Recent leadership clashes have drawn attention to the importance of maintaining a healthy relationship between presidents and boards.
If headlines and statistics are any gauge, relations between college and university presidents and their boards may have hit a low point over the past few years.
High-profile leadership clashes and board controversies, such as those at the University of Virginia in 2012 and at The Pennsylvania State University in 2011, are often cited, but findings from many other campuses indicate that tensions may be widespread. Among the findings from a recent survey of 523 college and university presidents conducted by Inside Higher Ed and Gallup was this sobering set of statistics: Forty percent of presidents—including 68 percent of presidents at public four-year colleges and universities—said they would replace board members if they could.
But to judge by the productive working relationships of many presidents and boards across the institutional spectrum, such fractiousness doesn’t have to be the norm. In fact, say many experts, presidents, and board members, presidents who proactively engage their boards and utilize outside resources can significantly improve the quality of their board relations, and ultimately the quality of their institutions.
A Changing World
When Mills College (CA) President Alecia A. DeCoudreaux first arrived on campus in 2011, one of the first things she initiated was a formal review of the institution’s governance structure, in order to develop a mutual understanding of the college’s strategic priorities and to build stronger relationships between administrators and board members.
“One of the things that I value about our board is their confidence and trust in me, and so when they are asking me questions, I don’t feel that they are challenging me. I feel that they are guiding me and helping the institution,” said DeCoudreaux.
To an earlier generation of institutional presidents accustomed to an era when boards were less focused on the details of management, this outlook might seem unusual. And while DeCoudreaux is clear that trust and respect at Mills go both ways, her more expansive sense of a board’s role reflects the changed landscape of both higher education and its governance.
“There was a time when we took for granted that people understood the value—and the cost—of a college degree, but that’s no longer a given,” DeCoudreaux said. “These challenges are causing boards to drill down more deeply into the management of the institutions they govern. As long as boards are doing that in an appropriate way, they are doing the best possible thing for the institution, because we all need to be thinking about these issues and thinking about ways to both provide and demonstrate the value of the education we are offering students.”
That view is echoed by those on the other side of the governance equation, who acknowledge that current economic and societal forces can exacerbate tensions between presidents and boards. Access, affordability, globalization, new technologies, and the erosion of state and federal funding are some of the most pressing issues that may put presidents and boards at odds.
“The fundamentals are being challenged,” said attorney James L. Shea, chair of the board of regents of the University System of Maryland. “If you lay on top of that the extraordinary importance of higher education—what it means to the economy and to prosperity and to America’s relative standing in the world—if you don’t run really hard in the right direction, you’re going to fall behind.”
Indeed, colleges and universities are under greater public scrutiny, and the stresses on presidents and boards to respond effectively and make tough choices can sometimes lead to disagreements about priorities.
It is well known that trustees ought to leave management of the institution to the president, but the unique nature of academe—a community of varied stakeholders, including students, faculty, administrators, alumni, and others—can often blur that line.
A college or university’s governing board members hold the ultimate level of fiduciary authority in the area of policy or strategy, said Rick Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB). “But they must carry out that authority in smart ways, recognizing the centrality of effective administrative leadership,” he said. “In order to have institutional success, boards must be uniformly supportive of the president and fit their authority within the broader construct of institutional policy setting and governance that is inclusive of multiple stakeholders.”
In this current landscape, colleges and universities—and therefore their boards and presidents—are facing decisions that involve significant changes to well-established practices and policies, Shea said. Such pressures may lead board members to step outside their oversight role to make unilateral decisions in the interest of acting quickly.
There is potential for governing boards to be more aggressive, seeking and expecting a broader engagement on some fundamental strategic issues of what the academy is going to look like over the next period of time,” said Legon. “The key is finding the safe space in which the president and board can operate together effectively with this newly heightened engagement.”
Legon also challenged the statistical basis for claims that presidents don’t view their boards favorably.
“Our data support a very different set of conclusions,” he said, citing a not-yet-published AGB survey of nearly 700 college presidents. Overall, he said, the data suggest that relationships between most college and university presidents and their boards are positive.
“[This] indicates that presidents, especially longer-serving presidents, enjoy a higher degree of successful relationships with their boards,” he said.
But those longer-serving presidents are also aging out of the position: Data from the American Council on Education (ACE) show that about 92 percent of all college presidents and provosts are between the ages of 55 and 75. As many of those presidents retire, they will be replaced by leaders with less experience in working directly with boards.
With the stakes for a productive working relationship so high, newer presidents are increasingly turning to outside help. Tori Haring-Smith hired an executive coach as an advisor during her first year as president of Washington & Jefferson College (PA), a move she initially thought of as a sign of weakness. But the experience was so positive that she soon changed her view.
“The executive coach helped me transition to the role of president and helped me establish a good working relationship with my governing board,” Haring-Smith said. “I’d tell all new presidents to hire one to help them get over any feelings they may have about needing to prove that they can do everything on their own.”
Requests for executive coaching are becoming more prevalent in presidential contracts, said Jan Greenwood, a former university president who is now president of the executive search firm Greenwood/Asher & Associates. “Such coaching is no longer viewed as remedial, and will be key to successful transitions, especially during this period of adjustment and change faced by all of higher education.”
The enormous diversity in college and university governing boards and their functions makes it difficult to pinpoint a standard list of ways to avoid tension or significant disagreements. But there are a few things that presidents and boards can do to sustain strong relationships while addressing the challenges their institutions face.
Ultimately, higher education experts say, there has to be a high level of trust—gained through the respect of boundaries in a supportive environment—in order for a good relationship to be established and sustained. Board members and presidents who trust each other can more easily ask hard questions and push for appropriate solutions.
“A healthy relationship requires the board to understand the boundaries of what it should and shouldn’t get into,” Shea said. “When a president feels like his or her ability to drive the mission of the institution is being interfered with, that can be problematic. At the same time, the president has to be capably in command for the board to feel comfortable in observing their limitations.”
Shea notes that tensions can arise when either the president or the board issues orders and expects that they be executed immediately without dissension. Tied to that is the slow pace of change in higher education, which is not structured to easily enable quick pivots. “If you don’t have the buy-in of the people you’re working with, you’ll get nowhere,” Shea said.
And as tempting as it may be for the president to share only good news with the board, that can also be a mistake, said University of Puget Sound President Emerita Susan Resneck Pierce, who is also president of SRP Consulting, LLC and author of Governance Reconsidered: How Boards, Presidents, Administrators, and Faculty Can Help Their Colleges Thrive. “The board isn’t given all the information they need to fulfill their fiduciary responsibility, but the president also loses in those cases, because he or she misses out on the incredibly good guidance board members can provide,” Pierce said.
Taking advantage of that guidance helped Haring-Smith see Washington & Jefferson’s board in a new light. She said she learned early on in her tenure that the board members—doctors, lawyers, financial advisors, and architects, among other professionals—were there to support her.
“At first I thought they didn’t understand higher education, so I approached them with an attitude of, ‘Here’s the list of what we did and what we need. Now approve the budget,’” she said. “But the relationship needs to be much more of a two-way street. It’s vitally important to take advantage of your board’s expertise and experience. We must work together for the good of our institutions and higher education in general.”
One of the best investments a college president can make is cultivating and continuously nurturing a positive relationship with the board chair, notes Jim Sirianni, director of ACE’s Executive Leadership Group. “Open communication, as well as clear expectations about communication, can go far toward building positive momentum,” Sirianni said. “A reservoir of positive exchanges built over time can be an essential resource when discord or unwelcome surprises surface.”
In this period of change for colleges and universities, board consultant Richard Chait, a professor of education emeritus at Harvard University (MA), encourages boards and presidents to practice consequential governance.
“Trustees tend to ask, ‘Are we going to survive?’ when they really should be asking, ‘Why have we survived for so long?’” Chait said. “Almost all colleges and universities are very durable institutions. Very few close their doors and very few that have stature ever lose that stature.”
Chait suggests that boards devote the lion’s share of their attention to the handful of issues that matter most to the long-term success of the institution, rather than getting diverted by issues of the day or mundane operational matters.
“If a board can’t figure out what matters most, everything from signage to sewage is not going to make a difference,” he said.
At Washington & Jefferson College, Haring-Smith uses a decision matrix to clarify her presidential role—as well as those of board members, faculty, and senior staff—in making key decisions on policies outlined in the college’s strategic plan. The matrix assigns duties, such as initiating planning, acting as a consultant, and approving or overriding decisions, to the appropriate people or committees. Haring-Smith said such a system removes individual personalities and assists everyone in understanding boundaries.
“It has been extremely helpful in outlining the difference between governance and management,” she said. “We are able to define when somebody crosses the line into micromanagement or has not exercised an appropriate governing function. It helps us clarify and communicate the overlap between governance and management.”
The relationship between board members and presidents can sometimes get murky when trustees aren’t fully educated about their role and responsibilities, with board membership being treated as a learn-as-you-go endeavor. At the start of their tenure, trustees are often merely handed a dossier full of rules and regulations and overviews of the college’s history, culture, and programs. While that information is critical, Legon said institutions could do better in strengthening orientation programs and seeking out continuing education opportunities for board members.
“Institutions would be smart to make an ongoing investment in board member development,” Legon said. “It’s crucial that they understand the principles of a fiduciary and its specific responsibility, as well as the issues facing the institution, so that they have a clear sense of their role in institutional leadership.”
It’s important that presidents and board chairs seek joint-learning opportunities as well, Sirianni adds, taking advantage of outside consultants, workshops, and forums to “collaboratively sharpen their thinking about shared goals and directions.”
All Together Now
One role governing boards cannot overlook is that of supporting the president. Boards are responsible for hiring college and university presidents, and once they are in place, those who have the support they need to advance their institutions are the ones who thrive.
“Presidents need to know that the board has full confidence in their ability to lead,” said Ronald G. Ehrenberg, director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute (NY). “The worst possible thing is for the board to view its role as catching the leader doing something wrong. When a board has established—with the president—a vision for the institution, and then acts as the president’s best advocate in getting there, that’s when true change can happen.”
Ultimately, say leaders on both sides of the governing fence, the focus of leadership should be on moving the institution forward on behalf of its raison d’être.
“I don’t think college presidents and boards should have to search for common ground. The students we serve are our automatic common ground,” said DeCoudreaux.
“The board has the responsibility to provide the oversight to make sure that we really are doing what’s in the best interest of the college,” she said. “But ultimately, presidents and boards should be working for the same reason: To ensure that their institution is sustainable and can provide the best possible education to its students well into the future.”
Marla J. Holt is a freelance writer based in southeastern Minnesota.