board's guardian of the press's imprint, an expert on the peer review process, and someone very aware of developments within academic fields or disciplines. Finally, it should be recognized that because the press must operate largely in a market setting, it makes sense to include another publisher.
Collectively, this body understands academia as well as the commercial and nonprofit world of books, and thus can argue to the administration with considerable force that the press is an academic activity and not an auxiliary enterprise expected to be self-sufficient. In addition, the board provides the parent institution with expert oversight by measuring the press's efficiency in carrying out its mission, and holds management accountable for the support received.
Academic representatives, faculty, and administrators are taken for granted at university presses, but the need for outsiders is not, and cannot be, overemphasized. Outside, nonacademic members add a credibility and a "reality check" even the most distinguished faculty member cannot provide. In considering individuals to fill the outsider seats on the board, it is important to at least consider the size of the press and the scale at which a potential board member typically works. An individual working every day at a Fortune 500 corporation must also have a good appreciation for the workings of a $2 million press operation.
The composition of the board should not be static because the press's mission and objectives may change over time. As its operating environment, level of resources, and owner's expectations change, the board must be able to adapt itself by engaging the right talents at the appropriate time.
The bylaws of the press should define the board's purview in the first instance. Generally these include responsibility for the following:
• Hiring the director.
• Strategic planning that includes defining the organization's mission, principal goals, and overall resource allocation.
• Capitalization, including fundraising.
• Review and approval of an annual plan and budget.
• Investment management if there is an endowment.
Except for hiring and supervising the director, most board members stay out of personnel matters. Some boards are involved to some extent because the director reports on the performance of senior management.
Long-range planning is a key function of the board because it ties together so many responsibilities. For example, clearly articulated goals are necessary for supervising the director, and for seeking funding from the university or outside. The board, not the director, must take responsibility for an organization's big risks, and these should be resolved in the strategic planning process. Although the initiative and agenda-setting may come from the director, the board must in the end approve the plan if not control the long-range planning process.
While editorial direction may be delegated to the director and perhaps to the editorial committee, the board typically retains some responsibility for capitalizing the operation. This work may include arguing for a particular level of subsidy from the parent university and also fundraising. Non-university members of a board may be particularly helpful in this area.
In addition to certain statutory responsibilities, a press board (or sometimes key individual members) may perform other important functions as well. Board members provide two-way information channels between the press and its two key constituencies, the administration and faculty, enabling the press to play a more vital part in the university's mission. Board members can advocate at a higher level than most press directors. They can educate university administrators who may not be familiar with the press operation or understand the role of publishing in higher education. During tough times, board members can provide a "heat shield" against unreasonable expectations and uninformed opinion.
The Board and the Editorial Committee
It is almost universal practice for press editorial committees to operate independently of management boards. The editorial committee, charged with controlling or protecting the imprint by approving or rejecting manuscripts for publication, is typically made up entirely of faculty members. Criteria may vary from house to house, but approved projects must pass the editorial standards as documented by an editor's statement with corroborating readers' reports. Salability and financial measures are often not part of this decision.
In the few cases where there is a single board responsible for governance and editorial decisions, it may make sense for a different individual to chair each portion of the meeting.
Friends and Fundraising
As noted previously, providing adequate capital may be one of the board's responsibilities, and this may include fundraising. There are differing views on how to go about this. Some would say that interested people with means should be encouraged to become friends of the press and to participate in an advisory group, but should not have a governance role. Other experts take the contrary view and recommend involving a few knowledgeable individuals at the board level, with the expectation that they will also be leaders in any fundraising campaign because they are also well-to-do and well-connected.
The latter may be the preferred model, but presses should be careful that one individual doesn't buy a controlling interest because the organization can't wean itself from his or her munificence. This is an unlikely scenario in a university setting, but it does occur in some nonprofit organizations.
The Workings of Boards
For a variety of reasons, it is important to find the right balance between board involvement on the one hand and staff initiative and work on the other. Boards should not micromanage, and in general their meeting schedule should reflect this premise. Two to four meetings per year should be enough. To develop deeper expertise in key areas and to make more efficient use of board members' time, it may make sense to set up subcommittees or working groups to tackle particular responsibilities, such as development, budget/finance, investments, and personnel.
There is no consensus or standard industry practice on the question of length of service. Suffice it to say that it is important to retain a minimum level of experience and continuity on the board and a good idea to have some mechanism to painlessly rotate members off it. For example, limit board service to five years, or perhaps no more than two three-year terms.
Other than payment for travel expenses, university-based board members typically do not receive compensation. Outside members will often receive a modest honorarium in addition to having their travel expenses covered. One should not over look their "psychic" compensation, and thus it is important that whoever sets their meeting agenda, usually the press director, makes sure that members stay interested and engaged in this important work. Board members want to feel they are productive and a part of the institution. They want to contribute skills and knowledge, and also to learn new things and make new associations.
Much of the foregoing discussion also applies to advisory boards, but of course advisory boards lack the authority of a governing board. Members of advisory boards typically serve at the director's pleasure, although in some instances concurrence by a senior academic officer or the parent institution's board of trustees is required.
Because an advisory board is a creature of the director and not of the parent institution, its composition, workings, and responsibilities will be different from a management board. First, the group's membership can be much more fluid. A director may recognize the need for particular expertise, such as in law, fundraising, or distribution systems, and for as briefly as one meeting or as long as several years tailor the board's membership to those needs. If the press is contemplating or beginning endeavors in new areas in which the staff have little experience, this may be a good opportunity to add an outside adviser in addition to including people from more traditional publishing-related fields.
There may be no representatives from the university on an advisory board, but instead a collection of individuals who work in publishing and bookselling, with a librarian, a lawyer, or a business person included as needed. In this case the director, who can be in a rather lonely position without it, has created a committee of peers.
The advisory board may meet regularly (usually once or twice a year), and in general the director will set the agenda for the meetings. Assuming that there is always a core of older members, some will have enough familiarity with the press's operation to raise issues on their own.
Advisory boards may meet just once in the form of a visiting committee. For a press without a management or advisory board, this may be a good way to experiment with the concept. Careful selection and thorough preparation by its members and senior staff are the keys to a successful outcome.
Bibliography and Recommended Reading
The magazine Nonprofit World is a good source of information on this subject. The following articles are particularly relevant: "Financial Risk Management: The Board's Responsibility" (11:1); "Board Leadership by Design" (11:2); and "Long Range Financial Planning - The Board's Role" (11:6).
The National Center for Nonprofit Boards publish es a number of pamphlets that may be of interest. A catalog is available from the NCNB at Suite 510, 2000 L Street NW, Washington, DC, 20036-4907.
Finally, see "Exercising Ownership Control through a Board of Directors" in The Huenefeld Guide to Book Publishing as well as related articles in The Huenefeld Report.