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For the last few years, I’ve been dragging out the megaphone to warn boards and campus communities of the potential avalanche of presidential resignations about to hit and how their institution might avoid this by adopting retention strategies for their senior leadership. In April, the American Council on Education released new data showing that more than 55 percent of presidents were planning to step down within the next five years (including a full 25 percent who plan to step down “within the next year or two”), reinforcing that presidents are truly leaving or contemplating leaving at an alarming rate.
Although we could recite a long litany of reasons why the job is becoming increasingly difficult, the main issue is clearly one of governance. Who is responsible for the direction of the institution?
If you ask some board members this question, they would likely say, “We are,” meaning they are stewards who hold the responsibility for the strategic direction and financial solvency of an institution. They also hire and fire presidents. Those answers would be the sign of a healthy board.
Others say, “We are,” as if they are the owners, responsible for the total management of the institution. This is the sign of a troubled institution and, most certainly, a sign of concern for the president.
Just look at what is happening nationally. Public boards in multiple states—whose members are sympathetic to legislative and gubernatorial interference on issues such as “wokeism”; diversity, equity and inclusion; and tenure, curriculum and admissions strategies—are redefining their essential and well-defined role as institutional fiduciaries and occasionally giving free rein to their political views about the operational decisions of the institutions. Some boards have overreached and felt emboldened to insert a political agenda into operational decisions that are more appropriately made by administrators. What is happening on boards is mimicking the national conversation: it’s divisive, there is no middle ground and civility is clearly lacking.
The problem is that many of these board members do not understand their role as stewards, as opposed to the role of owner. They sit on no other nonprofit boards other than that of their alma mater; they are lacking the basic training of what board members of higher educational institutions need to know and do; they believe that their wealth is entrance fee enough, which empowers them to tell a campus what it should do; and they are more than happy to try and run the institution much like they run their private-sector companies. Academic governance, however, is nothing like financial service or corporate governance; it is dangerous to conflate them.
Beyond this, boards are not entirely at fault. Since COVID, many boards continue to meet remotely, and the institutions and campus communities they govern are completely foreign to them. There may be far fewer board/campus dinners or committees where face-to-face meetings allow for the building of trust and mutual understanding. These events traditionally are where boards, faculty, staff and students can get to know one another. In their engagement, they get to see the common good (the campus) that they both love and want to improve.
Compared with the board, the campus constituents (students, faculty, staff, administrators) are likely to be more liberal politically than those individuals who sit on boards. They, too, are isolated and have lost the art of talking across the political divide. Campus communities are entirely consumed with other issues, including DEI, threats to tenure, student activism, COVID restrictions and hybrid work policies, LGBTQIA+ protections, unionization of faculty/staff/students, and ongoing budgetary reductions. Thus, there are divisions within campus communities every bit as volatile as the differences in perspectives from the campus to the board. Moreover, the issues that consume campus communities do not match most of the concerns board members have.
And when things do not go well on campuses—something we witness daily—this produces votes of no confidence in the administration, the board and whoever else seems to be the source of the problem. It is usually a desperate move, a bit of a Hail Mary, one thrown with the hope that the outcome will be to discredit the other party. Oddly enough, the impact of these gestures has often been the opposite: they can guarantee the institution will not only not be rid of the undesirable party (that individual might just wait them out or, if sufficiently tired of the fight, simply go back to the faculty) and—compounding that—the institution will have gained a reputation for not treating administrators well. I often tell academic communities, how you exit your previous president is directly related to how you will recruit the next one.
With boards and campus constituents at odds with one another, who is the person lodged in the middle of this complex, antagonistic ecosystem? The president. Although there is often little sympathy for well-paid senior administrators with robust contracts, the reality is that when presidents leave, institutions tend to become unstable: other administrators decide to depart, fundraising goes on pause and, since most believe they can “wait it out” until new leadership is named, institutions cease to move forward. We all know that places on pause are simply places falling behind.
So, what are the solutions to this governance nightmare: Boards and campus constituents not on speaking terms, wanting a divorce, and the president not waiting around to hear about the joint custody arrangement?
Let’s start from a simple but very complex place: the lack of trust exhibited on campuses today. After years of COVID and clear misunderstandings of one another’s roles, how does this get rebuilt? One could suggest taking a chapter from the old-school playbook—inviting board members and campus community members to serve together on committees and finding social hours for them to get acquainted. Presidential searches may serve as that vehicle, but oftentimes the damage has already been done and these searches struggle to meet two different goals: to reunite a community and also find an outstanding candidate. Additionally, long presidential transitions are not the norm, and too often, all parties are eager to simply get the final candidate and dispense with the niceties. No long engagements for either party!
I might argue that having some transition time, where board members can participate in presidential search site visits or interview respected presidents, is time well spent. It shows true interest in the campus community on the part of the board and allows board members to hear firsthand what concerns exist that a new president will inherit. That process can also build trust, allowing people to get to know one another with a clear sense of a shared purpose.
Similarly, when they engage in dialogue with faculty, students and staff, trustees often fill out the picture of what otherwise might seem to be a cartoonish sketch. They hear why scholars and students care passionately about what they are doing; at the same time, in these conversations, especially ones focused around puzzling their way to collective solutions for the well-being of the institution, campus constituents can learn about the governance challenges faced by those overseeing the finances and complexities of the multiversity. The challenges that colleges face are nontrivial, but spending time together might remind all involved that they actually share some basic goals concerning the well-being of the enterprise. Differences abound, but no one would be at that shared table if they didn’t want the institution to find ways forward and to thrive.
Other solutions might include inviting board members and members of the campus community to open seminars by senior administrators on the functions they serve. Senior leaders can thus inform faculty, students and board members about the complex thinking and decision-making processes that determine the directions the institution takes.
Facilitated conversations between board members, students, faculty and staff likewise build trust. These approaches among others begin the process of reuniting the groups that make up these complex institutions, so they may face the daunting future together.
Here are a few other recommendations for helping to create further transparency and stronger relationships:
- Arrange regularly scheduled public listening sessions/meetings instead of only listening to the community midcrisis,
- Normalize the process for board members and senior administrators to hear input from the campus community without misconstruing it as “being told what to do” by the community, and
- Create a campus advisory panel of folks to provide perspective to the board, outside of senior leadership channels.
Over all, it is critical to begin this process of healing campuses and making partnership possible between boards and campus communities. The current trajectory of revolving-door presidencies, heavy-handed boards and isolated academic communities makes it imperative.