Trustee Troubles

New monograph offers anonymous presidents’ candid accounts of dealing with “rogue” community college board members.
June 17, 2009

Plenty of community college presidents say they know board members like those described in The Rogue Trustee: The Elephant in the Room.

The new monograph, just released by the League for Innovation in the Community College, was penned by Terry O’Banion, president emeritus of the group and current director of community college leadership at Walden University. The work is based upon the anonymous comments of 59 community college presidents from 16 states who experienced significant conflicts with their governing bodies, largely due to the influence of one troublemaking trustee. For a relatively representative sample, 36 of the presidents are from 9 states in which board members are elected, and 23 of the presidents are from 7 states in which board members are appointed.

At the outset, O’Banion admits his study has many flaws, the most obvious being that it is “clearly biased in favor of the president’s point of view.” Tellingly, he said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed he constantly encounters presidents who have either experienced a “rogue trustee” firsthand or know of a colleague who has done so.

“Rogue trustees run roughshod over the norms and standards of behavior expected of public officials appointed or elected to office,” reads an excerpt of the study attempting to define such an individual. “They tend to trample over the ideas and cautions of the CEO, the trustee chair, and member trustees. They place their own interests over the interests of the college.”

The presidents interviewed for the study describe the behavior of “rogue trustees” in many ways. First and foremost, they describe these individuals as those who “undermine and attack the president” either by secretly meeting with disgruntled faculty and staff or “inappropriately” aligning themselves with unions or other employee organizations. Those who “influence the hiring and promotion of college employees,” especially for the purposes of helping family or political supporters, and who “influence the awarding on contracts” are also blasted.

Still, O’Banion cautioned that everyday trustees can exhibit some of the behaviors described in the study -- such as “requesting vast amounts of information” or “acting in opposition/playing the contrarian" -- and not be deemed “rogue.”

“If their actions don’t cause damage, then they’re not rogue trustees,” O’Banion said. “When I speak to presidents and others about this work, I say to them, ‘I hope you won’t use these descriptions to badger people on your boards who are trying to make a point or say something important. If people on your board are asking questions that make you feel uncomfortable, that’s not it. Don’t over-characterize.’ ”

The study attempts to answer the unanswerable by asking the anonymous presidents to guess as to the motivation of their “rogue trustee.” Some of the more popular responses included “championing personal agendas,” “expressing pathological behaviors” and “working against the president.” The most strident motivation offered by the presidents was that their “rogue trustees” were acting in ways that would help them politically. Most believed that their troublemaking trustee was only on the board to leapfrog to higher political office.

“The trustee said to me, Look, I am going to be out of here before you know it,” reads one anonymous comment. “I want to go to the state house then to Washington, D.C., and this is just a stop along the way.”

The damage left behind by these trustees, the study argues, is difficult to repair. At least seven presidents that participated in the study, according to a prominent notation in the text, are "no longer in their positions as a direct result of a rogue trustee; they were either dismissed or resigned in frustration.” More broadly, however, the presidents in the study bemoaned that these “rogue trustees" incapacitated other well-meaning trustees and did great damage to their institution’s reputation.

"The most damaging is the trustee's sowing the seeds of mistrust in the board and the administration throughout the college and community,” reads one anonymous comment. "Clearly the trustee's public displays of disrespect and derogatory comments have had a negative impact on how the college president and board are perceived by all employees and the community at large. More so, the amount of time and energy that is expended simply dealing with the trustee has cost the college both in terms of manpower and dollars – time and money that could have been better spent on more productive endeavors."

It does not seem to matter whether board members are elected or appointed, O'Banion said, noting that “rogue trustees” seemed just as likely to appear in either circumstance. Additionally, though trustees backed by unions are sometimes deemed suspect in this study, he said most trustees with union support cannot be described as "rogue."

The climax of the study is a short how-to section offering hapless community college presidents “strategies to repair the damage” left by a “rogue trustee.” Among the “soft strategies” suggested by O’Banion include changing established policies, codes of ethics, handbooks and guidelines to prevent abusive behavior. He suggests placing time limits on speakers during meetings, establishing attendance requirements and prohibiting trustees from making direct requests or demands of staff.

If these methods do not work, O’Banion offers a few “hard strategies,” including using the institution’s potential loss of accreditation due to a trustee’s behavior as a leveraging tool to quell his or her conduct. Perhaps the most concise advice in the report came from an anonymous president who suggested that the chairman of the board was best positioned to handle such challenges: “A board problem is a board problem, not a CEO problem.”

Though O’Banion admitted his monograph might be “an uncomfortable read” for some trustees and presidents, he insisted it was necessary to out a topic that has been closeted for years.

Critics of O’Banion’s work, however, maintain that “rogue trustees” are not a widespread issue for most community college presidents.

“I know there’s a concern among some presidents about this and certainly there are instances where individual trustees have their own agenda, but I would like to remind them that this is the exception and not the rule,” said J. Noah Brown, president of the American Association of Community College Trustees. “Most boards don’t have this issue, and it’s certainly not a pandemic among community colleges.”

Brown also noted that he was in contact with a number of presidents who were asked to be interviewed for this study and refused to comment for fear that, even in anonymity, their words would come back to haunt them. One president who did participate in the study, Brown said, suggested that the ACCT censure trustees and boards that it thought “behaved badly.” Brown responded that, as a voluntary organization, the ACCT had not authority to do so and that he thought it would be imprudent even if it did.

“Frankly, a lot of the stuff we do is confidential,” Brown said of ACCT's work to quell trustee conflicts. “If anybody is having difficulty with a rogue trustee, they should reach out to us sooner rather than later. It just so happens that most people don’t ask for help until the train has well left the station. Still, it’s not our sense that this kind of thing happens with any frequency."


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