AGB President & CEO Update: Navigating Campus Unrest and Strategic Issues (System)

By Ellen Chaffee May 8, 2024 Blog Post

You are viewing the System version of this CEO Update. Institutionally Related Foundation and Institution versions are also available.

Before I dig into this month’s update, I want to recognize the ongoing protests about the Israel-Gaza conflict. I was heartbroken to see news story after news story exposing both heartfelt schisms in our communities and tragic incidents where legitimate free expression sometimes bled into confrontation and violence. Although student protests are often a fact of life on campus, to see such strife at our institutions is deeply concerning. And while it is easy to blame one group or another for the discord, I want to simply acknowledge how difficult it can be for campus leaders—staff or board members—during these challenging times. I encourage us all to uphold our academic principles and keep safety, free speech, and inclusive discourse at the heart of our decisions and to reject any attempt to leverage these events for personal or ideological gain.

I have received many questions from members seeking to understand the board’s responsibility around campus activism. Below I am sharing several AGB resources that could be valuable in your conversations. Additionally, in the coming weeks, AGB plans to publish a roundtable discussion to address these issues in greater detail. Should you have any questions or need further guidance, please contact us. AGB is here for you.

[ Editor’s note: Since this communication was sent to members, AGB has hosted the roundtable discussion addressing the recent campus protests. Watch it here. ]

AGB Resources on Campus Activism

Last month at our National Conference on Trusteeship, we announced our latest publication, Top Strategic Issues for Boards 2024–2025. Curated from insights gleaned from AGB members and other higher education experts, this biennial publication is meant to equip governing boards and senior administrators with context, guidance, and relevant questions that make effective board governance successful.

In this edition, AGB’s top strategic issues for boards include:

  • Board independence and leadership
  • Student success, the student experience, and inclusion on campus
  • Leadership succession and support
  • Business model innovation and digital transformation

Why it matters: I argue that every college and university system is facing one or more challenges that fall under these categories—whether that be leadership turnover, precarious finances, threats from external influences, or some other obstacle. These issues demand the board’s time and attention, and both the board and senior administrators must work together to ensure they are on the board’s agenda in the coming months.

Consider the issues of board independence and leadership, and leadership succession and support.

Board autonomy is one of the most important issues facing higher education today. The ability of board members to be fiduciaries and good citizen trustees is fundamental to higher education’s success. As I have said before, this is not a red-versus-blue or left-versus-right issue; this is about right and wrong. It is about preserving academic freedom and the freedom to learn. The choices that governing boards make now, including when to take a public stand, negotiate behind the scenes, or allow external influencers to interfere with the board’s authority, will have downstream effects for a generation or longer.

  • I recognize that the contours of these debates look different in every state and every board. A solution that proves successful in one circumstance might result in catastrophe elsewhere. But choosing not to discuss board independence, even if those conversations are public, is no longer an option. Boards and presidents may need to explore foundational truths about the purposes and values of the institutions they oversee, and be prepared for passionate, respectful disagreement.

We often say that a system is only as good as its board, and the same is true for its chief executive. Unfortunately, the job has only gotten more difficult. Succession planning is not a “nice-to-have” but an imperative.

A worthy quote from Top Strategic Issues: “Of late, it seems more presidents are wearing out than rusting out. Given the stresses of leadership during the pandemic era and the polarized political environment, who wants one of these pressure-cooker jobs?”

  • The system presidency is a 24/7/365 job, making decisions that will likely rankle one constituency or another and include both short- and long-term ramifications. Governing boards must understand the chief executive’s support structure and seek a strong, mutually beneficial relationship with the president.

Go Deeper:

One of the most useful components of Top Strategic Issues for Boards is the list of questions at the end of each section. Consider this excerpt of questions adapted from the sections outlined above:

  • Does the board operate cohesively? Does it act in unison after airing different views among its members on issues affecting governance and policy?
  • Does the board eschew pressures to accede to partisan agendas yet recognize the importance of instilling civic virtues in students and strengthening democracy?
  • Does the board understand the role the system must play in overseeing academic freedom and freedom of speech policies at the various institutions?
  • How well prepared is the board to handle the inevitable turnover of the president and other key top administrators? Does the board ensure the system has procedures in place well before any vacancy at the top may occur?
  • Has the system or any institution experienced greater turnover than normal and has it adequately explored why?
  • Does the board help foster an entrepreneurial and innovative approach to the management and operations of the system? Does it empower the president and other leaders to make tough yet transformative decisions?

Until next month,


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