Embracing a New Model for Higher Ed Governance Part 4:

How The Board and President Relationships Have Evolved

Table of Contents

Embracing a New Model for Higher Ed Governance Part 4 | The Change Leader

In the last of our Embracing a New Model for Higher Ed Governance series, we discuss how board roles continue to shift, even as higher education’s focus evolves with the rapidly changing environment. These shifts bring pressure on the board to embrace their responsibilities for oversight as well as the opportunity to serve in a consultant capacity to the institution. These emerging roles are quickly becoming a requirement because of the rapidly changing external environment that is VUCA: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous.

Not to be neglected, the relationship between the board of trustees and the higher education president is one that can change the trajectory of the institution. On the positive side, this relationship can spark innovation, transparency, and accountability in a way that infuses the college or university, creating numerous possibilities to develop. However, the opposite also is true – a poor relationship between the board and the university president can stymie progress at best – or even lead to the loss of accreditation, at its worst.

There are many intersections between the board and the president to consider. One part involves the board’s role in oversight. Another involves the board’s role in the hiring and onboarding of the president. Additionally, the creation of a shared strategic plan and goals can provide important information that can inform the president’s focus for the day-to-day work as well as the evaluation to determine job performance.

Board Roles and Oversight 

Today, boards have multiple responsibilities in relation to their work with higher education institutions. Three prominent roles are oversight, consulting, and external networks.

The board has responsibility for oversight, which include:

  • The day-to-day oversight of the president and administration. Usually, this falls to the executive committee, which is (should be) more in touch with what is happening at the university. This committee should be meeting with the president at least monthly to find out what is happening and to provide guidance, as necessary.
  • Regular committees’ responsibility for oversight is delineated in the committee’s charter. For example, the academic affairs committee should be looking at which programs are being offered, the type of programs that need to be offered, and what students should be learning at this particular time. The efforts of this committee also involve working with the board’s strategy and marketing committees to determine how to meet the needs of industry, e.g., what programs are needed, need to be retired as there is no call for them, etc. In comparison, the strategy and risk committee needs to focus on the potential risks to the institution from an enterprise risk management perspective.

Oversight is clearly spelled out as part of the board’s fiduciary duties, but how many boards do this to the full extent of their duties because they are “fearful” of micromanaging? For example, the board needs to be cognizant of its role in accreditation, assuring that the institution is moving forward on its mission and confirming that the board is functioning properly. They don’t need to be the ones to write the accreditation self-study.

Consulting is another role of the board that is showing up more and more in higher ed. This role is one that many boards refuse to consider since they see their role to be rubberstamping the president and administration, and any consulting can (and sometimes is) viewed as micromanaging. However, if the board is staffed properly through using the skills matrix (which will be discussed in an upcoming blog), the institution has access to a built-in consulting firm on the board.

For example, COVID offered the perfect storm for many institutions, who currently believe they were not prepared for a pandemic. However, if the board has the right types of people/skills on it, significant professional experience is available, although it may not exactly be related to infectious diseases. This experience can encompass business and other industries that can be tapped to create a suitable plan for moving the institution forward. Additionally, the board should include expertise on strategy and marketing in its membership.

The board also offers the ability to create and leverage external relationships through the network of each board member. For example, Christian colleges and universities probably have pastors as members of the board. These individuals can create a recruiting pipeline for the institution. Additionally, trustees with a financial background can create a pipeline for working with investments and endowments. It’s critical that institutions leverage board members’ networks to build external relationships that can help the institution fulfill its mission.

The Board and President Relationship

The board’s relationship with the president varies from institution to institution. Board members—and especially the chair and executive committee – should have a very strong relationship with the institution’s president.

While this relationship is a two-way relationship, there is an inherent challenge. The board chair and board members should not be compromised by the president. Everyone needs to remember that this is an oversight relationship. While there should be a good working relationship, the president should never be dictating actions to the board. While the president can make suggestions and the board can agree, too often this relationship is compromised because the board chair (and/or board) goes along with everything that the president says.

One of the warning signs of this type of relationship is when every board vote is unanimous. If there are too many unanimous votes, the board is not digging down deep enough.

For example, one former board chair resigned from the board after the president tried to dictate policy. The chair disagreed with the president’s recommendations, leading the president to berate the board chair during a board meeting. At that point, the board chair decided to resign – which caused the institution to be placed on probation. The university president ultimately was removed from office, and a new board chair was named.

Leadership Transition — President Onboarding

A healthy relationship between the board and president requires proactive measures that start with the onboarding process during a leadership transition. In truth, this actually begins during the selection process when the board is interviewing potential candidates.

There are three things that Board needs to consider in relation to the president:

  • What direction does the president want to take the institution? As Lewis Carroll noted, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road is going to take you there.” Presidents need to have a good understanding of what the university’s mission is, what it stands for and where it’s going.

  • Knowledge is critical. Does the president have the knowledge and skills to be in the top leadership position, skills beyond being an academic or an enrollment genius? Right now, many higher education leaders have focused on fundraising more than their other skillsets. While this is important, the most important question is do they have the leadership skills? Can they work with people?

  • There needs to be a good cultural fit. This can either mean that the individual is the right person culturally to help the institution move forward on its current trajectory. The other option is that the institutional culture needs to shift direction. In that case, can the president serve as a change agent? In one institution, the new president used a command-and-control approach to make decisions for the first 6-9 months of the tenure. After that period, it became evident that this president was a bad fit for the institution because certain factions of the faculty didn’t like this approach. The president eventually resigned after a year because of the poor fit with the institutional culture – which meant this was a failed hire and the university’s investment of $150,000 for the search process went down the drain.

 

The onboarding process must not only introduce the president to the institution but also set a foundation for success with the board and the university community. The board chair should understand the university very well and help the president navigate any potential landmines – and there will be landmines that are set by various factions of the institution. For example, a newly named president who previously had served on the university’s board faced significant faculty backlash because of a lack of academic background. This is an example of something that the board chair can help the president navigate.

Obviously, these factors differ when the leading candidate is internal. The board should know who that possible president is because they have already established a relationship with that person.

Strategic Governance

Additionally, the board should consider conducting team-building exercises with the new president. One great example is stakeholder-based strategic planning. This allows the president to come on board, learn about the institution in-depth, and help guide the institution’s direction based on where the institution needs to go to be successful. Most importantly, this type of process allows for the creation of a shared vision that brings people together along while also developing goals that have campus-wide buy-in, something that is necessary to mitigate resistance to change.

The Board obviously is required to approve the strategic plan. But by having a hand in the plan’s development, they can help set the goals for the president, which then can be rolled into performance goals for every member of the top leadership team.

Those goals and the goal-setting process also set the stage for the creation of the evaluation for the president. This evaluation should be done at an absolute minimum of three years, but The Change Leader recommends that an annual evaluation be conducted during the first three years of the president’s tenure. After that period, extend the timing to two years, before moving to an evaluation every three years.

The scheduling of the president’s evaluation depends on the length of the contract, which The Change Leader recommends being five years, at a minimum. This time period allows the president to get settled and make an imprint on the institution. However, an annual 360-degree review needs to be held each year that includes board members, the leadership team, and other stakeholders, including faculty and students.

In Closing

A good working relationship between the Board and the president is critical for the success of the institution. Yet as trustees’ roles transition and expand in the wake of the current transformation of higher education, it is also important for the relationship with the president to follow suit. Creating this type of relationship, which values transparency and communications, begins with the search process and continues through the onboarding process. Additionally, a strategic planning process can help the board and president come to an agreement on the direction of the institution, including the appropriate roles that each will have in guiding the institution’s forward movement.

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