Dr. Cathy Trower joined CHE to offer her insights in the board’s role during a major crisis, such as the current pandemic. She discusses the importance of a partnership between the president and board chair as well as the communication channels that need to be created in a time of crisis.
The president of Trower & Trower has more than two decades of experiencing providing governance consulting to colleges and universities as well as other nonprofits. She combines her knowledge of governance and strategic thinking along with the skill of building high-performance teams.
Taking a Different Role
Higher education boards are facing significant challenges created by the current pandemic. First and foremost, boards need to remain extremely focused during a time of crisis. They need to realize that some items that are less of a priority during this crisis need to be tabled. Instead, board members should focus on the priorities of the institution’s president in the current moment. Additionally, boards need to focus their efforts on backstopping the president.
The partnership between the board and the president is even more critical in a crisis. The president needs to be communicating very clearly, primarily through the board chair. Boards are not meeting together often at this point, so it is critical that the chair and the executive committee, if there is one, take responsibility for opening and maintaining clear lines of communications and responses with the full board.
Essential Focus Areas
The key areas that boards and presidents need to address during this crisis are:
- Maintain clear and regular communications. Candor is needed so that surprises are minimized.
- We recommend scheduling a weekly meeting at the very least between the president and the board chair during this crisis. However, the frequency can vary based on the type of institution and the partnership. In general, consistent and clear communication about what’s happening on the ground and what’s needed is of great importance during this time.
- Ensure immediate needs are met. Early in the pandemic, the initial pressing issues involved moving courses online and making sure that students, faculty and staff were able to continue to handle their responsibilities in a safe manner. Now institutions need to focus on ensuring that faculty, students and families are getting what they need.
- Discuss the institution’s financial situation. Boards and the president need to have discussions about the current financial situation as well as projections for the fall term. Higher education institutions are currently trying to secure early enrollment commitments. However, students and families are not sure about enrolling in the fall just yet. Some institutions are trying to use Zoom and other technology to build bonds with prospective students in place of the in-person campus visits. Trust also needs to be built now between higher education faculty and staff in conversations with students to help them build a relationship with the institution.
Finding Innovative Ways to Govern
Some boards have established a coronavirus taskforce that includes the president or his/her designee, some board members, some senior staff and potentially some faculty. These task forces are charged with considering what the institution should be thinking about currently and ways that faculty, board members and community members can be mobilized to provide assistance, i.e., risk and scenario planning.
In addition, boards also should look at their committee structures because work is available for various committees that are part of the regular governance structure. They need to think strategically about the committee’s work. For example, compliance/risk, finance, and academics/student life committees should be looking at the same areas using different lenses. Therefore, creating a cross-committee task force can ensure a common conversation that puts everyone on the same page, which can help to push out topics/discussions to the appropriate committee(s).
While the executive committee offers a great starting point for this type of work, we also recommend expanding involvement beyond this group of individuals. Trower recommends creating a subset of the committee and then adding some faculty in order to get their input. Students also could be involved.
This type of taskforce should be tasked with thinking about big picture issues. For example, what is going to happen in the summer and fall in relation to staff? How is the institution going to ensure equity? How can the board ensure that minimal lay-offs happen? How can the institution take care of employees through all of this?
Higher education has traditionally been very slow to change. It will be interesting to see which institutions can make faster and better shifts related to what is coming up because of the pandemic. Online education is only part of it.
Additionally, there are so many financially fragile institutions who were struggling prior to the pandemic, and it will accelerate many institution’s financial difficulties, requiring more institutions to merge and close. Higher education has always looked at a merger or acquisition as a failure on the part of the acquiree, and some institutions will choose to close instead of be part of a merger.
This perspective needs to change and leaders need to think about what’s best for the students.
Finding the Silver Lining
The board or its task force should also look at the hidden benefits created by this current situation, such as the creation of innovative partnerships with other organizations, galvanizing the faculty to be part of the solution, and thinking about staffing in different ways.
Additionally, the work of the board should be considered in new ways, e.g., is the board serving as an advocate for the institution among stakeholders and within the community.
Alumni involvement also is needed in this time. Institutions that have been proactive in alumni engagement are more likely to reap the benefits—whether that’s financial or support–during this downturn. However, institutions that have neglected their alumni may not fare well.
This will be a moment when many alumni will make a choice whether to give to support their alma mater or not, and they want to hear a strong message from the president and board chair about what’s happening in the institution, what the plans are for the future, and how the institution is going to use this current situation to make itself better, stronger and more nimble.
Agility is important. The board needs to be nimble and push the institution to be more nimble. This requires getting board clients to think forward instead of looking backwards. If the board can embrace a forward-looking approach instead of only considering last year’s data and today’s crisis de jour, this will position the board to be more adaptive. This, in turn, carries over to the institution. The boards that are more poised to be able to deal with metaphorical whitewater rapids and headwinds are going to do better in this current situation.
Boards also can build out a risk / scenario planning map that looks at the likelihood of crisis events and projects the impact on the institution. Institutions that have these types of planning are able to quickly put the coronavirus into their calculations and determine what needs to be done. As boards shift items around in the plan, the institutional focus becomes clearer.
The task force along with the president also should triage everything that is going on. They determine what situations are critical in nature and what can be pushed out to a later date.
Learning from What Happened
At the end of the crisis, there needs to be an evaluation process to allow the board and the institution to learn from what happened. This often requires venturing into uncharted territory. While uncomfortable, this is at the heart of dealing with adaptive challenges. This approach requires taking steps, learning from them, and then doing course corrections without beating oneself up when something doesn’t work.
Boards also need to evaluate the holes in the expertise of their members that were uncovered during this crisis. Varied types of expertise need to be a planned part of selection to the board so that there is a diversity of abilities and knowledge. If the board doesn’t have a specific area of expertise that is needed during this current black swan event, it’s important to reach out to the task force or the alumni to find someone who does.
Three Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders and Boards
Dr. Trower suggested three takeaways for higher education leaders and board members:
- Listen to the institution’s president and be there if the president needs you. There needs to be regular and clear communication between the president and the board chair.
- Focus on what needs to be communicated to the rest of the board. Board members want to be involved and can start reaching out directly to the president. However, this is not the time to do this. Therefore, it’s up to the board president to create a clear communication channel that allows board members to get regular updates.
- Determine how to galvanize the talent available to be of the most helpful and create the most value.
- In a crisis, the partnership between the board chair and the president is critical. These two individuals need to communicate regularly and clearly about what is happening.
- The board chair needs to be the primary contact for the rest of the board about what is happening. Board members should not be contacting the president at this time.
- Institutional boards and presidents need to be focusing on how to help students, faculty and staff have what they need.
- The board and the president needs to analyze the institutional financial situation. They need to consider that fall enrollment commitments may not come in until this situation settles.
- This crisis offers innovative ways to govern. For example, a task force can help the institution think through the various angles related to coronavirus, including financial implications, academic/student life and risk management.
- This crisis is going to require boards and institutions to be more agile. That is going to be a major change for higher education.
- Many institutions that are financially struggling may have to consider closing or merging. They need to keep the students at the forefront of this decision.
- Alumni involvement is critical at this time. Alumni who have been involved can help the institution survive this crisis.
- Strategic planning and risk planning are critical and can help the institution focus on what’s important.
- Boards and presidents need to spend time after this crisis is over to learn from what happened and how it was handled. This will help the institution be better able to adapt in future crisis situations.
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