President's Calling - Making Board Decisions in our Current Culture

Published November 7, 2017

In This Issue...

President's Calling
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March 2017
Making Board Decisions in our Current Culture
I hope when you read this month’s President’s Calling, “Making Board Decisions in our Current Culture,” it is thought provoking, rather than appearing to be an opportunity for self-adulation. I’d like to give you a "behind the scenes" peek at how your Academy Board of Directors works.
The primary function of any Board of Directors is to protect its organization via fiduciary responsibility, and assure that the overall day-to-day operations are serving its members well. Some decisions made by a board are strategic in nature, some tactical, and others are purely operational in nature.
In order to help our Board operate effectively as a group, we spent our very first day together in a full day session reviewing how we might function more effectively. We visited these topics: (1) Is there a better way to arrive at or achieve consensus? (2) How might we make decisions in a timely fashion that best serve our Academy and its members? and (3) Can we be more effective or efficient in how we monitor the daily functions of the Academy without micro-managing?
To facilitate the process, we had the pleasure of having an association governance consultant, Ms. Nancy Axelrod, run the day-long program. We started by reviewing some of our strengths and weaknesses as a Board. Nancy reviewed written and unwritten rules that influence how boards operate. She helped us focus on long-term challenges and ways to foster inclusive relationships when new board members are elected and join the group. We reviewed what a high-functioning board must do to arrive at consensus when faced with an important issue. This was a most valuable experience, as we had an opportunity to use these skills right away.
Recently, we faced an important issue: whether to respond in some fashion  or not at all  to the White House Executive Order on Immigration. The opinion of Board members differed, ranging from “Make a strong political statement opposing all aspects of the order” to “Don’t say a word because it would be viewed as being political by our members." Finding the right balance here was paramount: As you know, the Immigration Order created much division and controversy. We wanted to serve as a force for unity, not aggravate the controversy and division within our membership.
The Board’s main concern was how the Immigration Order might affect our international colleagues traveling to our Annual Meeting. Some will be sitting for their oral interviews as the final stage of completing their Fellowship. Others might be accepted lecturers. The initial Immigration Order created some confusion as it related to visas and green cards. A few of our Canadian members reported that faculty at their institutions holding visas from some of the countries affected by the ban would be unable to attend our Annual Meeting for purposes of exchanging scientific information. We had to plan for some contingencies since science doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
Using the skills we learned from our day-long meeting with Ms. Axelrod, we arrived at a consensus in a timely fashion on what to do about the Immigration Order. We elected to issue an e-mail blast (available on our website in the event you haven’t seen it) expressing the issues we face and how we are addressing them as an organization, without strongly opposing any attempt to make America safe with proper vetting.
In evaluating our response, we looked at feedback from Academy members. We received nearly the same number of encouraging, positive responses as we did troubled or concerned negative responses. That doesn’t mean we found the perfect solution to the dilemma, but it does show we found a somewhat balanced response. When someone took the time to respond to our statement by email, I responded in a personal e-mail to thank them for their input, and assure them that their thoughts on the e-mail blast were considered.
Governing in a way to find balance with controversial issues can be a difficult job. I’m finding that out in the first few months as president of the Academy. Nevertheless, while serving on the Academy Board, I can’t recall one occasion where “crippling conflict” took over any “healthy dissent” on any action we faced. Regardless of the decision, when consensus is reached, the Board always pulls together and unites around its decision.
It’s both an honor and pleasure to serve with such a committed and talented group. The new Board has shown the same qualities of good judgment that the past Academy Boards have shown when forced to make difficult decisions. I am confident that tradition will continue!

Joseph P. Shovlin, OD, FAAO
President, American Academy of Optometry