Staffing a President at Odds with the Board

What to do when the best interests of the president appear different than those of the university

February 2, 2016

There is a situation unfolding in Boston that warrants attention from those of us entrusted with protecting the reputations of colleges and universities. Margaret McKenna, appointed president of Suffolk University just seven months ago, is in danger of being ousted by the board of trustees in favor of former Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley. Unfortunately for our colleagues at Suffolk, the entire dispute is being played out in the press.

In the interests of full disclosure, McKenna served for many years as president of Lesley University, where I am currently employed, but our tenures did not coincide and we have never met. 

When it comes to the merits of the current impasse between McKenna and Suffolk’s board, I am completely impartial. I have no inside knowledge, I don’t know the individuals involved, and I have insufficient information on which to base an opinion. Nevertheless, situations like this, rare as they might be, present a conundrum for the chief communications officer:

What am I to do when the interests of the president and the interests of the university appear to be at odds?

It’s a tough question, but as the person responsible for managing the institution’s reputation, you’d better be prepared to answer it.

I feel fortunate that I have never personally encountered such a scenario, but I have been fascinated by the question since 2013, when the American Academy of Arts & Sciences found itself facing public scrutiny due to questionable activity on the part of then-president Leslie Cohen Berlowitz.

As I’ve considered how I might approach this scenario, I’ve compiled some thoughts on preparing to act swiftly in the unlikely event a crisis pits your president and board against one another.

Know where your loyalties lie. This is a decision only you can make, and it may vary based on the circumstances. As a general rule, protecting the institution’s reputation is the first priority. But perhaps you have a longstanding relationship with your president forged over time at multiple institutions, and your loyalty to her trumps your loyalty to the college. Or, maybe there is evidence of corruption on the board’s part that leads you to believe they are not genuinely working in the university’s best interests.

Ideally, you would use your diplomatic skills and broker an agreement that buys some time, deescalates the rhetoric, and avoids headlines. Otherwise, you must be prepared to assess the available facts, decide where to place your allegiance, and go all in.

Leverage trusted back channels. An effective adviser devotes considerable time and energy to building strong connections with faculty, administrators, trustees, opinion leaders, and others who contribute to meeting reputational goals. When facing a conflict between the president and the board, you will need to leverage these relationships. It’s important that you have already established the trust and credibility necessary to use off-the-record conversations to achieve the best outcome.

For example, if the board of trustees is taking steps to publicly challenge the president, it may be to your advantage—and the institution’s—to be positioned to provide counsel to the trustees rather than being aligned with the executive by default.

Keep external advisers on call. In a difficult situation of this kind, it may be prudent to distance yourself from one or both of the disputing parties. Even if you don’t have an agency of record, connections with consultants who have expertise in crisis communications can be very valuable when the time is right.

Take proactive steps with your president and board leadership to build credibility in one or two trusted firms, even if it is done indirectly. That way, when they seek external counsel, it is likely to be from someone you trust.

Don’t be afraid to tell the truth. Sometimes the handwriting is on the wall and it’s your job to point it out. Even if they’ve done nothing wrong, it may be best for the president to make a graceful exit rather than prolonging the inevitable and subjecting themselves and the university to additional damage. When the time comes, you need to be prepared to deliver the message.

Thankfully few of us will face a challenge like this in our careers, and our presidents can have full confidence that we always have their backs. Still, it is wise to be prepared for the possibility, however remote, in order to maintain your own professional integrity and deliver on your responsibility to protect your school’s reputation.

Jeremy Thompson serves as assistant vice president for marketing at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass.


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