Boards and the Senior Team

One of the best ways to determine where a college or university is headed is to look at the composition and quality of the senior administrative team that the president inherits on the first day in office.

The look and feel – quite literally – of an inherited team speaks to the mindset and culture of the institution. Factors include experience, both within and from outside higher education, work ethic, loyalty to the institution, diversity, openness to change, knowledge in the field, and common sense.

Presidents enter the job as the “new kid” on the team. How the team treats the new president and whether the team plays well together in the sandbox and with the president will determine whether and how to move a coherent agenda forward.

In most respects, it begins with the trustees. As the old administration leaves, it is always wise for the board, led by its chair, to undertake an environmental scan to determine a next good “fit.” Different types of presidents suit different moments in an institution’s history. Some boards see a need for caretaker presidents.  The candidates are told, sometimes not too subtly, “make no waves.”

This is the easiest kind of presidency because the president is reduced to a position somewhere between patriarch and ceremonial mayor. It’s always fun to throw out the first pitch as baseball season begins. One colleague calls it the “Casper the Friendly Ghost” category of president. Often, boards favor this style of president when an institution needs to digest change from the previous administration or the board feels the need to reassert its own role within shared governance.

If the board of trustees – whether prompted by the economy, accreditor’s reviews, eroding financial strength, demographics and a softening admission base, or other crises large and small – chooses a change agent president, then all bets are off.

These presidents must go in with their eyes wide open, recognizing that the agenda is predetermined. Their job may be to fix the problem, restore confidence, and build momentum. For the president to be successful, two conditions must fall into place.

The first is that the president must work with a mature, confident board that understands its role. Boards have a critical role in shared governance. They must serve as financial stewards, oversee policy, and nurture and support a climate for the success for the new president. It is not their job to manage the institution. And, boards must be especially wary not to cross the line between oversight and management by developing inappropriate, outside relationships with staff, especially senior staff.

In a sense, this problem is genetic. Alumni overwhelmingly comprise the majority of trustees. On the weakest boards, members of the board’s nomination committee cast the net widely but ineffectively often falling back upon friends from their athletic teams, Greek life or graduating class. These friendships extend to alumni on staff as well, providing an opportunity for the relationships to develop at the expense of the president, especially if the president fails to promote or retain the staff member.  “Govern but not when it affects my friends,” is often an unstated policy, if these rules are unclear.

A second problem is that many alumni trustees maintain a “lord of the plantation” mindset when approaching staff. Alumni trustees call admissions directors to support candidates whom they know. Development staff maintains deep personal relationships with key donors, including many trustees.

Athletic directors are often the most notorious appealing to former jocks and their jock-want-to-be brethren to promote themselves and their policies. It can become a quagmire for new presidents, especially when a strong alumni presence on the board and among staff predates the new president’s arrival by a generation.

To prevent this problem, the board has a duty to state its position clearly with potential candidates during the search process. The board must be clear in its expectations. If the president has management authority, the board must understand this role and abide by the rules that govern it. There is no way for a new president – no matter how compassionate, diplomatic, or subtle – to be assured of the loyalty of an inherited senior team over the long term otherwise.

As expectations grow and an agenda develops, the senior staff will feel heightened pressure, particularly in change agent environments. Many rise to the occasion.  Other staff  “duck and cover.” The weakest, most unprincipled, or most heavily political exploit their relationship with board members.

It’s often the small actions by boards of trustees that can make or break an institution. Boards that promise their full support to a change agent president and do not deliver put the college at risk. Weak board chairs, or those with an agenda, can affect the institution’s evolution.  Reputations in higher education are lost slowly and take years to recover.

In a long institutional history, colleges need both change agents and caretaker presidents. That’s not the issue. What colleges cannot tolerate long-term is a board of trustees that does damage through anecdote and by degree.

It is critical, then, for presidential candidates to strike a deal on governing principles with boards before they ink their contracts.  Presidents must have the courage to lead. But boards must have a principled understanding of how to play by the rules or they put the institution at risk.

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