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Originally published: “Boards and Presidents — After the Hire,” Inside Higher Ed, March 6, 2009

Inside Higher EdThe world of higher education is replete with stories of new presidents who have floundered in their first several years. (Fortunately, there are many more examples of presidents who succeed in the first year and beyond, but as John Milton demonstrated so brilliantly in Paradise Lost, it is the character who suffers a fall that often is the more compelling.)

Prominent among the unsuccessful are those who have alienated their new colleagues and surprised their board by extravagantly renovating the president’s house, announcing plans to improve their new institution in ways that disparage the current faculty, staff, students and alumni, and squandering their honeymoon by unceremoniously firing long-time staff members. Yet others have been “imperial,” have not been visible on campus, have gotten out ahead of their boards or have failed to share bad news with the trustees until they had no choice but to do so, damaging that critical relationship.

These examples suggest that had the presidents in question simply used common sense, they would have avoided significant problems. But as someone who after serving as a president for 11 years keeps “flunking retirement” and now mentors new presidents, works with boards on governance and serves as a search consultant, I have come to believe that at least some of these unhappy situations might have been avoided had the trustees and president come to an immediate understanding of how they would work together, how and what they would communicate and even more specifically who would be responsible for what.

This is not to argue that the boards involve themselves in operational matters that are presidential responsibilities but rather that trustees do not simply assume that everything will go smoothly once a new president assumes office. Every board, especially its leadership, needs to provide its new president with appropriate guidance and oversight as well as support.

Boards must, however, avoid mistaking support with passively rubber-stamping all presidential recommendations. Trustees best contribute to a president’s success by defining the sorts of problems they wish jointly to address with the president and by asking hard questions about internal and external challenges so that the board and president can work together to derive potential solutions.

Presidents for their part need to view their boards as their most critical resource, understanding from the outset that even as they must work effectively with multiple constituencies (faculty, students, staff, alumni, donors, foundations, the local community and in some instances elected officials), no president can be successful without board support.

Boards and presidents are inextricably intertwined since boards normally act based on presidential recommendations. If a board frequently rejects such recommendations, they probably need to search for a new president. Because boards will have different expectations about what they wish to know and the decisions for which they want responsibility, it is critical that the board and president come to a mutual understanding about such matters as the following:

  • What sort of budgetary authority the board delegates to the president, including what sort of expenditures and at what level the president needs trustee approval?
  • What presidential decisions (e.g. personnel changes and appointments in the senior administration, approaches to and settlements of litigation or actions that might cause controversy on the campus or with the alumni) need to rise to the level of trustee attention?
  • Which matters should be shared with the entire board, the executive committee, a designated board subcommittee, a committee chair, the board chair or some combination of the above?
  • If matters of importance occur between board meetings, how should the president communicate these matters to the trustees and what role should the board chair play in making that determination?
  • What sort of information does the board wish to receive, how often and in what form about such matters as admissions, retention, graduation rates, tuition discount, actual expenditures and revenues as compared to budgeted ones, gifts, the percentage of faculty who are tenured, technology needs, the state of the physical plant, residence hall occupancy, the percentage of students who study abroad, the scope of athletics and intramural programs, and student involvement in community service?
  • What sort of benchmark information based on peer and next-step institutions does the board wish to receive, how often and in what form?
  • What does the board wish to know about the curriculum? Which curricular changes need board approval?
  • What strategic questions will the board ask the president? Will trustees ask the administration to explain the information it provides and offer solutions to the problems and challenges it describes?
  • Does the board want the president routinely to present the arguments against as well as for his/her recommendations, including potential risks as well as benefits?
  • Do the president and board chair have regular conversations which provide the president — before she/he acts — with input from the chair and, if the chair so advises, other trustees about important matters?

A clear understanding about president-board communications and decision-making also helps protect institutions from those rare occasions when boards are misinformed and even misled. Over my several decades in the academy, particularly when I’ve served on accreditation teams, I’ve encountered a handful of such occasions.

At one institution, the administration deliberately under-reported the number of transfer students and over-reported the number of returning students, thereby hiding from the board unusually high attrition. At another institution, the board did not know that the college routinely reported inflated SAT scores. Yet another board did not know about atypically high faculty and staff turnover. My favorite example: the board that proudly told presidential finalists that the college had no deferred maintenance when the physical plant, while outwardly lovely, was in disrepair. In this case, the financial vice president and the outgoing president justified their assertion because they had decided not to address maintenance problems.

The real question is: what can trustees do to promote the success of a new president?

  1. Prior to beginning a presidential search, boards typically should either re-affirm or re-define the institution’s mission so that the search committee seeks candidates whose values and whose goals for the institution are consistent with that mission. Trustees in fact would do well to be wary of candidates who have worthy but unrealistic aspirations for the institution, promising boards for example that they will turn a small private regional college with a modest endowment that has historically focused on teaching into a nationally ranked “research college” or that they will transform an under-funded branch campus of a public university into a Research I institution.
  2. The pre-search institutional profile — usually drafted by a search consultant after extensive conversations with the campus community, alumni and trustees, vetted and improved by the search committee and approved by the board leadership — should provide a guidepost to the president for his or her actions during the first several years and should suggest the criteria that the board will use to evaluate presidential performance. For example, if the institution is in the midst of a faltering strategic planning process, the board might ask the president to work with the campus to complete that process during her or his first year and then recommend to the board a slate of fund-raising priorities that would derive from that plan. If the college has suffered from declining enrollments and increasing attrition, the board might make admissions and retention two of the president’s top priorities. If town/gown relationships are frayed but important, the board might ask the new president to take an active role in the community.
  3. Boards need to agree on what it means for them to be entrusted with the health and integrity of the institution and in all areas, not just financial. Trustees need at the very least to provide fiduciary oversight for the operating budget, capital projects, strategic plans, fundraising goals and institutional policies. In doing so, they need to understand and approve tuition, room and board, the financial aid discount, the endowment payout and the compensation of the president and the senior administration. Providing such oversight is the responsibility that most boards fulfill and the one with which trustees are most comfortable.
  4. Given the complex environment for and the many pressures facing higher education today, boards must become the president’s partner in advancing the institution. Because–as we have seen recently with the economic downturn–the external environment can change so abruptly, boards and presidents must understand the external landscape and then lead the institution to be nimble in responding to these changes.
  5. Some experienced trustees who know and love the institution—preferably selected by the chair and president together—can profitably serve as informal advisors to the new president on, for example, how to deal with controversy and with difficult personnel matters. Such a group might also advise the president how to handle a problem group on campus, how gently to transition out a beloved vice president who is resistant to change, how to communicate from day one with the board and how most effectively to structure board meetings.
  6. Even as all trustees should be available to provide the president with informal guidance and feedback, the board should designate a formal group annually to evaluate the president’s effectiveness, an evaluation that should include constructive recommendations. Boards may also wish at the beginning of a new president’s tenure to lay out any plans it has for a comprehensive 360 degree presidential review, perhaps done by an outside consultant, in, for example, the president’s fifth year.

There are, of course, other kinds of information about which boards need to be informed. For example, because such costs as technology, library materials, utilities and insurance (and sometimes financial aid) are rising faster than inflation, presidents need to make the case and boards–as they approve increases in tuition, room and board year after year — need to understand and be able to communicate to the broader community how these increases will provide something of value to prospective and current students and their families. This is even more true in today’s troubled economy.

Finally, the trustees have a responsibility to be informed about the higher educational landscape. Boards need to be aware that much of what students and parents see as value-added are themselves costly – amenities such as single rooms, particular kinds of food served from early morning well into the night, state-of-the-art fitness centers, counseling for such problems as alcohol abuse (nearly 50 percent of students drink excessively), eating disorders and depression, academic support, career planning and placement, 24/7 computer labs, extended library hours, internship and volunteer opportunities, and study abroad.

Boards equally need to understand the implications of the institution’s admission policies. They need to recognize that unbridled grade inflation (47.9 percent of freshmen entering college in the fall of 2006 had graduated from high school with straight A averages) makes it difficult for the admissions staff to give much credence to an applicant’s GPA. At the same time, they need to understand the arguments for and against doing using standardized tests for admissions and financial aid.

Trustees should also understand that grade inflation has led students to study less than in previous years. For example, according to the Higher Education Research Institute’s study of college freshmen, nearly half of all high school students in 1987 spent more than six hours/week on school work whereas only one-third of the fall 2003 freshmen had done so. Students also study less than the faculty expects. Specifically, the 2004 National Survey of Student Engagement reveals that “In general faculty expect students to study about twice as much (6 hours per class per week) as students actually reported (3 hours per class per week). This decline in the number of hours students study in turn has a significant impact on how demanding the curriculum can be, how rigorous course requirements can be and ultimately on student achievement.

But most of all boards and presidents must see themselves as being partners in a noble, truly noble, enterprise of educating the next generation of citizens. They, more than any other people, must always think institutionally and never engage in constituency politics. In the end, I believe and my experience tells me that when boards, or at the very least, the leadership of the board, and the president function as partners, the faculty, the students, the staff, the alumni and the institution all are well served.