Presidential Assessment in Trying Times

By Terrence MacTaggart July 1, 2020 July 2nd, 2020 Blog Post
Blog Post

This excerpt is adapted from Assessing and Developing College and University Presidents: An Enterprise Leadership Approacha forthcoming book from AGB Publications.

The job of the higher education president has become more challenging, the environment more complex and dynamic, and expectations for the exercise of leadership greater. The financial and market headwinds confronting most colleges and universities today create more stress for their leaders. The result has been higher turnover and greater difficulty for governing boards in finding and keeping the best presidents for the times.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath underscore the heightened challenges facing today’s college and university leaders. Crisis management and leadership skills have become essential parts of the president’s repertoire and are being tested almost daily under the current conditions. Ironically, these same challenges can pave the way for enterprising leaders to excel. The opportunity to build stronger, more resilient, and more competitive institutions has seldom been greater.

This begs the question what’s the best way to evaluate presidential performance under these trying circumstances with a sensitivity to these myriad challenges these leaders face, and with an eye toward enhancing the success of campus leaders?

A Fresh Approach to Presidential Assessment

Presidential assessment and development underpin the most important work of boards and presidents: strengthening the academic enterprise in today’s environment. The COVID-19 pandemic and now the civil unrest over policing and race amplify the need to incorporate crisis leadership within presidential assessment and underscore the critical importance of leadership development as a component (and outcome) of this process.

Performance evaluation and leadership development in the business world today combine “the best of the traditional performance management process” with “new thinking and ideas.”[i] College and university leadership assessment needs a similar synthesis of the traditional and the new. But the “new” is not recommended for the sake of novelty. Today’s challenges call for agile, relevant, and continuous evaluation and development strategies. New techniques should be integrated with those traditional approaches that still make sense in this new environment. Both the newer approaches and time-tested ones can be customized to match the competitive realities surrounding any particular institution.

The assessment models I am recommending are fresh in that they strongly emphasize:

  • Presidents as leaders of the total enterprise who must be more engaged in the business side of their institutions than in more stable times;
  • Greater personal participation by the executive in his or her evaluation and in developing leadership capability going forward;
  • Future performance in a challenging and uncertain environment, viewing past performance primarily as a guide to future potential;
  • A less stressful process that not only engages the president more in the retrospective assessment but also concentrates more prospectively on problem solving and leadership growth;
  • Deeper knowledge in such areas as technology applied to learning and operations, metrics and other measures of institutional performance, the importance of brand and rankings, talent development within the enterprise, and strategies for improving student success;
  • Timely feedback that addresses the 24/7 nature of the job and communications cycle today and seizes the opportunity for learning from experience;
  • Matching assessment and follow-on development plans to distinct institutional missions, competitive market position, strategic directions, and aspirations; and
  • A highly collaborative relationship between the president and the board, elsewhere defined as “integral leadership.”[ii]

The integrated approach rests on the idea that an able president coupled with an adroit and engaged board presents an optimal leadership combination. A board beset with an ineffective president can do little beyond electing its own officers and committee members. A superior president with a passive, unengaged board can do a lot to advance the institution but courts the dangers that come with unchecked power. By contrast, a highly competent president working with a capable, engaged board represents a model of “integral leadership,” which is a powerful force for positive change. Integral leadership, which is characterized by mutual respect, shared goals, and the ability to converse honestly with one another though unbiased assessment, is the exemplary process envisioned here.

A Focused Assessment

When your institution has reached a crucial turning point featuring both risk and major impact, consider a timely external assessment to shed light on the context and the consequences of the available options. Presidential performance in a specific set of circumstances lends itself to this kind of focused assessment, for instance, a vote of no confidence, campus protests, financial problems, or other disconcerting public incidents. These reviews are designed to assist boards and presidents at these critical turning points in the life of the institution and/or in presidential careers.

Focused assessments—whether called investigations, reviews, inquiries, or fact-finding missions—can be crucial to boards and presidents seeking a path forward when faced with important choices under conditions of uncertainty.

Checklist for Focused Assessments

Adhering to these criteria will help ensure an appropriately focused assessment:

  • Clear expectations shared by the board and if appropriate the president regarding the purpose and the process of the assessment;
  • Selection of a consultant or consultants having verified experience with the issue at hand, without real or apparent conflicts of interest, who are known to be impartial, and with credentials to support their credibility;
  • Commitment to confidentiality to the extent allowed by state law in the case of public institutions;
  • Access to all or most of the individuals relevant to the issue at hand;
  • Access to all relevant documents and communications; and
  • A written scope of work in a contract.

Listen to the advice of trusted insiders, but also consider the advantages of engaging an experienced outsider who can bring unbiased, fresh perspective to the assessment, especially if a scandal damages the reputation of the president and the board. In such cases an external assessment will be viewed as more credible than an internal review. The best candidates for conducting the focused assessment have served as a chief executive at a similar institution, faced similar situations, and hold a reputation for integrity and fairness. If the focus of the assessment involves the president’s integrity or behavior, boards must remain dispassionate and objective no matter how much they may like the president personally.

Learn more and reach us for a Presidential Assessment here.

Terrence “Terry” MacTaggart, PhD is an AGB senior fellow and consultant. His consulting and research focus on higher education leadership and policy, strategic planning, board development, shared governance, and leadership evaluation.  He has held the chancellor’s position at the Minnesota State University System and on two occasions at the University of Maine System. When you’re ready to embark on a presidential assessment, contact AGB Consulting for our experts to help at consulting@agb.org. Also, if you want to learn more about new assessment models, join us for a complimentary webinar on July 30.


 

  1. HBR Guide to Performance Management, Harvard University Press, 2017, p. vi.
  2. Gerald L. Baliles, “The Leadership Imperative.” Trusteeship, September/October 2006, pp. 8-12.

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

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