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Style Matters: Phil, Ernie, and the Board

 

William G. Cale, Jr.

 

Like many of my colleagues, I enjoy golf. I enjoy playing and I enjoy watching. Fred Couples and Ernie Els are two fine golfers who make the game look easy; they swing their clubs with beautiful rhythm and never lose their level-headed, steady approach to the game. When they win, they make it look as if anyone could do it.
 
On the other hand, Arnold Palmer and Phil Mickelson are two fine golfers who make the game look difficult. Arnie always seemed to be mounting his charge from the deep woods, only to work miracles. Phil swings with great determination and intensity, and his labors are always evidenced by the perspiration on his shirt. Arnie and Phil let their face tell all. After a win, you knew they had worked hard.
 
Based on these two examples of golfers, an analogy can be drawn between university presidents and their boards, and golfers and their audiences.

With rare exceptions, the membership of higher education governing boards is deeply interested in the well-being of the institution and wants to make the best possible decisions. Also with rare exceptions, these board members are lay persons. Their experiential base with higher education is most frequently their personal observations recalled from college days, often drawn from a time when state support was abundant and professors communicated using chalk on a blackboard. Notions of shared governance are anathema to the business members of the board, as is the role of university committees to approve curricula, evaluate credentials for promotion, or provide advice on policy.

Few governing board members understand in any deep way why a search process for dean or vice president can take an entire academic year and cannot be carried out (let alone concluded) during the summer. Some boards alienate their university community when they conduct a presidential search behind closed doors and are at a loss to understand a culture that reacts that way. At the risk of pushing the golf analogy too far, the typical board member joins the board with a 30+ handicap on higher education administration and governance, and over time might come down to a 15. Presidents, for the most part, are pros and have honed their technique over many years.

My conjecture is that those presidents who are in the Arnold Palmer/Phil Mickelson group—those who do a great job but let it be known that the work is a challenge—are more highly regarded by their boards. Alternatively, those presidents more in the Fred Couples/Ernie Els mode (Ernie’s nickname is “The Big Easy”), who do a similarly great job, are less likely to be highly valued. This conjecture derives from the general lack of understanding by boards of the unique culture that drives higher education and the invisibility of challenges a president faces every day.

Looking at higher education from the non-practitioner perspective, the challenges appear obvious and straightforward: Get good professors into scheduled classes, make sure costs (as measured by a year-to-year comparison of tuition and fees) are under control, and recruit and retain students. Much deeper issues (curricular reform, litigation avoidance, federal and state compliance, legislative relations, civic engagement, global awareness, accreditation processes, tenure guidelines, donor cultivation, and new program development, to name just a few) may never reach the board, or may reach the board only as brief commentary in a report, depending on the president’s style. In short, it is easy to understand that if the president makes the job look easy, the conclusion is likely that it is in fact easy.
 
Putters vs. Drivers
If we accept that the job of president in the modern university is characterized by complex issues, then it is worthwhile to ask what differentiates one group from the other. Obviously, differences do not arise because one group is all smiles while the other appears worn out and sweat stained. After all, as presidents, we smile all the time, have boundless energy, and never perspire!
 
The Phil president:
  1. Devotes a great amount of time to communication with the board, especially with the chair. Every problem is explained. Some Phil presidents communicate with the board chair every day, and with the broader membership frequently, as well. This serves multiple purposes, not the least of which is the slow but inevitable education of the board on how the culture operates and the kinds of problems that arise. Further, it highlights the extent of the president’s engagement.
  2. Demonstrates through dozens of examples every year that problems are being solved and that he or she is handling everything. 
  3. Builds a strong foundation of support with the board through consultation and information flow. 
  4. Separates him or herself from the larger university community in the mind of the board, creating a more businesslike framework of senior management dealing with the myriad issues that arise out of a quasi-independent faculty.
 
The Ernie president:
  1. Is more closely aligned with the campus community and chooses not to bother the board with the daily grind of minor issues. This creates the perception that problems are few.
  2. Operates under the erroneous assumption that the board fully appreciates the job in all its complexities.
  3. Is not ruffled by most problems, is level-headed, and finds solutions by working with the people involved. The Ernie president believes that most problems do not require the attention of the board for either explanation or resolution.
  4. Tends to delegate well and permits others to handle many problems; gives credit to anyone who deserves recognition.
  5. Is creative, flexible, open, and highly trusted.
There is nothing in these characterizations to suggest that one presidential style is more driven, proves greater commitment, or even is better for the campus than the other. The difference centers on how the president interacts with the board, and the outcome is how the board interprets and reacts to one style compared with the other. My theory is that the Phil president is likely to be more highly valued, in large measure because such presidents make it apparent that problems abound but that each is under control. The campus is tranquil because of the president’s huge investment in oversight. A tranquil campus under the leadership of the Ernie president is likely to be seen by the board and others as one in which harmony is the norm, a credit to all who work there.
 
Out of the Rough
Boards are usually a diverse group, with varied professional experience among their members. With the possible exception of those who serve national universities, few board members have experience as a CEO of an organization comparable in size to the university they are charged to govern. Similarly, it would be exceedingly rare to have a board member with senior administrative experience in higher education. However, budgets are on everyone’s mind today, so it is worthwhile to look at how the two presidential styles might approach economic challenges.

Regardless of institution, both President Phil and President Ernie are likely to face severely declining public support, pressure to limit tuition increases while sustaining quality, and the interesting challenge of allocating one-time funds from the federal stimulus package. However, President Phil sees this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to demonstrate conclusively to the board that every challenge can be met. The board, which understands the campus budget in broad outline but not in fine detail, recognizes that state revenue decreases of 15 percent to 20 percent (or more) are serious. When it is suggested that the campus may not endorse the necessary actions—actions essential to survive—there is one conclusion: President Phil has the matter fully in hand. Ongoing conversation between the president and the board highlights the challenge and the difficulty in finding answers.
 
President Ernie handles this same set of problems differently. Yes, the board has been informed of the nature of the problem, and soon enough will be advised of the recommended plan to deal with it, but it is likely that the solutions have come through a very different process. President Ernie has gathered the relevant financial information and formulated a conceptual strategy. Then, he or she has worked the problem through the campus governance structure, engaged in dialogue, amended the strategy according to the good ideas that emerge, and crafted a plan that is understood and, to the greatest extent possible, endorsed by the campus.
 
When the plan goes to the board, the presentation is easy (like the swing of Els’ club) and there is every reason to believe that the campus will support the approach. In short, the solution has been developed with only minimal input and advice from the board. Therefore, the board is likely to regard the outcome as a combination of common sense and serendipity. Why? Because such an approach is not part of anyone’s world outside the academy. If the difficult choices leading to budget reduction are met with support by the campus, there is no familiar management model that translates that to leadership. So the outcome looks easy when, in fact, it was highly intensive and turned on a great deal of trustful interactions before its conclusion. All of that is invisible and the various interactions themselves might be regarded as unnecessary, or merely courtesy.
 
In the Swing
Leadership in higher education is more complex than these simple analogies convey, but I do think there are some conclusions to be drawn, admittedly with care. The Phil presidents I have known seem to be of two types. Some are insecure in the role and seek support where they can most easily find it. Others are in transition, often from the outset, and will need the positive voices of board members fairly early.

Long before I became a president, a sitting president I knew remarked to me that universities are resilient organizations, that they can be buffeted by all manner of issues and survive essentially intact. This statement stuck with me during the years, and I now know it to be true, in large measure because the faculty will go to extraordinary lengths to protect and serve their students. In the short term, the Phil president has the advantage of identifying issues, ranging from trivial to vital, and taking action that will please the board but might annoy the faculty, knowing the latter will tolerate (and often expect) this behavior.
 
Ernie presidents most often arise from within the academy itself. Some become lost in the trappings of the position and become Phils, but most are more interested in working within the culture of both higher education and their individual campuses. They may be in transition, too, but that will never be apparent. To the outside world and even to their boards, they make the job look easy, but that comes with some risk. If there are trivial matters to solve, they are dispatched without disclosure. Serious problems are identified, but a plan of action is invariably part of the presentation to the board. Often, the solution is in hand even as the problem is discussed.

College and university presidents who enter the position from outside the academy are almost never Ernies, but they may not be Phils either. It is an alien culture for most of them, and those who are successful find a niche, such as working with the legislature or in external development, and let their provost do the rest.
 
The higher education community will face challenges in the years ahead that are more serious than the public recognizes, and boards must be well prepared to work with their presidents to meet these challenges. Fiscal stability is the most visible and most recent threat, and it is one of the few threats that integrates into everyone’s experience. Those of us who are Ernies need to spend more time acquainting our boards with what we face and how they can help us cope. Boards are a tremendous asset, often overlooked and underutilized. Those of us who tend toward the Phil approach need to shift more of our attention to another overlooked and underutilized resource: the faculty. In the end, it is the faculty who give life to everything that is important academically.
 
Leadership at its best is the ability to bring others to a common purpose. Each presidential style has that capacity, and each must appreciate that there is more than one group to be led. In the end, we might hope that boards will come to value President Ernie, and faculty might better understand how to work effectively with President Phil.
 
 
William G. Cale, Jr., is president of the University of North Alabama.