Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.
More than a decade ago, AGB published a report titled The Leadership Imperative that focused on the relationship between the governing board and the president in colleges and universities. Part of the rationale undergirding the report and its recommendations was that obstacles to effective governance “… are traceable to the intensity and range of conflicting pressures a president must confront—and from the fact that presidents receive uneven guidance, support, and oversight from their governing boards.”i
The task force that developed the report promoted the idea that a partnership between the president and the governing board was essential to the success of the institution. It called for “… leadership that links the president and governing board closely together in an environment of support, candor, and accountability.”ii
The time that has passed since the publication of the report, and the increasingly complex and difficult issues that higher education boards and presidents must deal with today, reinforce the importance of building a strong and trusting alliance between those who manage the daily operations of an institution and those who govern it. Indeed, they demand a renewed commitment to maintaining a well-functioning partnership. That means that presidents and boards should be aligned around mission, vision, values, and strategic priorities, as well as united in how they deal with controversial issues. A strong partnership depends on deep trust and effective and regular communication.
The Board-President Relationship
At their December 2023 meeting, AGB’s Council of Presidents addressed board-president relationships in the context of current events and with an eye toward an uncertain future, including divisiveness around U.S. political campaigns in 2024. The council benefitted from the participation of Jill Derby, former chair of the Nevada Board of Regents and former board chair of the American University of Iraq Sulaimani, and David Maxwell, president emeritus of Drake University and former chair of the Grinnell College Board of Trustees. Both are ambassadors to AGB’s Council of Board Chairs, which took up a similar topic at its most recent meeting.
Readiness for Crises and Controversies
The discussion began with a clarion call for presidents and boards to recognize the importance of being ready to deal with crises and controversies. The council members were unanimous in supporting the idea that institutions must be as prepared as possible and have done the adequate advance planning. They noted that a crisis is a poor time to figure out how to manage an issue. Whatever the institution believes is appropriate for managing such complex issues must be codified, to the extent practical, in policies and procedures like codes of conduct.
Those advance preparations must be clearly communicated to the campus community, and the governing board must be carefully educated about them and their importance. Some council members noted that even when such preparations exist, the institution may not follow them consistently. More discipline is needed in implementation, and presidents must lead the way to ensure their colleges and universities are following the policies and procedures that the institutions have put in place.
Several council presidents suggested ways to become better prepared, such as engaging institutional leaders, including board members, in scenario planning exercises in which they imagine “what if” situations and discuss ways to manage them. Others discussed the value of tabletop exercises, such as those used in thinking through how to manage “active shooter” drills and other emergencies, or when confronted with the possibility of campus protests with two (or many) very emotional opposing positions.
Board Independence and Academic Freedom
Presidents felt strongly that boards must also be educated about bedrock concepts of higher education, such as board independence and academic freedom. Even when boards are well versed in these core ideas, they need fresh perspectives as the environment changes. Consider, for example, how the accelerated speed of communications through social media has changed how presidents need to think about sharing information with their boards. A commitment to “no surprises” is more difficult when a campus protest event goes viral in the blink of an eye.
Constitutional protection of freedom of speech and discussions with boards about how those protections apply in higher education are also required. Board members do not always understand that presidents cannot and do not control what the people on their campuses say and do. Council members generally agreed that most board members do not fully understand the legal aspects of content-neutral time, place, and manner policies. Board education on this topic is vital.
Often, board members want to direct a president to tell people to stop certain activities or tell them to allow some comments but not others. Recently, state legislators and governors have directed presidents to manage certain types of speech or to respond to speech in specified ways. Concerns are emerging that such actions may result in limiting free speech when the opposite principle—encouraging the free exchange of ideas and supporting the expression of differing views is central to higher education’s mission.
In the midst of managing a controversy, it is difficult to think about “teachable moments,” but the council presidents urged that those moments not be forgotten in the current climate. In the heat of the moment, it is often difficult to stay calm, but the long-term value of using challenging times to advance an institution’s core mission and values should not be overlooked.
Kent State University, where I was privileged to serve as president for more than 15 years, has taken the concept of using its academic mission to advance understanding about conflict to a very high degree. Based on the university’s experiences in the aftermath of the shootings on the campus in May of 1970, a time of widespread protests about the Vietnam War, Kent State established the School of Peace and Conflict Studies among other initiatives designed to teach and heal. The school is a living memorial to the four students who were shot and killed at the University on May 4, 1970. It engages actively with contemporary issues and regularly opines about these matters from a scholarly perspective.
Should Presidents Make Public Statements About Controversial Issues?
The council members had an especially interesting discussion about whether presidents should make public statements about controversial issues as a representative of their institution, especially statements that could be construed as political or partisan. The answer for many participating in the meeting was a resounding no. This was based on the belief that a president cannot make a statement—either pro or con—about national or global issues unrelated to higher education on behalf of the institution because the campus community is so diverse, and an issue can have so many sides, that a unanimous campus opinion can’t be communicated.
What many council members agreed that presidents should do, however, is speak out forcefully on issues that directly impact their institution in particular and higher education in general. Many expressed the view that presidents should not take sides about, for example, an international conflict. Yet they generally agreed that presidents should take positions on, say, the damaging results of state budget cuts to higher education or proposed federal policies that would negatively impact colleges and universities.
Moreover, the council members said, presidents should be mindful of the human toll embedded in controversial issues and should clearly state their support and personal concern for the suffering their constituents are experiencing. They also should communicate about what support systems are available at their institution to assist people. That might involve adding new services in certain circumstances if those already in place are evaluated as inadequate for a particular issue. In addition, the council members discussed the value of educational programming to help campus communities examine, debate, and learn about controversial issues.
Alignment with Board Chairs and Board Members
With input from Jill Derby and David Maxwell about the perspectives that surfaced in a recent meeting of the board chairs, the council presidents were reminded about the role of board chairs and board members as advocates and ambassadors for their institutions and for the larger higher education enterprise. As presidents and board chairs collaborate to determine when, how, and what to communicate, they should tie messages to their college or university’s mission.
Council members also discussed the importance of consistent messages and about respecting boundaries between the roles and responsibilities of presidents and those of boards. Board members should act as ambassadors for the institution in ways that are carefully coordinated with the president’s office. As the phrase goes, “singing from the same page” is essential.
For their part, presidents should not make assumptions about what board members do and do not know and understand. Presidents often assume ignorance of an issue, when, in fact, some board members are well informed about it and can be allies with the president in efforts to deal with it without the need for additional education or preparation. Listening carefully to learn about the experiences and skill sets of board members is needed. Making sweeping generalizations about board members’ understanding of issues is not.
In closing, I want to emphasize the importance of the work that presidents and board members do on a continuous basis to develop trust. Trust is hard to build and easy to lose. Anyone can make an occasional misstep, but that is a natural part of the journey around deepening trust. A willingness to be candid is important, and so is an understanding of what it takes to show grace under pressure.
Carol A. Cartwright, PhD, is president emeritus of Kent State University and Bowling Green State University. She is an AGB senior fellow and senior consultant, and the ambassador to AGB’s Council of Presidents.
i Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, The Leadership Imperative (Washington, DC: AGB, 2006), vi.
ii AGB, The Leadership Imperative, vi.