Boaty McBoatface

By Brett Pawlowski

Earlier this year, England’s Natural Environment Research Council had what they thought was a great idea: To build interest in the building and launch of a new research vessel, they would host a contest to let people name the new boat. They even seeded the contest with some likely names (Shackleton, Endeavour, Falcon), though participants were free to offer their own.

The trouble began when a PR professional, as a joke, submitted the name “Boaty McBoatface.” The name caught fire among Internet voters, and quickly became the top vote-getter in the online contest. NERC was left in a tough position: Either accept the ridiculous name, or ignore the voice of the public (which was the point of the contest in the first place).

NERC actually handled this well in the end, choosing one of the other top vote-getters (“David Attenborough,” which came in fourth), but naming one of the ship’s sub-sea vehicles “Boaty” in recognition of the vote).

What does this have to do with education? A lot, actually: It’s a perfect example of why so many educators keep their advisory boards at arm’s length. It’s the worry of a loss of control: “These people don’t know education. If I give my board a real voice, what if they do something wrong? What if they make bad decisions and I’m stuck either implementing them or defying the voice of the board?”

It’s an understandable concern. You’re inviting industry professionals to invest their limited time in guiding your program and if you ignore their advice, they may get frustrated and leave the board – or, what would be even worse, pull their support from your school or program completely. Right?

Fortunately there are a couple of steps you can take here:

  • Emphasize the word “Advisory.” Business-people may hear “advisory board” but think “board of directors,” an entity in business that has a lot more authority and voice in an organization’s work. Emphasize up front that this is an advisory group only, and that there will be times when you will have to disagree with their recommendations (making sure you can explain why in each case).
  • Give them the right information. Advice is only as good as the information that produced it; make sure your board members understand the rules and constraints involved in a situation before asking them for their guidance.
  • Look for “win-win” compromises. As in the case of Boaty McBoatface, if you have to go against your board members’ recommendations, see if there’s a way their input can be incorporated in some way into your decision.

With care, your advisory board can be one of your most powerful resources – and some internal disagreements should do nothing to derail an otherwise strong relationship.