Education & Government
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Jill Holtz
Content Strategy Manager

The role of the board in managing reputational risk for your school or university

July 17, 2023
0 min read
The role of the board in managing reputational risk for your school or university

Whether it's a campus safety incident, a public health emergency or a cyberattack — the way your institution handles such crises can significantly impact its reputation.

For school and university boards, reputational risk can jeopardize the goals, strategic plans, and even work accomplished for the district or institution. Risks vary by district and school, but it is imperative for boards to do the research and work involved in mitigating those risks.

Reputational risk for educational institutions

Managing reputational risk is particularly difficult because it's often entwined with other complex issues.

For school boards, the risks associated with a district's reputation often include issues like cybersecurity, compliance and transparency. Meanwhile, community colleges rely heavily on their academic programs and the quality of education they provide. Any decline in academic quality, such as a drop in graduation rates, accreditation issues, or faculty misconduct, can seriously harm the institution's reputation.

A public education institution's reputation is a valuable, and fragile, asset. To quote Warren Buffett, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.''

School boards expose school districts to risk by neglecting the management of key issues, or by participating in outright inappropriate or illegal activities.

University boards expose their institutions to risks when they don’t ensure that academic standards are upheld and that accreditation requirements are met. Failure to address academic issues can result in decreased enrollment and a damaged reputation.

Challenges of managing reputation risk in public education

Managing reputational risks in public education can be challenging for several reasons:

High public scrutiny: Public education institutions, including K-12 schools and universities, are subject to high levels of public scrutiny. Any misstep or controversy can quickly become a topic of public discussion and media attention, making it difficult to contain reputational damage.

Diverse stakeholders: Public education institutions have a wide range of stakeholders, including students, parents, faculty, staff, alumni, local communities and government bodies. Each of these groups may have different expectations, interests and perspectives, making it challenging to satisfy all stakeholders and avoid conflicts that could harm the institution's reputation.

Political and budgetary pressures: Public education is often influenced by political decisions and budgetary constraints. Changes in leadership or funding can impact an institution's ability to deliver quality education, which can, in turn, affect its reputation. Political controversies, such as debates over curriculum or school policies, can also lead to reputational challenges.

Social media and online news: In the age of social media and instant online news, information spreads rapidly. Rumors, misinformation, and negative narratives can gain traction quickly, making it challenging to control the narrative and manage reputational damage effectively.

Complex governance structures: Public education institutions often have complex governance structures involving school boards, administrators and government oversight. Decision-making processes can be slow and accountability can be diffuse, making it challenging to respond swiftly to emerging reputational risks.

Legal and regulatory challenges: Public education institutions must adhere to various legal and regulatory requirements related to student privacy, civil rights and more. Violations or legal challenges can lead to reputational damage, and navigating these complexities can be difficult.

Reputation is built over time; it can be easily damaged, but challenging to repair. Negative events or controversies can have a lasting impact on an institution's image, affecting student enrollment, fundraising efforts, partnerships and community trust.

Opportunities for student achievement and success diminish when school boards don’t manage and mitigate risk.

Risk management requires planning and preparation

The first step for boards tackling risk management is the identification of the various risks in which the district might be exposed to and the breakdown of those risks by how frequent they may occur or severe they may be.

The next step is seeking ways to reduce these potential risks through preventative plans of action. Managing risk is not simply having insurance in preparation for litigation or another issue. Risk management requires serious planning, preparation and continuous work to maintain the mitigation of these risks.

With board technology, boards can share policies, procedures, and other materials related to risk management for the district or institution. Information regarding the prioritization of risk management plans can also be secured in your board software.

Ensure cybersecurity best practice

Strong cybersecurity practices protect the district's assets, information and reputation.

Some boards or board members may not truly appreciate the significance of cybersecurity in mitigating risks for the district. However, most can name an incident where a school district or university was negatively impacted by a cybersecurity issue, damaging their reputation and causing community members to question the security of student information or district assets.

Managing cybersecurity risks includes establishing and implementing cybersecurity training for boards and districts. Boards must understand that cybersecurity threats should be treated like any other kind of organizational risk. The same amount of detail and preparation associated with mitigating financial risks should be implemented when preparing and conducting board cybersecurity training.

The right technology can support a board through strong cybersecurity features that can prevent data loss or exposure. Ensuring that your board's information is protected and secure means that your board has more time and energy to spend on other important issues. Maintaining secure and encrypted digital records, strong recovery methods, and a secure cloud network encourage a culture of strong cybersecurity standards.

Cultivating a positive board reputation

A culture of trust and transparency between school boards and the communities that they serve can be tricky to maintain. School boards face many transparency challenges, including complying with open meeting laws, that can impact the trust and engagement from the local public, leading to reputational risk.

For example, a school board may find that mounting transparency issues have led to parental concerns about the board's oversight and how it may have negatively impacted student education. The reputation of one district can be essentially destroyed by a school board, whether intentionally or accidentally.

However, by leveraging the right technology, school and university boards can successfully promote and preserve trust and openness with the community while complying with laws, policies or regulations. Boards often face transparency challenges related to data access, whether it be meeting information, minutes, agendas, or other related materials. The right tools can be leveraged for school boards to streamline relevant information for public access.

Better transparency for a better reputation

In compliance with open meeting laws enforced by their state, school boards can leverage meeting management software to provide meeting materials, district goal information, and even videos of meetings in a central online location. Technology can address transparency challenges faced by school boards by providing user-friendly and easily-accessible tools that engage and inform the public about key issues while enabling residents to share their thoughts or concerns.

Board management software can maintain pertinent board materials such as: policies, agendas, minutes, legislation, and other important documents. It makes this information easily accessible to board members and the public. Creating easier access to pertinent materials for community members to stay informed is key in leveraging technology to reducing school board transparency challenges and maintaining or even enhancing reputation.

When boards engage with families and community members, schools can often see a significant increase in their reputation. This can result in greater student achievement, improved attendance, and other positive effects on student performance.

Technology can help in managing risk

Leveraging the right technology, boards can perform their best work while recognizing and managing risk. A seamless and streamlined board management software, like Diligent Community, serves as a single source of truth, which is critical should any incident occur. It allows for increased community engagement and transparency, maintenance of records and policies, and secure access.

It also helps with public meeting management and transparency — for example, when creating meeting agendas, specific articles or documents can be linked within the agenda items.

Access to meeting details, agendas and previous minutes allows school boards to maintain compliance with state laws and regulations. Creating streamlined access to pertinent materials for members of the public to stay informed demonstrates how technology can be used collaboratively to maintain transparency while maintaining secure access to board information with different permission depending on required level of access.

Identifying and mitigating risk is a key responsibility for every school board. It’s also challenging due to the complex and diverse nature of stakeholders, the rapid spread of information in the digital age, and the intersection of education with political, legal, and budgetary factors.

Final thoughts

Being proactive in addressing the issues that can lead to reputational risk and leveraging technology can give school and university boards an advantage in protecting their districts, schools and students.

Pre-planned, proactive communication strategies, crisis management plans, and a commitment to transparency and accountability will all go a long way to help protect your institution’s reputation.

School and university boards can leverage board management software such as Diligent Community to support risk management, board training and policy and regulation management related to the work of the board.

Learn more about Diligent Community and how it can help support your school board in managing reputational risk.


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