Boards and Vice Presidents

Bridging the Divide

By William A. Laramee    //    Volume 26,  Number 1   //    January/February 2018

Much has been written about shared governance in higher education, most often from the perspective of the interplay between the president and the board or that of the faculty and the board. Given the realities of demographic and economic pressures on many institutions—public and private—it is critical to maintain the appropriate balance of power between boards and institutional leaders, including both the president and senior administrators. As the 2017 “AGB Board of Directors’ Statement on Shared Governance” points out, “In higher education’s volatile environment, shared governance is essential. It adds substantial value to institutional progress and innovation. In fact, responsibility and accountability for addressing colleges’ and universities’ thorniest challenges often rest with multiple parties.”

A working relationship related to shared governance that has not received much attention is the one between the vice presidents/deans and the board. Interactions between the two are inevitable, and they carry risks that board members, in their fiduciary roles, must acknowledge. These include maintaining the distinction between fiduciary oversight and operational management, respecting the role of the chief executive who has responsibility for the senior team, and recognizing the appropriate roles of vice presidents in the organization. For trustees of public institutions, who might be inclined to see their appointments or elections as a mandate for change, the risks can be fraught with negative implications for effective governance.

For 40 years, I had the good fortune to be a vice president or dean. As vice president at Berea College, I had direct dealings with trustees; since my tenure as vice president of Berea College, I’ve had the privilege of serving as a trustee at Warren Wilson College. These experiences allowed me to sit on both sides of the table and reflect on the special relationship between vice presidents and trustees, how best to manage the flow of information and find the right balance in the power dynamics of those relationships, and ultimately make the best decisions for the institution.

All colleges, especially those with distinctive missions like Berea College and Warren Wilson College, benefit greatly from the extent their trustees:

  • are passionate about the institu- tion’s mission;
  • provide appropriate oversight and evaluation of the president;
  • help to establish policy and processes proposed by faculty, administrative governance, and/or recommended or required by board committees; and
  • donate funds as well as recruit others to donate.
  • At the same time, vice presidents play a critical role in:
  • helping to define the type of relationship between the board and the president;
  • clarifying positions or providing context for important issues;
  • shaping or framing the way issues of mutual interest should be handled;
  • providing staff support for trustee committees and often meeting with trustees before and during trustee meetings; and
  • advising individual trustees on strategic issues related to governance and leadership.

The ways in which these roles and responsibilities play out in practice require a tolerance for the natural ambiguities and power dynamics that arise in every working relationship. It is important that boards and senior leadership recognize them, and consciously work together in good faith to assure success.


From my experience, the working relationship between vice presidents and trustees has six major themes that relate to their respective and unique roles:

  1. The role of trustees in governance rather than management
  2. Trustee sensitivity to potential conflict in a vice president’s work with trustees, which requires balancing roles as college officer, campus leader, mediator, and messenger
  3. The extent to which trustees become involved in college life
  4. The importance of trustees being prepared for meetings
  5. The importance of effective and ongoing orientation for trustees aimed at an ever-deepening acquaintance with the institution, an understanding of the fiduciary responsibilities of the board and individual board members, and the challenges in an increasingly competitive environment
  6. The critical nature of the relationship between the president and board chair in setting goals and agreeing upon appropriate “rules of engagement” among the president, board chair (or committee chairs), and vice presidents

While these themes are consistent with best practices for trustees, vice presidents’ perspectives—and how they process these themes—are not widely understood.

Trustee overreach into operations can be consequential for trustees, presidents, and vice presidents. Potential points of contention include inviting people of a different political persuasion to speak on campus, elevating athletics to a level of importance that may be inconsistent with campus culture, or working to add majors without considering campus governance procedures.

Although trustees have a policy-making role, at times they recommend procedures that may conflict with institutional practices and then must be modified, often by vice presidents. Failing to distinguish global visioning or necessary policy setting from implementation can create some of the greatest tension between campus administrators and board leadership. This can be especially challenging in times of institutional financial stress. The antidote can be in collaborative strategic planning that helps to set the needed decision-making priorities and parameters and puts solutions in the right hands.

Vice presidents, who are often on the front line when implementation happens, will face the complexity of moving from general theory to specific cases. How and when, for example, is long-term strategy implemented? Such understanding and execution work best when trustees and vice presidents engage in a shared practice of inquiry and discernment so trustees have a full context upon which to ask the right questions, review applicable data points, and understand key metrics to evaluate the performance of the college.


Vice presidents are often in the middle of two powerful people, the president and the board chair (and/or their committee chair). This is less likely to be an issue when the president effectively collaborates with the chair on one hand and the vice presidents on the other. Even when such effective collaboration occurs, however, vice presidents may be directed in their operational work by one or more trustees in addition to the president, sometimes with competing agendas. The vice presidents are then left to sort out how to respond in a respectful and appropriate manner.

A more serious consequence develops when trustees become too prescriptive with operational goals or requirements and effectively become the vice president. Thus, they compromise the vice president’s effectiveness or complicate the life of the president by creating tensions between his or her need to be supportive of a vice president while being responsive to his or her “bosses.” Even the right people will not be effective if put in the wrong situation.

Clearly, trustees should be asking probing questions of vice presidents. Such questions can be useful in leading a vice president to frame an issue differently. For example, at Warren Wilson, board committees of development, audit, finance, and investment have been especially helpful by asking important questions on issues tied, in part, to the college’s debt capacity, endowment spending formula, discounting/ financial aid leveraging, and strategic planning. All of this has caused trustees and college officials to push hard on appropriate lines of authority and responsibility.

The fact is that when a trustee asks a question, people listen. So clarity about the kind of information sought and its possible role in any decision-making process is crucial. Best practices include vice presidents staffing trustee committees, attending trustee meetings, and being invited to speak on such occasions, thus reducing the chance of communication breakdowns. Such initiatives also make clear that there are respected forms of coordination and control that are essential to ensuring that vice presidents, the president, and trustees work together in achieving the ultimate goals of the college or university.


For vice presidents, trustee involvement in college life shows a genuine interest in the institution and develops a deeper and broader understanding of its current state. Students might enjoy seeing trustees at athletic events, faculty and community lectures, music and theater events, and awards banquets. In times of institutional stress, such encounters can provide a sense of security and convey messages of support that are not only of symbolic value, but also carry real instrumental value. The flip side, of course, is trustees being on campus without coordination with the administration and sending mixed messages about who is really in charge of an institution. This may be especially true when trustees live close by or are alumni.

Another best practice for board meetings is having a “core” topical program or an in-depth session on a strategic issue to provide direct contact with faculty, staff, and students. Other simple ways to include trustees in campus life are to arrange for them to join students in the dining hall for some of their luncheon times, sit in on classes, serve on honorary degree committees, and, of course, attend commencements. Any engagement, however, should not be disruptive or viewed with suspicion, and should be coordinated with the administration.


As vice president, I always appreciated trustees doing their homework and not coming to meetings being uninformed or surprised by issues. There is nothing worse than board members who look for problems because they are not prepared to offer solutions.

Vice presidents can support timely and substantial trustee engagement of issues by providing materials, data, campus studies, and higher education studies. Strong support of committees can encourage strategic agendas and meeting discussions. Another good way to help board members prepare for the decisions they will be asked to make is to send information and motions for all committees well in advance of meetings.

Working with vice presidents before regular meetings is a practical way for trustees to be most prepared. Committee chairs and vice presidents, in particular, should have informed conversations in advance, with agreement on committee-related agenda items and important institutional issues.

Trustees should also recognize that their perceived power can silence an open exchange when there is disagreement over policy or institutional matters. Vice presidents value a simple and respectful invitation to speak, knowing there may be a difference of opinion. Ultimately, this contributes to a clear sense of job enrichment and satisfaction by encouraging intellectual debates and alliances that lead to creative solutions.


Trustees need orientation and training for the work they are asked to do. Many come from the corporate world, which has a different culture from academia, so proper orientation is critically important. Administrators have a responsibility to deliver this assistance, and vice presidents often take on this role. An orientation:

  • allows vice presidents to explain in some detail the specifics of their work and to provide insight into key strategic issues the institution faces;
  • helps trustees to see where they can add most value in terms of committee assignment by helping each understand where his or her skills would fit best;
  • provides opportunities for trustees to exchange ideas with students, faculty, staff, and administrators;
  • serves to demystify “the trustees” on campus while fostering a trusting and healthy organizational environment; and
  • broadens trustee acquaintance with the realities of institutional life.

These outcomes promote a better understanding across the many lines of institutional governance. As a result, they lead to stronger communication, better informed committee assignments, and a more collaborative relationship between trustees and the campus as a whole.


At some colleges, trustees may tend to be too passive (i.e., “rubber stamps”) and for others, too interventionist. The ideal is for colleges to find the right balance, with members of campus-based leadership receiving appropriate guidance, authority, and responsibility to perform their assigned duties. If vice presidents, presidents, and trustees are to be effective, all must be affirmed for what they bring to the table. The success of one group largely depends upon the success of the other, and thoughtful collaboration benefits the college.

All colleges must maintain a substantial degree of transparency regarding workloads, issues, and pressure points. It’s also a given, however, that vice presidents have the least amount of “political currency” when in the company of trustees and the president and yet are often the agents who provide the necessary framework to hold institutions together in times of urgency. Clearly, vice presidents are part of a team that helps to define an institution’s direction, represent institutional core values, implement board policies, and cultivate effective and productive trustee relationships.

Trustees have a unique role, particularly in today’s volatile environment, to help frame important questions and establish the tone of debates, replenish an often overworked staff in word and deed, help to maintain balance in means and tactics, and serve as teachers in collective action to shape the overall character of the institution and challenge it to greatness. At the same time, they should always “sing the praises” of the institution in public settings while demonstrating an awareness of the realities of the institution.

No encounter with a trustee is too small to have an influence on vice presidents and other members of the administration and beyond. To quote Maya Angelou, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” This may oversimply the work of college officials, but the spirit of the quote is evident and worth carrying into each and every trustee meeting.

The more that vice presidents and trustees understand their critical alliance and how each group operates in a slightly different institutional orbit, the better the institution is served. Each body can have persuasive influence and leverage if its respective contributions are understood and respected.

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