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Austin Community College
Board of Trustees
5930 Middle Fiskville Rd.
Austin, Texas 78752-4390
512.223.7834 (Fax)
Policy Role
  • Policy-Based Governance -- the contribution of John Carver's Policy Governance™
  • Policy Consolidation -- smooth transition to a smaller but more effective Board Policy Manual
  • Policy Reform -- reflecting values-based policies
  • Policy Development -- guiding efficient meetings, trustee initiative, and whole-Board review
  • Policy Monitoring -- institutionalized oversight without micromanagement

During the 1992-1999 period, the Board of Trustees of Austin Community College developed and refined an integrated set of governance methods to combine the benefits it saw in John Carver's Policy GovernanceTM model with the needs of college governance and an elected Board. In addition to the definition of Board role, methods, and officer duties, the new approach places great emphasis on the use of Board-initiated policy as a governance tool. This section outlines how this policy orientation was achieved and is maintained.

Policy-Based Governance

The starting point: While the Austin Policy Model deviates from the Policy GovernanceTM model of John Carver in several significant respects, the debt to that model is clear and is gratefully acknowledged. Anyone interested in making Boards more effective should begin by reading Carver's book, Boards That Make A Difference.

What a Board does best: The essence of Carver's message is that a Board has its maximum positive impact when it gives most of its attention to determining and expressing the goals and values of an institution on behalf of its owners. This entails radical delegation to the CEO of authority and responsibility for implementational decisions and for most of the rules that employees (and students, for colleges) are to follow.

Not a rubber stamp: A major implication of this approach is that within its areas of primary responsibility a Board should set its own agenda and work as a whole to decide its directives to the CEO, rather than responding to administration-developed proposals or working through committees. Much of a Board's time should be spent in examining what external effects it wishes for the institution to accomplish, and to ensuring that the institution and the community it serves are authentically linked.

Policy Consolidation

An unworkable legacy: At the time ACC trustees first heard Carver's ideas, the College's policy manual totaled hundreds of pages -- a chaotic mixture of a few strategic policies, some ad-hoc responses to specific problems, and a mass of administration-developed rules for operational procedures. All policy had to be approved by the Board after being examined in Board committees, but no policy was initiated by trustees. The bottleneck of Board approval resulted in the existence of many "unwritten policies", often at variance with the official ones, reflecting an accumulation of administrative responses to specific situations.

Caution about sudden change: Carver's prescription in this situation is for the Board to use intensive retreats over a few weeks to build a short set of policies setting the general limits it intends for the CEO, then to immediately delegate all the old policies for the CEO to keep, change, or discard without further Board approval. While he makes a persuasive case for this seemingly-radical step (in actuality, the Board control that is "given up" is usually an illusion), the ACC Board felt that it could not make such a sudden change in governance style without unduly alarming the community and College employees. There was also substantial skepticism among trustees: Was this just the latest fad? Were there adequate safeguards?

A gradual path: To avoid the need for a leap of faith, a gradual policy transition was begun, with the option of stopping the delegation at any point if the next step no longer seemed attractive. An essential tactic was to separate this "consolidation" process, which left unchanged the significant substantive content of existing policy, from a parallel "reform" process, in which the Board developed new policies to fix the urgent problems that had been identified.

A smaller more effective Policy Manual: The result of the consolidation process was a ten-fold compression of the old policy material without loss of substantive content (the omitted material, including the power to extend or change it by administrative rules not requiring Board approval, was transferred to the President/CEO). The remaining material was further compressed over the next few years, as everyone involved became more comfortable with the approach. While new policies totaling more than the retained material have been added, the Board Policy Manual is concise, clear, and values-driven.

Policy Reform: Short, values-based policies with impact

Showing that policies matter: In spite of its great size, the old policy manual failed to address most of the important issues facing the College. This motivated the Board to develop a set of new-style policies that caused substantial changes in ACC activities. The most important of the first round were policies on budget, tuition, developmental education, and college unity. Other policies led to a rearrangement of Board operations, with the abolition of Board committees and a 90% reduction in the Board time spent on purchasing approvals. Together, these changes convinced trustees of the effectiveness of this approach.

Filling in the gaps: Subsequent short policies were developed that provided strategic direction on financial areas (reserve levels, investments, tax rates, resource development, personnel questions (recruitment, staffing, evaluation, due process), support allocations (facilities maintenance, capital-equipment acquisition), planning/evaluation (master planning, program review, auditing, economic analyses), and College goals (the intended outcomes section of the mission statement, student recruitment, and regional responsibilities). These policies joined a "top-level" policy on general directives/limitations of the CEO, as well as about a dozen old policies that were already concise, strategic, and values-based. 

Why is more important than How: An essential element of these policies is that they communicate the values and principles on which they are based, as well as any specific provisions. This is needed so that the faculty and staff of the College understand the motivation of the policy and can act accordingly in determining implementation methods. It also focuses Board discussion on an area where trustees, as representatives of the community, have special competence. An example of such a principle-based policy is the one setting the target value for the extra tuition paid by people from outside the ACC taxing district as being equal to the average taxes collected per in-district student. This provision replaced a recurring debate about annual out-of-district tuition increases by a principle that has remained unchanged since adopted.

Policy Development: The "composite-draft" process

How much policy can a Board write? As the Board continued to consolidate and reform its policies, it began to address some issues that required policies that were large (~700 words) by the new standards to deal with the full range of Board concerns. The largest and most difficult were those on Employment of Adjunct Faculty and Employee Compensation, where there were also substantial differences of perspective among trustees. The biennial comprehensive policy review, also posed challenges to maintaining Board self-reliance. How can working drafts be produced without biasing the process in favor of the preference of either the administration, the most active trustee, or some interest group (whoever does the writing)? Who "owns" the drafting process? Do trustees have to become policy wonks to have a significant impact on policy development?

Coordination without control: Responsibility for coordinating policy development is placed on the Board Chair, but the list of what topics are to be addressed is decided each year by board vote. Because all trustees have equal ability to propose policy topics and to propose alternatives once a topic is selected for consideration, control over the discussion really rests with the whole Board, not the Chair or the CEO. On the other hand, it isn't possible for a single-issue trustee to dominate the policy agenda, since a majority vote is needed to select a topic for Board consideration.

Generating a full range of choices: The different views identified in an initial discussion are represented, for each policy provision, by alternative wordings under the control of the trustee who expressed that view. These alternatives will typically be produced by the trustees who feel most strongly about an issue, and initially concentrate more on expressing the sponsor's concerns than on accommodating other points of view. After initial sets of alternatives are produced by the most verbal trustees, other trustees will often propose variants which use the basic structure of an earlier proposal but are changed in some important way -- the system rewards novelty of thought, not just fluency.

Getting the whole Board involved: The alternatives for each provision evolve (and new ones are sometimes added by other trustees) in response to a series of short discussions at successive meetings. There is no need to work out new language during these discussions (that is handled by each sponsor between meetings), but the "I don't like this because ..." comments serve both to point out problems and to signal the general balance of feeling on the Board. The process becomes a competition for clarity, and for alignment with overall Board opinion.

Efficient final decision: Often the process produces compromises (when opposing extremes see that the majority is in the middle, or when a third trustee sponsors a synthesis), but it just as often produces clear choices for the Board, which finally votes to select and amend the preferred alternative. Because that alternative has already been subjected to a criticism and refinement process, any final amendments needed are simple and take little time. The overall result is well-balanced and well-understood policy provisions produced with only a modest investment of meeting time and with no use of Board or staff committees.

Efficient, but not quick: This system takes several meetings to produce a policy. Typically about three are needed. During the major policy revision period, several proposals were usually in progress simultaneously -- about 40 distinct proposals in about 8 hours of meeting time spread over five meetings.

What if faster action is needed? Rather than rushing the development of a policy to address an emergency; it is better to pass a time-limited resolution to deal with any immediate concerns. Then later, look to see if there is a possible policy provision that might avoid the need for precipitate Board action in the future. In fact, a Board almost always has to depend on its CEO to deal with quick-response situations -- it should concentrate on making sure that its policies clearly indicate the Board's major goals and values, and that it has a CEO worthy of the trust it will have to give.

Policy Compliance Monitoring

The final element of the Austin policy model consists of mechanisms to enable the Board to judge how well its directives are being observed. The approach used is a combination of systematic policy compliance reports developed by the President and supplemented by focused oversight by a Board officer when a trustee perspective is seen as needed to ensure that the Board receives appropriate information. The relevant policies are Monitoring Policy Compliance and Organizational Performance Evaluation.

Systematic staff reports on policy compliance are provided annually, spread over the year in appropriate groups (some policies specify that their related reports be coordinated with the budget proposal, for example). It is the responsibility of the President/CEO to provide both any specific items called for in policy and further relevant evidence on how well the College is meeting the goals and adhering to the mandates enunciated in each policy. Any areas where the College's situation is unusual are also identified and discussed. Taken together, these reports provide a comprehensive view of College performance and opportunities for improvement. These also help inform the review, possible revision, and readoption of the ACC Master Plan.

An independent charge to monitor policy compliance is given to the trustee chosen by the Board as Secretary. This is typically used for a focused set of issues of particular interest to trustees. While the Secretary has access to information and assistance from the President/CEO as needed in these investigations, any findings of noncompliance are only advisory reports to the Board, and are not binding on the President or staff unless the Board votes on the matter. Note that this investigative authority is not granted to all trustees, but only to the one chosen for the task by a majority of the Board. This minimizes any "loose cannon" effect while still providing the Board an independent, efficient, and discreet investigative mode.

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