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Q&A: Minding the Gap



Every institution is different, and so are the evolving particulars of its leadership, but almost every institution has a governance structure balanced between a chief executive and a board. To get a snapshot of how successful presidents make that balance work smoothly, The Presidency asked three accomplished leaders from three different types of institutions one question:

What’s your best strategy for bridging the gap between board and president?

Renu Khator is chancellor of the University of Houston System and president of the University of Houston.

President Lyndon Johnson, that long tall Texan who had such an illustrious political career, used to tower over a colleague he was trying to persuade and, draping an arm imposingly across a shoulder, tell him, “Come, let us reason together.” LBJ was a master of using his charisma and clout successfully.

As effective as that may have been, it’s not the most productive approach for a university president intent on a good working relationship with the board. Even though the president is the CEO and has the greatest expertise and knowledge of higher education, it’s crucial to remember that board members have passion and commitment—and often a longer relationship with the institution. That must be respected. No matter how “corporate” or “out of academic line” board members’ ideas may sound, it is imperative to respect their views. Although they are volunteers, board members face very real feedback for the university’s actions. So a strategic president helps them take credit when good things happen and avoid unnecessary public criticism if they don’t.

It’s also essential for optimal president-board relations to establish a simple, compelling vision for the institution.

It should be much more clear-cut than the complex visions faculty and staff typically develop. This vision includes direct goals that can be defined and measured. Inspirational academic visions are useful for management, but board members need a vision they can explain to the people they spend time with—the governor, legislature, and business and community leaders. At the University of Houston, for example, we established two such goals: increase the graduation rate to the national average, and get the university ranked as one of the country’s top research universities. That’s simple to understand, and hard to disagree with. We established measurable indicators of progress, and they have helped keep everyone focused, from faculty and staff to administration and alumni—and of course, the board.

David Maxwell is president of Drake University (IA).

It’s important to first identify and acknowledge the differences in viewpoint and responsibility—professional backgrounds, expertise, experiences, culture, and governance roles—before developing strategies to overcome them.

The first essential strategy is a thorough and focused board orientation to ensure that trustees understand the institution—its history, core values, current condition, challenges, and aspirations; the fundamental principles and responsibilities of shared governance; and what the president and institution need from the board. One of the biggest challenges in this area is convincing board members that their differences in perspective, experience, and assumptions constitute an advantage that should be recognized and exploited, not a source of frustration or contention.

The second is to ensure clear expectations between the board and the president grounded in openness, honesty, integrity, transparency, and a willingness to have difficult and complex conversations in a safe and supportive context. There need to be mutually agreed-upon annual goals, and the president must be confident that he or she can turn to the board for guidance; the president cannot know everything and should be able to expect advice, support, and guidance from the board.

Third, constant attention must be paid to communications. There has to be appropriately frequent contact between the president and the board, especially with the chair. The board must be informed in a timely fashion about both positive and negative issues and events, and must hear news—good and bad—first from the president.

Finally, we need to look at our current model of shared governance, which tends to be serial and protracted, rather than concurrent, interactive, and collaborative. It is important that we look for ways in which the three parties to shared governance—board, administration, and faculty (and students as much as possible)—can deliberate critical issues together. In this current environment of rapid change, opportunity, and challenge, there is a critical need for the institution to be flexible, agile, and responsive—which, I would suggest, requires that the “gap” disappear.

Linda M. Thor is chancellor of Foothill–De Anza Community College District (CA).

Over 27 years as a community college CEO, I’ve fine-tuned a top-10 list for surviving and thriving as a leader, from “never cover up illegal or unethical activity” to “listen and be open to persuasion.” There’s a thread that ties together these bits of advice, and it wins my vote for best strategy not only to bridge any gap between governing board and president but to avoid such a gap altogether.

I’m talking about the importance of frequent, honest, and straightforward communication. That’s also what members of our governing board said when I put the question to them:

“Do your job well, and keep the board informed,” one responded. “Don’t ‘spin.’ Tell the board the truth about what you are doing, what needs to be done, and what is going right or wrong. Don’t present issues to us fully settled without bringing us in along the way.” Another noted that publicly elected boards are particularly sensitive to public comments and don’t like surprises, good or bad—especially when delivered by the press.

Maintaining good communication is easier said than done. Some things that have helped me keep the channels open include establishing standards for communication early in the relationship; emphasizing the CEO as the board’s primary contact; treating all board members equally by making sure that information provided to one is provided to all; and helping the board understand its role through orientation and board development.

The board-CEO relationship is both professional and personal; don’t underestimate the importance of being open as a person. Through regular lunches, I have developed a personal relationship with each board member. These informal meetings are a chance for us to get to know each other and talk about what we’re thinking and hearing. When board members understand that you are honest and act with integrity, you’ll win their confidence and trust.