Unprecedented Times Call for Courageous Decision-Making

By Carol A. Cartwright July 14, 2020 May 12th, 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.

The coronavirus has changed the relationship between boards and presidents. Recognizing the unprecedented issues and the urgent timelines that presidents are facing each day in dealing with the pandemic, many boards have said, “Do what you need to do. We have your back.” Boards can do that with confidence that they are fulfilling their fiduciary duties if they have established, in partnership with the president, a clear framework for making decisions. With clear expectations and regular communication, presidents can make the necessary decisions and maintain a “no surprises” commitment to their boards.

Some of the earliest decisions are about groups of students who return to campus before the majority of students, especially college athletes who are typically among the earliest to return for training. Decisions about bringing college athletes back to campus should not be made in isolation. Instead, they should be part of the larger decision process about returning all students, faculty, and staff. Maintaining the health and safety of everyone in the campus community is paramount and must prevail in making calls about reopening. Many regard decisions about athletics as being at the leading edge of what institutions will do in reopening campuses. But this is not just about athletics—it’s about the health and safety of everyone in the community.

Reopening decisions will likely shape institutional policies and structures long after the pandemic has ended. With boards’ fiduciary responsibilities at the heart of whether to reopen, it is essential that values guide these determinations. There’s no doubt that fans have a point of view and want the teams and competition to return in the fall, and there are also significant financial issues for presidents and boards to consider. Still, the imperative to prioritize the health and safety of everyone involved in athletics—athletes, coaches, staff, and administrators—must prevail.

The recent news that the Ivy League and Centennial Conference are suspending fall sports, and that Morehouse College and Case Western Reserve University will not participate in athletics as well, shows that higher education leaders are treating these issues with the seriousness that is warranted.

Decisions about athletics competition must be clearly in the hands of college and university presidents and boards. Others such as conference commissioners, athletics directors, and coaches have an important point of view and should be consulted. At the end of the day, it is the president, working in collaboration with the governing board and public health officials, who has the responsibility for making decisions that are in the best long-term interests of the institution.

As the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics recently stated, “The decisions college presidents face about reopening their institutions, much less their athletics programs, are among the most difficult and sensitive decisions they will face during their careers.” With that in mind, the Knight Commission recommends seven guidelines and considerations for making decisions about reopening intercollegiate athletics.

The guidelines emphasize that presidents, in concert with their boards, are the primary decision-makers—with guidance from medical experts and public health officials—in making determinations about reopening, delaying, or cancelling college sports for fall 2020. In addition, the guidelines underscore the priority to minimize health and safety risks for college athletes and staff as well as the campus community, rather than respond to financial considerations and pressures from fans.

This is more easily said than done. With the practical realities and pressures in mind, boards and presidents must focus on the educational missions of their institutions and take the long view of how to operate differently during this temporary emergency that will likely have a long-term impact. With a clear and unambiguous commitment to institutional mission and values, and with a fiduciary commitment to take the long-term view, boards and presidents can remain steadfast in their very complex and unprecedented decision-making and come to the best decisions for their institutions.

Carol A. Cartwright, Ph.D., is the president emeritus of Kent State University and Bowling Green State University, an AGB senior fellow, and a cochair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

Related Resources:

COVID-19 Resources
“AGB Board of Directors’ Statement on Governing Boards’ Responsibilities for Intercollegiate Athletics”

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