What Keeps You up at Night?

Council Insights: Council of Presidents

By Carol A. Cartwright July 20, 2022 March 29th, 2024 Blog Post, Council of Presidents
Innovate and Thrive

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

Sooner or later, most college and university presidents are asked about their worst fears—what keeps them up at night or wakes them with anxious thoughts in the middle of the night. Boards might ask this question to become better informed about the most serious issues and challenges facing their institutions. Presidents might ask it of themselves as they grapple with how to engage their governing boards in discussions about “difficult-to-discuss” topics. Sometimes, boards are reluctant to even ask the questions because they don’t want to deal with controversial or especially challenging issues.

“What keeps you up at night?” may not be the right question. It focuses on the “what” without consideration of the “why” and the “how.” Better questions might be: “Why are institutions tying themselves in knots trying to address a particular topic?” or “Why is this topic worth the board’s time?” or “How can presidents work with their boards to engage in deep and productive discussions about the most consequential topics?”

Four Steps to Direct the Board’s Attention: Find, Frame, Focus, and Facilitate

Recently, AGB’s Council of Presidents addressed the issue of working with their boards to deal with challenges and controversial subjects. Our conversation was robust and included deep insights as well as practical tips because we had the benefit of Harvard Emeritus Professor Richard Chait’s participation. He introduced the discussion with suggestions for building a framework to help boards get above the specific issues and think about the underlying principles and strategies. Professor Chait recommended that we consider four ways to direct the board’s attention to the issues at the appropriate policy level. They are: find, frame, focus, and facilitate.

Step 1: Identify What Matters Most

In Professor Chait’s words, “The urgent should not eclipse the important.” By this he means that boards need to identify (find) what matters most and then build annual work plans for their committees and their board around these topics. AGB has long advocated for annual work plans in which the work of the board and its committees is laid out carefully for the entire year. Using this approach, all members can see how the work of the committees intersects with the work of the board, and they can also see how the discussions build on each other from meeting to meeting toward solving problems and making consequential decisions.

Of course, having annual plans doesn’t ensure that what is in them is appropriate. Boards should constantly ask whether they are addressing the right topics. Effective boards ask themselves if they are adding value and truly meeting their obligations as fiduciaries.

AGB’s publication An Anatomy of Good Board Governance in Higher Education recommends consideration of an essential board attribute in this area: focusing on the big picture and taking the long view. The publication makes the important point that boards must think about issues from a higher altitude because the “higher altitude produces a longer horizon” and this corresponds to the board’s fiduciary duty to preserve and enhance the institutional assets for future generations.

In my experience, the institution’s strategic plan should be the touchstone and boards should strive to develop annual work plans that are well aligned with the institution’s strategic priorities. Using this approach, presidents are more likely to help the boards focus on what truly matters, especially for the future of the institution.

Step 2: Frame the Problem

Professor Chait’s second suggestion is to work with the board to frame the problem before moving to discussions of solving the problem. He notes that board members can sometimes deal with controversial issues such as name changes by reviewing the issue within their more comfortable corporate context. For example, instead of asking about changing the name of a campus building, the discussion might begin by asking how organizations outside of higher education dealt with brand names such as Aunt Jemima or the Cleveland Indians. This places the discussion in a more familiar context and may provide an appropriate pathway to entertain the complex and controversial campus issues that boards may have tried to shy away from.

I’ve seen this approach work. In my governance work with boards, I’ve found that boards become more comfortable talking about shared governance—a subject they often find perplexing—if the initial discussion focuses on how they might manage a problem within their own business organization. They quickly realize that they don’t solve most problems in the CEO’s office or directly with the board of directors. Instead, they ask the division in the company with the expertise to provide recommendations.

That is essentially what we do in higher education. We ask the experts—the faculty—about solving issues and challenges in areas such as academic program development, academic standards, criteria for membership in the faculty, and so forth, because they are the experts and their advice matters. Framed this way, shared governance makes more sense to board members. There’s more to shared governance than this idea, but I have found that it helps boards get comfortable with the topic because they have a familiar context.

Using familiar territory such as examples from the for-profit sector to frame an issue is helpful. Even more helpful, however, is relying on a presidential viewpoint about how to frame an issue. For example, a president who chooses to start a discussion by describing an institution’s response to suicide will get a very different board response from a president who frames the issue in terms of how the institution is working to build best-in-class mental health and wellness programs. The key is to think about how to open the door in a way that achieves the most impactful dialogue.

Step 3: Focus on the Big Picture

Moving on to the third component of the framework, Professor Chait suggests that boards should understand that important issues rarely lend themselves to one discussion. It is important for the board to understand how to focus over time and give significant issues some sustained attention.

His advice in this area really resonated with the Council of Presidents when he recommended that boards consider decision criteria in general before applying those criteria to a specific topic. This approach has the benefit of putting board members on the same page when they deliberate. Absent a discussion of decision standards, board members come at decisions with different perspectives—different yardsticks—and this makes decision-making more difficult in the moment, and it makes it more difficult to evaluate outcomes over time.

Step 4: Facilitate a Meaningful Discussion

Finally, the fourth recommendation from Professor Chait is to facilitate discussions with an approach somewhat like flipped classrooms. In other words, rather than posing questions to the board, he focused on how to elicit questions from the board. This approach changes the dynamic from asking if the board has questions because that implies that the president has answers, to having the president pose questions to the board, which suggests that they have valuable insights. The underlying principle here is to engage rather than manage by casting the board in the role of a think tank.

Threaded throughout the Council of Presidents’ conversation was the important role of the board chair and the partnership between the president and the board chair in encouraging and leading the board to engage in difficult discussions.

When the partnership is strong and there is a culture of mutual respect and trust, presidents and board chairs work together to determine how to bring controversial issues to the board. They can pose questions beyond “What keeps you up at night?” Working together, they can ask “Why is this topic important to the future of our institution?” and “How can the board advise and support the president in thinking through these issues?” The Council of Presidents discussion concluded with a strong sense that knowing how to build the framework for productive dialogue by the board is essential for success.

Carol A Cartwright, PhD, is an AGB senior fellow, a senior consultant, and the ambassador to AGB’s Council of Presidents.

With thanks to AGB Mission Partner AIG for their support of this council.