Governing Relationships Vary As Pandemic Progresses

By Dr. Joseph G. Burke May 18, 2020 May 13th, 2021 Blog Post

Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.

Presidents and boards have struggled recently to revise their working relationship to handle the revolutionary challenges their institutions have encountered during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Campus responses to COVID-19 have already gone through three separate crisis phases, with more to come. Furthermore, the working relationship between the president, the board chair, the board leadership, and the entire board also changed during each phase of the pandemic. The major influencing variables dealt with the short response times required and the high level of uncertainty concerning how to combat the virus, safeguard the campus community, and sustain the educational mission.

The first phase occurred within the first 48-96 hours. The immediate concern during this phase was the health and safety of students, faculty, and nonessential staff. The objective was to move the nonessential campus community (students, faculty, and staff) to the safety of their own homes. In view of the short time involved, the board delegated full responsibility to the president and supported the president and administration in every way possible.

The second phase took place over the next few days and weeks. The concern here was mission continuation, defined as semester curriculum completion via online delivery and financial and facility management. During this phase the response time increased marginally, allowing slightly more board engagement. Board involvement took the form of additional consultation with the board chair and leadership, greater board-wide communication, and an occasional board-wide informational meeting.

We are currently in the third phase of the crisis, which started near the end of March and will likely end in the late summer. This is the scenario identification, assessment, and fall program selection phase. It appears that many boards are having difficulty determining what their role is during this stage of the crisis.

Although available decision time is greater, there is a high degree of uncertainty about many key issues including: the future path of the virus, public health, and safety concerns; state and federal guidelines; facility, enrollment, and financial considerations, etc.  In this theater of uncertainty, boards have difficulty determining whether, when, and how they should engage with administration in scenario review and crisis management.

Scenario Planning Governance Questions

Winston Churchill once said during a critical moment of WWII: “This is not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.” This coming fall semester will not be the end of COVID-19. Therefore, to ensure that the governance process remains effective during future stages of the crisis, the president and board chair should meet early to discuss several key questions. These include:

  1. What will be the institutional vision after the crisis is over? What will be the supporting board goals? What additional board skills and experiences will be required to achieve the board goals? What governance shortfalls have been identified during the initial phases of the crisis (risk management, emergency preparedness, medical background, financial management, communications and marketing expertise, technology, distance education).
  2. What types of information do board members require during the crisis, and how and when will this information be communicated between the crisis response team, the president, the board leadership, and the entire board membership.
  3. How and when will the board interact with both the president and the crisis response team as they work to identify crisis scenarios for the fall? Virtual board information and discussion forums might be the most timely and efficient way to communicate. An important element of this discussion is when and how to engage the board in scenario reviews and recommendations.
  4. Frequent, focused board meetings to allow members to receive information updates and progress reports on scenario reviews provide a fruitful alternative. This keeps the board informed, allows board members to perform their fiduciary duties, provides the opportunity for risk assessment, and educates board members for their follow-on governance responsibilities.

Investing in Board Members

Once these overall governance questions are resolved, the board can also focus on capacity building. This capacity building can be done in three ways: professional development for current board members, appointment of new members who already possess the required skills or experiences, or augmentation of the board with additional non-board members for special assignments.

Three senior AGB consultants will discuss these fundamental crisis governance issues during a webinar on Wednesday, May 20, from 12 to 1 PM ET. See the AGB website for additional details.


Joseph G. Burke, PhD, is a senior AGB fellow and consultant. He is the president emeritus of Keuka College in New York.

For additional information, see COVID-19 Resources on the AGB website.


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