The current coronavirus pandemic puts an intense spotlight on leadership, both at the administrative and board levels. While boards and leaders have found ways to work effectively in dealing with the immediacy of closing the campus as the pandemic began, now they have to find ways to work together to create a learning environment that engages students while also taking proper precautions to keep students, faculty and staff safe on campus.
Resuming the Dance
Many institutional leaders have been bracing themselves due to the pandemic, but Dr. Gordon Gee, president of West Virginia University, is not one of them. Instead of being focused on the WVU’s survival during the coronavirus pandemic, he is figuring out how to help the institution thrive by using what is being learned from this situation. He believes that to do so will require reducing costs while increasing quality. Additionally, institutions need to be increasingly student-centric.
Higher education institutions are now coming out of the shutdown and entering into the dance of how to open up. West Virginia recently announced that its campus will reopen, but everyone will be required to be tested, wear masks, and social distance. This decision will require a major configuration of classrooms. The university also plans to move to a hybrid flex model in which some courses will be taught in-person while others will be offered only online.
The protocols required to do this are extensive and dramatic, but critically important so that institutions can help parents feel comfortable sending their children to the college or university. In addition, faculty, staff and students need to feel like they’re being well taken care of.
Acceleration Due to COVID
Dr. Gee believes that COVID-19 is one of the long-term issues that institutions are going to have to deal with. He believes that institutional leaders need to figure out how to deal with reality and ensure that that reality becomes a way of life in a positive way.
The acceleration / change that started a decade ago and has exponentially sped up over the past 10 months is clear. Much of this is due to technology advances, and during the pandemic, Dr. Gee has found more relevant uses of technology. As an example, he has found technology has improved his efficiency, although he has not yet determined if his effectiveness has gone up.
Dr. Gee believes that technology will remain an integral part of higher education, especially since the younger generations easily use technology. To that end, higher education leaders and faculty have to embrace a different dynamic that has emerged due to wide-spread use of technology in the pandemic. That means that higher education leaders and faculty need to find ways to embrace technology – and to learn how to lead using technology.
Changing Approach to Governance
Higher education governance has changed in the past two decades, as highlighted by Dr. Gee’s tenure as president at multiple universities. In his initial presidency, West Virginia University had a system governance board with a board of regents and local advisory boards. The University of Colorado had elected regents while Ohio State had a board appointed by the governor. Brown had 61 members on its board, Vanderbilt had 41 members and Ohio State had 17-18 members. Now Dr. Gee is back at West Virginia, which has 17 members of its Board of Governors.
He learned in each situation that dynamics among board members and leaders are very important. It’s important not to let factions on the board develop.
Dr. Gee noted that many of his colleagues have a view that you bring the board in, take them for a good meal and to a football game, and then get them out of town. He sees things differently. He wants the board members to be his partners so he communicates as much and as often as necessary to achieve that. He noted that with the West Virginia board, he tries to communicate in a number of different ways on an on-going basis.
Boards have become much more engaged in the minutia of universities. Dr. Gee believes the line between (micro)management and governance has gotten very murky, causing a major challenge for both the board and the university. How leaders deal with that requires an immense number of conversations with the board and making certain that the board understands the president’s views.
Dr. Gee believes there are higher education institutions have to deal with numerous levels of bureaucracy. The first is at the federal government level while the second is state government. The third is at the board level, which can involve the board asking higher education staff to deal with pet projects and issues.
In the age of the coronavirus, the relationships with boards have become very intense and many presidents’ positions also are very tenuous. At this point, Dr. Gee said, university presidents’ heads are sitting lightly on their shoulders because there is a lot of oversight and second-guessing. Boards are also more externally oriented and more business oriented while the university’s internal constituencies tend to be in an academic bubble where they are much more political and less realistic in many ways. To balance that, the president needs to find a middle ground that looks at the external world’s concerns about the university’s struggles as well as funding issues, as well as the internal constituencies’ “Cinderella” approach.
Difference in Institutional Boards
There are fundamental differences that also exist among boards at private and public higher education institutions. Boards of private institutions may meet 2-3 times a year. At these institutions, the executive committee—made up of the chair, vice chair, and vice chair of finance, etc. – meet more often. Boards of private colleges and universities also tend to be cheerleaders, funders and those who have made an extraordinary contribution of time, talent and treasure to the institution.
In comparison, boards of public colleges and universities often are very intense. They may meet monthly or every other month. These members are often politically appointed and come with a political agenda, whether that is the governor’s or their own, if they are elected. This means that higher education leaders have to deal with circumstances beyond their control, but are present in the boardroom with the trustees.
Dysfunctional boards are the worst thing in the world because they are about infighting and who has access to power. The challenge for presidents in these situations is how to determine who to talk to in order to get a straight answer.
Higher education leaders need to always have a pole star and then be able to convince people about why their vision for the institution is the correct one. This campaign should extend to the board, the faculty, the students and the staff. This requires decision-making that continually is rebalancing, based on conversations.
Dr. Gee believes that institutional presidents need to understand how to work with the 1-2 board members who think they have all the answers. This requires “cajoling” these board members as well as not becoming submissive to what they are doing. At the same time, it’s important that board leaders be willing to discipline fellow board members who move outside of the lines of good board behaviors. This requires a yin/yang relationship between the board chair and the university president so that the board remains firmly planted in the middle of the road.
The university president and the board chair should be linked at the hip. They must trust each other implicitly and share their views openly. A strong relationship helps create the level of intimacy that allows these two to work together to make the university a better place as well as keep the governance function operating at an optimum level.
Dr. Gee believes the optimal-size board is between 15-20 members, which allows for diverse views while also being small enough so that the board is not an army. West Virginia’s board includes two faculty members, one staff member and one student as regular members of the board. He believes these individuals’ views need to be part of the overall board conversation. He also tells them that they don’t come with a constituent representation; instead, they come with a point of view but they should not lobby for their particular group. Having a student representative on the board is especially important because that individual brings the current perspective of what it’s like to be in college today.
Dr. Gee also noted that he would like to get rid of what he calls “the rear-view mirror” of everyone involved in the institution, especially those who graduated from the institution. He believes this would help change the discussions about how to manage the institution so that they are looking forward instead of backward. This is especially important in today’s world, where individuals will either be architects of change or change’s victims.
He also noted that many ideas from corporate board governance are moving into university and college boards, as the two share many commonalities. In fact, many elements of corporate governance are moving into higher education, which is important because universities and colleges are complex organizations and can use improved governance processes.
The learning curve for a higher education board member is steep. Therefore, Dr. Gee believes that a trustee’s term should not be too short; however, he also believes the term should not be too long. He likes West Virginia’s system in which trustees are appointed for a four-year term and then can be reappointed for another four-year term. He noted that Ohio State had nine-year terms, which can be appropriate so that trustees can get acclimated to the culture, the contrary nature of universities, and the possibilities of the institution, as well as the daily happenings.
Dr. Gee said the trustees should not try to simplify a higher education institution because that gets in the way of governance. However, he does believe that the bureaucracy should be simplified as well as what the institution does. “Simple makes complexity work,” he said. “Complexity does not make complexity work.”
He also thinks that corporate boards can learn from the dynamic interactions of university boards. He also stressed that the chief academic officer tells the higher education institution what it is going to do; the chief financial officer then must make sure the money is available to make this vision a reality.
Dr. Gee thinks higher education institutions must have a long view. The “education bubble” started in Bologna in 1200 AD and continues through today. However, he thinks the American corporation does not share the kind of long view that the Japanese, Chinese or other cultures have. Instead, U.S. companies’ drive for profits hurts the issue of culture and opportunity for corporations.
Three Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders
Dr. Gee suggested three takeaways for higher education leaders in working with boards:
- Love them.
- Communicate with them.
- Never surprise them. Never let them learn something through the regular media or social media that you should have told them.
- Higher education institutions need to focus on thriving instead of just surviving the pandemic. To achieve this requires a cohesive and collaborative effort between the administrative leaders and the Board.
- The pandemic has accelerated change. A large part of this change involves the use of technology, which will remain a critical part of higher education moving forward. The question remains unanswered regarding whether the adoption of technology will lead to increases in both efficiency and effectiveness.
- The composition and structure of boards have changed over the years.
- Boards are not one-size-fits-all; they differ from institution to institution. Additionally, there are differences in how boards function in public vs. private higher education institutions.
- Board members should be considered partners in the running of a college or university.
- Academic and board leaders should strive not to let factions form.
- Boards increasingly have gotten involved in the organizational minutia. Therefore, it’s incumbent on the president to find ways to communicate with the board to help them understand and adopt his viewpoint for the institution.
- Higher education leaders need to have a pole star that they use as a guidepost for their work at the institution. They need to find ways to communicate that vision to board members as well as internal stakeholders.
- The board chairman and the university president need to be on the same page in the sense that they have built trust and opened respectful communications so they can work together. This can help the board and administration work more seamlessly for the betterment of the institution.
- Board membership can (and should) include a faculty member, staff member and student. These members can prove to be advantageous because they bring a different perspective to discussions.
- Avoid always looking in the “rear view mirror” when making decisions. Instead, focus on the vision of where you want the institution to go in the future – and encourage board members to do so as well.
- Specific length of terms as well as term limits can be helpful. Terms need to be long enough so that the member has enough time to go through the steep learning curve about the complexity of the institution and then can provide meaningful input on decisions. However, serving too long can dampen the trustee’s decision-making abilities.
- Trustees should not try to simplify higher education’s inherent complexity.
- Higher education and corporate boards are becoming more similar. With that said, corporate boards can learn from higher education boards to place the human equation over profit.
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