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Man shakes the hand of another at a board meeting of men and women

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It’s difficult to be a college or university president these days. Beyond the traditional challenges of running the institution, the issues and problems are increasingly complex and have high stakes: the uncertainties of AI, concerns about free speech and inclusion, political intrusion into the curriculum along with the defunding of diversity and inclusion efforts, the ongoing pressures of budgets and inflation, the enrollment cliff, activist donors, the loss of the public’s confidence in higher education—the list goes on. Not to mention being hauled in front of congressional committees and state legislators.

At times like these, it’s specially essential for the president and board to develop an effective relationship. Yes, boards hold presidents accountable, but they also can be vital strategic assets for the college, university or state system. Working together right now, in this current context and on these immediate and growing challenges, requires both boards and presidents to understand each other’s needs and devise ways to deliver on them.

What Presidents Need From Boards

The list below should not be surprising, but it should serve to remind board leaders and members that they need to provide the following to their college or university leader in these difficult times.

  • A safe place to discuss challenges and risks. Presidents have few outlets to admit the challenges and concerns that their institution—and they personally—face, as well as their own shortcomings and failures. Boards and board leaders can provide a safe harbor amid the squalls surrounding them. But boards must remember that, for many presidents, such transparency and openness are risky—especially when it comes to public boards that have to adhere to strict and limiting open meetings acts. And all presidents know they report to the board and can be fired by them. Minimizing the risk and emphasizing the rewards of such difficult conversations are important.
  • A culture of candor. Presidents need not only the support we’ve just described but also reciprocal candor from their boards. As presidents charge forward on their countless priorities, they need board members who will speak truthfully and honestly both to them and the other trustees. Candor can lead to constructive discussions about the thorniest issues. Trust between the board and president is essential.
  • Backing on tough calls. Challenging times call for difficult decisions about what to do and what not to do. Boards need to both privately and publicly support their presidents as they make difficult and often unpopular decisions. Effective boards provide the necessary cover for presidents.

That does not mean that boards should accept everything presidents put forth at face value. Boards have their due diligence to conduct—they should be informed and constructively skeptical, ask penetrating questions, and scrutinize administrative assumptions that shape decisions.

But once the board has done those things and a decision is made, they need to support the president. If they do not publicly and sufficiently stand by decisions, or start to second-guess the president, boards may find themselves searching for a new leader and doing so at a point in history when demand may be outpacing the supply of willing and qualified candidates. (Too many of those candidates are asking, “Who wants that job?”)

  • Strategic thinking. Presidents need help with today’s immediate problems and opportunities, but they also benefit from a long-term and strategic perspective that boards can provide. Board members, because they are leaders from outside academe, can help presidents frame and reframe difficult work and ambiguous circumstances, translate and transfer their insights and personal leadership lessons, and serve as sounding boards. Engaging in sense making and helping presidents reframe issues are essential roles for boards, given the fast-paced and changing contexts in which institutions operate.
  • A real understanding of the institution. Presidents should expect boards to be well informed about the institution and its current challenges, threats and opportunities. Too often, board members govern based on nostalgia from their undergraduate days or an outdated set of assumptions. Higher education is a complex enterprise yet one that often is ripe for oversimplification. Board members must do their homework on the institution and the context in which it operates. They should pay attention to trends and meaningful shifts, and they need to ask questions in order to be appropriately informed.
  • Support—moral as well as financial. Presidents and their institutions need support from their boards. Two areas are especially important. First, moral: the old adage that “it’s lonely at the top” is truer now than ever before. So much is going on—on the campus and in the world—and presidents are juggling multiple and sometimes shifting priorities. Thus, it can be difficult for presidents to find time for themselves or psychological support. Good boards ensure the health and well-being of their presidents and provide moral support. The other form of support—financial—has long been important, as boards are often a major source of philanthropy. Ideally, that comes without strings or demands attached.
  • Confidentiality. Presidents should expect confidentiality from their boards. The stakes are too high, and the stakeholders too interested, to have boardroom leaks. The news media and others are looking for insights and ways to get under the tent. Boards should be diligent in protecting what is to be held in confidence. Without confidentiality, there is no trust and governance breaks down.
  • Coordinated advocacy. Finally, the work of boards is not only conducted in the boardroom. Trustees can also play an important external role for their institutions and state systems by advocating on behalf of their colleges and universities and working with external stakeholders, including policymakers, alumni and donors. They need to engage on behalf of their institutions in a coordinated effort, one that aligns with the strategic priorities of the institution and the president.

Concurrently, presidents may need board members to run interference from undue outside influences. For instance, policymakers, as well as alumni and donors, can increasingly overreach into university affairs. Boards need to serve as buffers as well as advocates for institutional autonomy and independence.

What Boards Need From Presidents

Effective governance is a two-way street between boards and presidents. Boards rely on presidents to be able to govern well and to pursue the following.

  • A culture of candor and realism. As above, boards need candor from presidents. A truthful telling of the facts and a willingness to share difficult situations and worrisome trends—early on—is important. There is risk to presidents here, but there are greater risks to the institutions for which boards are responsible. Making sure boards have the necessary data and information, as well the correct assumptions and interpretations, is essential for boards to provide appropriate oversight and add useful insights.
  • Contextualization and translations. Most board members spend their lives outside higher education. Their day jobs are in other industries and sectors. Therefore, boards benefit when presidents and their teams spend the time and energy to contextualize their challenges and translate them in ways that trustees can readily understand. Avoiding jargon and insider language, providing explanations and history, and checking for comprehension are important. This work is particularly essential for new trustees joining boards right now. They are like first-time paddleboarders trying to balance in rushing rapids. They need to get their feet underneath them and keep their balance while quickly moving downstream.
  • Prioritization of the most important issues. Presidents and their teams that staff boards should be particularly attentive to meeting agendas and ensure that the most salient topics are given necessary time and attention. Too many boards seem to work off rote agendas that do not reflect the most pressing matters. Making sure there are clear objectives for agenda items and explaining why the board is addressing them (such as labeling items as “information,” “discussion” or “decision”) helps. Too often, boards sit through presentations filled with information that is simply good to know when time can, and should, be much better spent strategically.
  • Flexible governance. Similarly, if bylaws permit more meetings and different types of meetings, boards would be well served to have priorities drive their work and not calendars. The typical format of private university boards meeting three times a year through a well-structured calendar—a.k.a. “just-in-case” governance—may need to be supplemented by “just-in-time” governance, which can be accomplished through flexible meeting schedules and briefings.
  • Investments in board education. Trustees may benefit from more education to appreciate the issues and contexts, understand data, and have informed conversations. Deeper dives on select topics, structured retreats and more frequent educational briefings are ways to operationalize the points above. Presidents and their teams should consider using technology for asynchronous briefings to supplement in-person board engagements as well as building more time into committee and board meetings. Presidents can also invite more outside experts to present or set up structured debates to help boards understand complex issues. And they can provide more frequent, but hopefully shorter, briefings instead of overwhelming busy trustees just before board meetings.
  • Effective bylaws. While plumbing the depths of bylaws may seem superfluous given the demands listed above, outdated bylaws can come back to haunt boards when they need effective processes and structures most. Reviewing the guiding documents for governance should be undertaken regularly and with care. Too many boards operate based on past practice and habit when a more intentional approach may be beneficial.
  • A reminder of their value. Presidents, please express gratitude to your board, both privately and publicly. Its members are committed to the well-being of your institution in the both the short and long run—they are volunteers who are investing their time, talent and resources to play a meaningful role.

Clarity and Trust

Boards and presidents should have a conversation about what they need from each other. It’s vital to ensure each understands they aren’t just guessing.

Finally, fundamental to this conversation and a thread throughout much of what we’ve recommended is a foundation of trust. Boards and presidents need to trust each other. Boards need to trust the presidents that they hired and oversee to provide the necessary leadership. Presidents need to trust that the boards that hired them are working to uphold their fiduciary responsibilities and will be there when they need them most. And that seems to be right now.

Peter Eckel serves as senior fellow and director of the Global Higher Education Management program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. He co-directs the Penn Project on University Governance. Cathy Trower is president of Trower & Trower Inc., a governance consulting firm. Together they wrote the book Practical Wisdom: Thinking Differently About College and University Governance.

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