For nearly 20 months of living and leading through the pandemic, we have been challenged by and overcome many obstacles, oftentimes at great speed and even risk. At the same time, we have learned plenty of valuable lessons about ways that boards and presidents can work together more effectively, both while confronting crisis and what we hope will be a less threatening new normal. A few of these lessons are below.
1. COVID-19 has taught us qualities that leaders must cultivate for both good times and bad.
In the September/October issue of Trusteeship, AGB senior fellow and former system head Terry MacTaggart lists the traits of leaders in the COVID-19 era: “grit, a focus on the business as well as academic sides of the enterprise, pragmatism, social intelligence, imagination, a team orientation, and integrity.” Although all of these qualities are critical, grit—i.e., mental fortitude—may be the most important, enabling leaders to move forward despite setbacks and criticism. Indeed, many of the Principles of Trusteeship are bolstered by a healthy dose of grit, an attribute that can be cultivated and honed through experience, professional development, and support from peers and colleagues.
2. Effective communication among board members and with stakeholders is paramount, and the consequences for getting it wrong can be grave.
It is now evident that policies for crisis communications (guidance here) should not be optional but rather should be a requirement for sound governance, and that communications between the board and senior leadership team should be robust, two-way, and focused on issues of strategic importance.
COVID-19 has required leaders to act more quickly to address more complicated problems than in the past. The book Higher Education Business Models Under Stress offers helpful guidance here. We at AGB recommend that in chaotic environments that change day to day, or even hour to hour, board chairs and chief executives frequently meet to ensure strategic alignment between management and governance. Clarify expectations with faculty and staff about consultation and communication during crises, and tailor plans in keeping with the shared governance practices at your institution.
3. Focus on what matters most, even among ambiguity and doubt.
It is natural to be swept up in the crisis of the day, especially in the uncertain environment created by a long-term pandemic. In such circumstances, it is even more important that boards are functioning well, something that can be ascertained by a culture and practice of recurring board assessments. In trying times, those conducting the assessments must do so with empathy and compassion for those dealing with crises, but with a resolute focus on constant improvement. AGB has services and resources to support your board assessment goals. It is also essential that board assessments be grounded in the institutional goals and values, such as a commitment to equity in student success.
Questions for Those Involved in Board Assessments
For board and committee chairs:
- How strong is your partnership with the president? This new FAQ on the board chair-presidential relationship may provide insight on fortifying that relationship.
- How can you support a board and committee culture that helps members develop their expertise and skills and elevates discussion and commitment to outcomes?
For presidents and senior staff:
- Has your relationship with your board changed since the beginning of the pandemic? If so, how? For better, or worse? Institutional leaders may wish to peruse A President’s Guide to Effective Board Leadership to develop deeper and stronger engagement.
- How can you facilitate authentic board engagement with faculty, staff, and students?
Finally, since most boards evaluate their presidents annually, AGB suggests the board members charged with doing so ask these questions:
- When assessing the chief executive’s performance, what metrics do you use? How has the pandemic affected the assessment’s metrics?
- Given the relentless pressure on campus leaders during the pandemic, are there ways the board should provide additional support for the president?
- Given the current environment, does the institution need to realign resources to foster student success?
- Have you read and discussed Assessing and Developing College and University Presidents?
My colleagues and I wish you ongoing success as you contribute to higher education. Moreover, thank you for your commitment to exemplary governance and leadership.