Board Chair-President Relations

Strong and Balanced, But Not Exclusive

By Merrill P. Schwartz August 29, 2017 February 16th, 2022 Blog Post

This blog post is part of the New President Toolkit, a resource to help you hit the ground running and chart a course for your institution that ensures well-being and sustainability. Its is also part of the Board Chair Toolkit, which includes a host of resources that enable board chairs to understand essential responsibilities for board leadership and establish an inclusive board culture.

Managing communication in a world of instant messaging is a challenge, especially in colleges and universities; shared governance brings expectations about sharing information and decision making. When it comes to the president and board, the board chair is the linchpin. Regular communication allows for meaningful feedback and input on pressing decisions. What are the indicators that this crucial relationship is working smoothly, and what are the signs that something isn’t right?

Indicators of Trouble

  1. Board members feel excluded, and probably are. Decisions on important issues are reported to the board after the fact, without prior involvement beyond the chair. The president and board chair regard consultation between themselves to be sufficient.
  2. Decisions are made at the last minute. The president and board chair rush to decisions, and don’t want to slow things down by convening the executive or other committee or waiting for a board meeting.
  3. Even the board chair is surprised by actions taken by the president and isn’t informed in advance about key personnel changes, new partnerships, or other significant decisions.
  4. The board chair speaks for the board, even when the board hasn’t conferred and expressed its decision or will. (While the chair should be recognized as the voice of the board, the chair has no more authority than any other member; board authority lies in the collective body. The chair should not act or speak for the board unless designated to do so.)
  5. The board chair inserts him or herself into decisions that are clearly the president’s to make, calls the president too often, or demands information other board members or committee chairs do not receive. (The chair is not the president’s boss.)

Indicators of Health

  1. The president and board chair have a routine time to talk—weekly, monthly, or some other interval. This makes it easy to keep up to date, test ideas, and plan. A phone call is not an ominous sign.
  2. Conversations also happen as needed, when issues arise, and the president and board chair make an effort to take the other’s call. They trust that it must be important, and respect each other’s time.
  3. The president adheres to the treaty of no surprises when it comes to the board chair and the board. If the board would want to know first, the president makes sure the chair and all board members are informed directly and don’t read about emerging issues in the newspaper. There’s a plan in place for sharing information quickly, if the need arises.
  4. The board chair serves as wise counsel for the president, but not decision maker for the board. The president and chair confer about when and how to bring matters to the board in a timely way.
  5. In selecting the board chair, the board considers the attributes needed to fulfill the role, including the relationship with the president.

Looking for more guidance? Visit the AGB Consulting section of the website to learn about leadership advisory coaching. For specifics on successful board leadership, consider Effective Board Chairs: A Guide for University and College Chairs.



This resource is part of the member-exclusive AGB Governance Briefing on The Work of the Board Chair. Governance Briefings are curated collections of multi-media assets that get you quickly up to speed on key topics.

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