April 10, 2020

Dan W. French, Dean, Galloway College of Business, Lamar University, Texas, USA


Many academic departments have advisory boards comprised of individuals who have an interest in the department’s academic area. A successful board serves more than to be just a list of noted individuals for purposes of department publicity. An effectively utilized department advisory board can provide a practical and functional organization for developing relationships with department alumni and other outside individuals who would have an interest in supporting the mission of an academic department.

The purpose of this article is to provide a brief overview of the organization and execution of a successful advisory board. It draws upon my 7 years’ experience as Chair of the Department of Finance in the Robert J. Trulaske, Sr. College of Business of the University of Missouri, working with the Finance Advisory Board (FAB). While the FAB has been quite a successful and productive organization, my examples should serve as only one way of doing things well; there are many avenues that lead to a thriving department advisory board.

An advisory board can provide a number of benefits to a department, including:

  • providing guidance and counsel
    • to the department chair
    • to individual faculty members
  • interaction with department major students in a variety of ways such as
    • individual mentoring
    • job shadowing
  • serving as classroom guest speakers
  • fundraising


Board Bylaws Organization

A good set of bylaws is a vital tool for maintaining a board. Items noted in the following subsections are good candidates for specifying in the bylaws. Bylaws can help with the transition from one set of officers to another, and they can provide a set of guidelines that can help reduce any disagreements that might arise.

Board Member

Finding the right balance between having a sufficient number of board members and a number that becomes too cumbersome is an act that probably comes more with experience than with a rule of thumb. There should be enough members to represent a broad cross-section of the various sub-areas that your department covers. For example, a modern language department would want board members representing each of the languages taught in the department.

My experience has shown that a board of about 25 members serves us well. There will usually be between 5 and 10 members who cannot make a meeting, so attendance of 15 to 20 at a meeting is a manageable number and allows each individual the opportunity to contribute.


The title, responsibility, number of officers to empower is another area that the bylaws should address. The number and responsibilities are probably best determined by the board based on its needs. The FAB has only a Chair and a Vice-Chair who assumes the position of Chair in the following year. There are several minor officer positions (committee chairs) that may or may not have many duties in any one given year. Also, individual members take on ad hoc duties and responsibilities as needs arise.

The board has 4 standing committees:

  • Promotion
  • Student Relations
  • Membership
  • Fundraising
  • Each committee has a chair. There is no secretary position; the department’s administrative assistant has the task of taking minutes at each meeting. The board needs no treasurer because all funds flow through the department’s official account with the university.

Recruiting and Retaining Members

Recruiting new members is essential to an advisory board’s health. New members bring fresh ideas and can re-energize a board that might be starting to founder. The bylaws should identify

  • procedures for inviting prospective new members and placing them on the board
  • terms for members
  • processes for inviting members to recommit or graciously exit at the end of their term.

I have found 2 useful sources of candidates for membership. Most obvious is the current board membership and their circle of connections. The second is faculty who can recommend former students with whom they may have maintained contact. Alumni are usually the best prospects; they have an already-established loyalty to the department and often look forward to reconnecting with faculty members who may still be teaching for the department.

The FAB invites prospective members to a trial meeting in which the candidate “decides whether he or she wants to join such a notorious group.” In that way, the board avoids giving the prospect the impression of being on probation and allows the candidate a way out if there is no fit. Following this first meeting, the board extends a formal invitation to join.

Department Chair Role

The leadership of the board should be vested in its officers with the department chair in the role of a non-voting, permanent member. Board members will take ownership of their organization and are more likely to offer their services and resources if the department chair serves more as a consultant than a participant. Board members will respect a department chair that offers suggestions and guidance but allows the board to make its own decisions.

During FAB meetings, after the chair calls the meeting to order and introduces prospective new members, I present a 45-minute report on the department and sum up by outlining the topics that I hope the board will address and act on during the meeting. During the remainder of the meeting, members regularly direct questions to me about the topic they are addressing, so I serve an informational and guidance role during that time.

Effective Board Member Characteristics

An effective board member will

  • be proactive
  • attend meetings on a regular basis
  • participate in the board’s activities to the extent possible

 Board Meetings 

How often, where, when should the board meet?

Choose a balance in the number of board meetings. Too few meetings will lead to board members losing interest; too many will cause burnout. The campus makes a great place to meet as long as adequate facilities are available. Make it as easy as possible for board members to get more for their trip to campus by combining events, if possible.

The FAB has 2 meetings per year, each starting at 9:00 a.m. and ending by about 2:45. (They tend to start getting restless soon after lunch, and some members like to have a post-meeting session at one of the nearby pubs.) The fall meeting is on Friday preceding the homecoming football game, and the spring meeting coincides with the College’s Honors Luncheon. Basketball games and other events can also provide a nice draw.


Pre-meeting organization

Members appreciate a well-organized and executed meeting. Set and announce the date of the next meeting during the current meeting, and planning should begin months before the meeting date so that everything will proceed smoothly including

  • Reminder emails leading up to the meeting day, including a copy of the previous meeting’s minutes
  •  Meeting facility and catering arrangements (light breakfast for those arriving early and full lunch recommended, and be sure to have coffee available all day)
  • Table tents and name tags

 Conducting effective meetings

Board officers should lead meetings will hopefully have the skills to facilitate a productive meeting. Sometimes the department chair can gently guide the discussion back to its intended target, and providing an agenda with topics and times helps keep the meeting on schedule.


Successfully Engaging Advisory Board Members

A successful board is actively engaged with the department. However, left on their own, boards tend to lose steam, so the department chair should continually work to involve members. Board members need to know that their contributions make a difference and that their commitments of time and other valuable resources are not wasted. Participation and engagement create a rewarding experience for members and lead to continued and additional participation. The following are suggestions for projects that keep members involved and contributing to the mission of the department:

  • Plan and host major events – bring in a noted speaker or practitioner in the field (department chairs should offer resources such as department staff for planning and executing an event)
  • Engagement with students – serve as a student’s mentor, host a student to job-shadow, sponsor a reception for students to meet board members (chairs and staff can help coordinate these)
  • Professor for a day – speak to a class (chairs should encourage department faculty to invite board members)
  • Student trips – members can host student trips or arrange them with acquaintances (chairs can offer operational assistance)

The following are department chair activities that can help keep the board thriving:

  • Visits – periodically arrange a brief visit with board members at their work, home, or for lunch
  • Communication – keep members informed of what’s going on, use emails, publish a newsletter, maintain a web site


If fundraising is the primary reason that a department sponsors a board, then the board will probably neither effectively contribute to the department’s mission nor successfully raise funds. On the other hand, active and engaged board members who feel that their contributions of valuable time and effort have made a positive difference will often be willing (and possibly wanting) to make a financial contribution.

Any of the special projects noted in the previous section provide opportunities for raising funds. For example, there are expenses associated with bringing in a noted guest speaker, and the board could make it a priority that members would provide or solicit funding for the event.

Any department chair who works with board members during meetings and in activities such as those mentioned in the previous section will develop close relationships with board members. As part of this relationship, it is certainly appropriate to have a frank discussion with the member about the financial challenges that higher education faces and possible contributions that the member could make to help the department achieve its goals.

 In closing…

Sponsoring a department advisory board can be a fulfilling undertaking for an academic department chair, and it can lead to benefits that help the department advance its goals. However, department chairs who take the challenge to form and maintain an advisory board will be first to admit that success comes only through many hours of work and months or years of developing working relationships.


Dan French President has served on multiple boards over the past several decades, including the Southwestern Finance Association, 1990-91, 2012-13, Vice-Pres. and Program Chair, Southwestern Finance Association, 1989-1990, 2011-12, Member, Board of Directors, Southwestern Finance Association, 1986-1988, and Treasurer, Rio Grande Chapter, Financial Executives Institute, 1995-1997. Additionally, he is currently active in the American Finance Association, Southern Finance Association, Financial Management Association, Southwestern Finance Association, Eastern Finance Association, American Real Estate Society, and the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts.


This article was originally published in the following publications:

1. Dan W. French. “The Department Advisory Board as an Academic Partner” The Department Chair, 21 (Summer 2010), 1-3.

2. Special Issues in Chairing Academic Departments, by Carolyn Allard