After watching the public downfall of a number of presidential colleagues nationally, I believe presidents and their board members must engage in a conversation about how to manage conflicting expectations from constituents. Often, it feels like a delicate—and perhaps dangerous—dance as we balance creating the change a system head or board wants to make without making ourselves vulnerable on campus, and meeting timelines for the change campus constituents demand with (or without) the support of a boss/board for the expected transformations.
Whether building a new campus, receiving designation as a Hispanic Serving Institution, keeping our promise to remain an open-access campus, scaling programs to keep up with exponential growth and employer demand, or having tough conversations about diversity and inclusion, it is imperative that institutional leaders achieve balance through careful planning, direct communication, and appropriate delegation to cabinet members.
Ultimately, the best way to preempt a crisis is through a strong partnership between senior leaders and their boss or boards. Now in my 21st year as a university president and 13th year leading California State University San Marcos (CSUSM), I’ve learned four important lessons that apply to those presidents who want to, and need to, stay in office long enough to make a lasting difference, and to the bosses/boards who empower them to stay.
A president must be willing to make difficult decisions and to listen. As presidents, we don’t have all of the answers, but we must be able to make tough decisions and set into motion processes that support our institutional mission and students. Not everyone will agree with the decisions, but they will be more likely to accept the change if they feel they’ve been heard and they understand the reason for the action. Thus, listening to multiple campus constituencies, balancing process with decision making, and hearing feedback— whether positive or negative—are key.
A president must never be blindsided by her team, nor blindside her boss or her board. Every president wants to be viewed as competent and informed, especially by those to whom she is accountable. The best way to solidify that standing is to provide timely updates to the boss/board and share enough detail so they have faith in your leadership through good times and bad, understand the vulnerabilities your institution faces, and know those weaknesses are being addressed with a path forward. An appropriate level of board engagement, even in crisis, is a sign that a president is trusted and doing her job well.
The role of the president is to be a planmaker, to serve as an adviser to her bosses or board, and to be served by her advisers. A great leader is called on by her boss/board to share ambitious strategies and vision, and is trusted to implement bold solutions because she has built an even greater team behind her to bring the plan to fruition. The role of that team is to make those solutions a reality while advising the president, who in turn holds the team accountable. It is important to communicate with the boss/board and the campus when meeting goals—and it is especially important when you don’t.
To weather difficult times and create lasting institutional change, a president must leave her ego at the door. I am a social worker by professional background and have brought the values of the social work profession into my position as president. Presidential goals and roles are to facilitate change, make the institution stronger, set paths, and hold all accountable for their work. If a president focuses on what is in the best interest of students, the campus, and the community, then she will engender support for her leadership from the boss/board in times both easy and tough.
Over the course of my career, the portfolio of a university president has become broader, more complex, and more politically charged, but the fundamental approaches for success remain the same. A president must communicate broadly, show she is trustworthy and true to her word, and make the success of the institution her focus—and the board must support her and backstop her each step of the way.