Institutional Leadership 101

Trustees' association releases report that outlines best practices for college presidents and trustees.
September 25, 2006

College presidents should lead boldly, and trustees ought to clearly define their expectations for presidents and provide them with adequate support, according to " The Leadership Imperative," a 50-page report from the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

Saying that presidents and governing boards share a responsibility to articulate their institution's mission, the report outlines what its authors believe are key components of presidential leadership and trustee oversight. Its main recommendation for presidents is that they adhere to a style defined as "integral leadership," in which they are “purposeful and consultative, deliberate yet decisive, and capable of course corrections as new challenges emerge.”

For the report, the AGB's Task Force on the State of the Presidency in Higher Education interviewed presidents and chancellors at a range of private and public institutions, looked at case studies of presidential searches and evaluated presidents throughout their tenures. (Its findings in a similar report issued 10 years ago were that presidents should be "purposeful" decision makers.) This report notes that an increased demand for institutional accountability and fund raising, and a shrinking amount of public support in higher education, is changing the daily lives of presidents.

"Many academic presidents have become managers more than visionaries,” Gerald L. Baliles, a former Virginia governor and chair of the project, said in a statement. “Many faculty are more committed to their disciplines than to their institutions, and state legislatures are focusing less and less on the financial needs and public benefits of higher education.”

The report said presidents should seize the bully pulpit and lead with a sense of moral authority. It chides the “arrogant and insensitive” president who doesn’t respect subordinates and gets so involved in institutional micromanagement that the leader fails to articulate and follow long-term goals. Using data from The Chronicle of Higher Education's 2005 Survey of College and University Presidents, the report notes that institutional governance matters – including fund raising and budgeting issues -- rank among top issues for which presidents report being unprepared. That survey found that more than half of presidents reported fund raising at least once a day.

Presidents, early on in their tenures, have to find out what are the particular needs of their institutions and "adapt to the institutional saga" -- even if they didn't rise up through the ranks at a particular college or university. That, the report said, is where trustees come in. Too few presidents receive support for visionary leadership from their trustees, the report found.

"Once in office, new presidents often come to feel orphaned by their boards," according to the report. The board should help presidents confront controversial issues, support them in their efforts to be an advocate for all of higher education, but not intrude into operational or management issues -- such as admissions and athletics -- which "severely undermines a president's ability to lead," the report said.

The trustees' association reminds public college governing boards that they shouldn't feel beholden to the state legislature, and that they should keep their institutions' needs in mind above all else. It also calls on each governing board to speak as a unified voice through its chairman -- even if factions within the group exist. The report calls on the trustees to come up with clearly defined benchmarks and goals for presidents, and for them to tie compensation to how well the presidents follow through on these measures.

AGB offers a message to state policy makers, too: Choose trustees based on merit and financial support, not loyalty to a political benefactor.


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