Regents retreat to focus on ‘big picture’

The annual retreat provides a chance for long-term planning.

Regents retreat to focus on ‘big picture’

Emma Nelson

When the Board of Regents left for its annual retreat last year, it had a new president, a new chair and three new members.

After a year of administrative transitions, new policies and ever-dwindling state funding, the board will spend this week’s retreat checking the progress of plans established last year and discussing issues as broad as the future of higher education itself.

“It’s really a very crucial time for higher education in the United States right now,” chair Linda Cohen said. “There are some real issues that need to be thought about.”

Cohen said she’ll give a brief introductory report, which will be followed by President Eric Kaler’s longer report on “the landscape of higher education.”

Unlike regular monthly board meetings, Cohen said, the retreat allows regents to step back from the intricacies of pressing issues and think in broader terms.

The retreat environment

For more than 30 years, the board has held an annual retreat, six at Gainey Conference Center in Owatonna, Minn.

The center, owned by the University of St. Thomas, coordinates with clients based on their needs and then determines per-person rates.

The regents’ two-day retreat costs $8,840 for 17 participants, a sum that includes conference facilities, meals, accommodations and meeting supplies. The University spends an additional $5,500 for a professional to facilitate the retreat. Expenses come from the board’s operations and maintenance fund.

Gina Yetzer, the center’s director of sales, said 30 percent of events hosted at the center are for the University of St. Thomas. It also hosts events for nonprofit organizations, corporations and other colleges and universities.

The issues at hand

Board members will check the progress of the two-year work plan they created last year. It focuses on four main goals: conducting long-range financial planning, strengthening the relationship between the University and the state, focusing on issues relating to the Academic Health Center and improving the board’s function overall.

The regents are interested in focusing on the same issues this year, said Kent Eklund, a private consultant who facilitates the retreat.

Eklund, a facilitator specializing in higher education, has led strategic planning projects at the University for a decade. This will be his second year as facilitator for the regents retreat.

Hiring a facilitator from outside of the University allows for a separation between the retreat proceedings and the actual issues being discussed, Cohen said. It also gives each regent equal opportunity to contribute to discussions.

“It keeps things moving along; it doesn’t let anybody dominate the discussion,” she said. “… It’s very helpful.”

In preparation for the retreat, Eklund said, he did phone interviews with all 12 regents to get a sense of what they wanted to discuss.

The board will also discuss an approach for the upcoming state biennial budget, Eklund said. The governor will present his recommended budget to the Legislature in January 2013, and legislators will adopt the final budget during the following legislative session.

“It’s a very interesting time for the regents to be laying the groundwork because every single legislator is up for re-election,” he said.

A common goal

Governing bodies for universities throughout the Big Ten also have retreats for long-term planning, but practices may differ.

Pennsylvania State University’s Board of Trustees plans retreats as needed, said Paula Ammerman, the board’s director. When the board needs additional information on a particular topic, it holds a private meeting to discuss it without making policy changes, she said.

The University of Nebraska’s Board of Regents plans a one-day workshop each year. It’s meant to be closed to the public, facilitated by an outside consultant and focused on improving board function rather than on policies, said Sharon Stephan, vice president for university affairs at the University of Nebraska.

However, when issues requiring a public meeting arise, she said, the workshop date is used for that purpose instead. Last November, for example, the board held an orientation on the university’s role in job creation, which was open to the public.

A well-functioning board

Because many administrators were new last year, much of the retreat was dedicated to “simply getting to know each other,” Eklund said.

Strengthening working relationships remains a top priority this year,
Cohen said.

In her experience — which includes service on other boards — retreats have proven to be a crucial way of improving effectiveness and productivity, she said.

Though there’s no guarantee that the board will collaborate more effectively after the retreat, it’s a time to “get to know each other as individuals,” Eklund said.

Cohen said she welcomes other opinions and broad discussions, but ultimately the ability to collaborate is paramount.

“A board that is aligned with the president and works well together can do a tremendous amount of good,” she said.

In his discussions with the regents, Eklund said they said the board is functioning well.

“There’s a sense that they’re working well as a team, that they’ve been through some very difficult issues and came out on the other side,” he said.