Getting on Board

How Presidents and Trustees Can Build Successful Strategies

By Scott D. Miller    //    Volume 25,  Number 3   //    May/June 2017

I’m fond of saying that nothing really prepares one for the college presidency except surviving to tell about it. You have to do the job to learn it. Until you take your seat behind the desk and realize just how many lives you are responsible for, no amount of studious preparation will be sufficient for that moment—and all the challenges that follow.

It’s equally true that a president’s trustees may have limited understanding of what a campus CEO goes through and the myriad daily challenges that typically are condensed into polished reports to the board members at their regular meetings.

Four presidencies in 26 years have given me perspective that I often share with others who aspire to the job. Although they will have to find their best path forward, as I did, I’m happy to recommend to them some quick strategies for success—and to share these steps with their trustees, who need to be trusting and supportive.

It is essential for boards and presidents to arrive at mutual understanding of the broad issues that confront higher education today, while devoting sufficient time and attention to the special financial, strategic, and cultural components that will influence the new administration and ongoing collaboration with trustees and other campus leaders. Appropriately working with the president, especially in the early days of an administration, can make the difference between a short, crisis-driven presidency and one of extended and measurable progress.


Ideally, the incoming president will have had frank discussions with his or her new boss— the chair of the board of trustees. Assuming the chair has been instrumental in recruiting the new president, is supportive of the educational philosophy, and has been reasonably honest about the institution’s open and not-so-open secrets—including board culture, strengths, and weaknesses—the CEO will have not only a strong understanding of the leadership potential of trustees, faculty, staff, alumni, and other stakeholders, but also the trust necessary to make the first, critical operational request: commissioning an institutional review.

With the president, the board chair should ask the trustees to commission an independent, in-depth evaluation of where the institution is, where it needs to go, and what planning and resources will be required to achieve goals. Even if a strategic planning process is already in place, the institutional review can provide valuable data and perspectives that will help direct and sustain the administration’s—and institution’s—activities and advanced planning for the first six to eight months. The process should include interviews with selected representatives of all constituent groups, including other trustees, top donors, alumni, faculty, staff, students, area business and opinion leaders, and others.

The advantage of the review is twofold. First, it provides an opportunity for those closest to the college to speak their minds to an objective third party (the review is best directed by an experienced president or other seasoned administrator familiar with the most compelling types of issues faced by a campus). Second, the review offers a working action plan for maximizing the college’s opportunities and addressing its deficiencies. Board-commissioned and president-endorsed, the review distills the various voices of institutional stakeholders into a ranking of priority recommendations.

New presidents find the institutional review useful for making and enforcing decisions that may prove controversial while establishing an authentic action agenda based on research and consensus. Because everyone will watch everything the president does in the early weeks, a working plan and as much practical knowledge about the institution as can be gathered are essential. From the trustees’ perspective, the review can be a valuable starting point for supporting the president’s vision for the institution.

Trustees should be forthcoming— before the president is appointed, as well as after— in serving the new CEO’s need to know. Although the institutional review will address many of these concerns, there can still be surprises. An example is the operating budget; not everything the president needs to know is on the spreadsheets. Are there hidden costs or expenditures, financial obligations not readily apparent, or out-the-door presidential deals made by one’s predecessor with favored employees?

Meanwhile, the president needs to find out what strategic planning, if any, is in place and how the institutional review can build upon it; how the enrollment and advancement operations function; how the budgeting process works; who the faculty opinion leaders are; and what perceptions of the college are held by alumni, friends, community leaders, parents, and others. Trustees can add helpful perspective on these and other topics—including and especially board culture, inner workings, and existing concerns. The effective president will devote some well-spent time early on to listening to them as well as other key stakeholders’ ideas, aspirations, and historical perspectives.

Key transitional staff can acquaint the president with campus organizational structure and traditions, recommend community connections to make, and provide briefings on operational priorities. It’s helpful to appoint a transition team of fewer than 10 people to help navigate the institution’s business practices and traditions, which can also be useful in assessing talent among faculty, staff, and students. This working group, with specific objectives and a defined timeline, should be supportive of the president’s plans and needs while offering sound advice on campus politics, culture, and sensitivities.

The same is true of trustees, though largely from a broader, community-based perspective as well as from an understanding of the unique role they often play in institutional success. Effective trustees will know who the local heavy hitters are, what appropriate introductions should be arranged for the president, and where future board leadership can be recruited.

Typically, the board chair and board members who served on the search committee are responsible for orienting the president to the current board structure, politics, and history. Armed with this information, and working from a position of trust with board leadership, the president should have a free hand in exploring the future composition of the body. The president can bring fresh perspective on honoring emeritus members, reactivating lapsed but desirable trustees, re-engaging influential alumni, and transitioning ineffective members off the board. Again, mutual trust is vital in holding the president accountable while collaborating with him or her to recruit trustees who share a progressive vision.


The minefields for a new president can be deadly, as we know. One of the worst is not having a clear understanding with the board chair of respective roles. The roles of trustees and their presidents have been divulged, discussed, and documented at length. Fundamental to the entire relationship is the level of trust between the board chair and the president.

It’s more than a matter of collegiality and mutual comfort. The most effective partnerships derive from a shared vision of the institution’s possibilities, understanding of its strategic position in the enrollment marketplace, appreciation of its fundraising potential, and commitment to its sustainability and growth. Trust between chair and president is vital—a president must be equally comfortable reporting bad news as sharing the latest successes. If trust is there, the entire presidency won’t unravel on a bad day. The chair and the board should stand behind the president, especially at a time of crisis.

Equally important, the board chair—day to day—should know when to stay out of the way. CEOs have operational responsibility for everyone under their supervision and care. The educational delivery system—and everything that goes with it—is the president’s concern and the basis on which the board will evaluate the CEO. From bathrooms and bookstores to instructional innovation and social inclusiveness, the president owns it all.

Adherence to mission and accountability of the president are the province of the trustees. They are responsible for policy, not policing. No president likes a board chair who shows up on campus to quiz staff about “how things are going” when the president is away fundraising. Such a situation indicates a lack of trust and a failed understanding of who is in charge of what. It also puts administrative staff in the awkward position of having to address questions they may not be qualified or at liberty to answer.

Trust leads to positive outcomes and opportunities to manage board time and talent effectively. Working from an agreedupon agenda, the president and trustee leaders can accomplish much in executive committee meetings held between regular convening of the full board. Conference calls, working lunches, and email updates from the president’s office can enhance communication and foster a businesslike partnership that results from an established, though flexible, agenda.

In addition, regular executive sessions of the board—with and without the president— to candidly discuss concerns, rumors, and expectations can be an effective method for staying aligned.

Such an agenda is primarily the working responsibility and prerogative of the president and the trustees. Although faculty and student representatives may be present at full business meetings of the board—and it’s important to showcase their talents with the trustees—I have not been inclined to recommend the appointments of such ambassadors to seats as regular board members. Perspective is always welcome, but the issues that compel effective and timely governance at colleges and universities today are best addressed in board committees and the mutually agreeable partnership of president, senior administrative staff, and trustees in the regular business meetings.


The old saying “it’s lonely at the top” applies to the college presidency—except that the president is not exactly at the top of everything. Given institutional traditions of shared governance, academic freedom, and on-campus constituent representation, not to mention that a presidency can be pulled in multiple directions by external stakeholders such as alumni, parent councils, legislators, and major donors, the presidency is more orchestration than autocracy. This is as it should be in a collegial community, but it takes its toll. The energy required to negotiate and navigate—to weigh each step and strategic decision—is substantial. Trustees sometimes complain that presidential presentations at the quarterly board meetings are a little too polished, even slick. The reality is that presidents and their staffs labor long and hard to make their work look accomplished, if not effortless.

Meanwhile, the president is the only cast member who is on duty 24/7. Even the most high-energy external relations staff members know when to call it a day. The president has no such luxury. Especially early in one’s term, he or she is expected to attend every faculty meeting, concert, game, art exhibit, and awards ceremony— and often to preside over them. Every major crisis requires presidential response and/or commentary. Although the temptation may be for a new president to be less visible on campus and more high-profile at Rotary clubs and chambers of commerce, this living persona of the institution has a duty to keep the internal audience informed, engaged, and energized with his or her presence, even if symbolic. My friend and colleague Dr. James Fisher, former president of Towson University and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), warns against missing funerals of importance to the campus community, for example. I’ve learned that he’s right, but also that I should develop a “flyby” strategy for campus events—dropping by for a few minutes here before moving on to the next activity there.

All of this means that trustees should respect the president’s time, attention, and obligations, and the prerogatives that are the president’s alone. Although every effective president will respond to trustees’ ideas and concerns, it’s helpful for board members to remember that presidents already must attend to a vast array of communications, procedures, and protocols. And they must reserve time and energy for big initiatives that are in the best interest of all.

Such is the complexity of the modern college or university presidency, in which no potentially harmful detail or exposure can be ignored, and every large, potentially beneficial initiative must be fully evaluated in advance. The board chair and his or her fellow trustees do well to respect not only the boundaries of their service but also the myriad responsibilities of the presidents they hold accountable.

In addressing these requirements, a practice I’ve employed that has earned board endorsement and appreciation—as well as the trust and interest of major donors—is retaining an experienced, semi-retired former college president for special projects and initiatives. Such individuals, selectively chosen and given parameters for their roles and responsibilities, can contribute much to the evolution of a new administration.

The advantages are numerous. A veteran president will understand implicitly the needs and frustrations of the office, and most likely will need minimal direction in framing discussions, envisioning initiatives, and implementing goal-driven projects. He or she will honor the confidentiality and special requirements of the presidency while serving as a versatile, mobile advisor, administrator, and communicator—and a valued extra set of critical eyes to matters ranging from institutional finance and personnel to innovative programming and outreach. The wealth of knowledge, experience, and perspective that such a person will bring to virtually any assignment will ensure that unusual or even high-risk undertakings will have a greater chance of success.

Consider one such individual, a friend and colleague whom I’ve known throughout my presidencies, and the senior-level skill sets he has contributed to myriad special projects. A veteran president of 25 years, he has served valuably as an interim senior administrator when needed in academic affairs and advancement. He capably and confidentially conducted a campaign feasibility study, evaluating donors’ interest and potential, and furnished needed research and guidance in the early phases of a $60 million major-gifts campaign, now nearing its goal. His knowledge of international education proved important in forging new global study partnerships with institutions overseas; he frequently traveled around the world to explore such collaboration while gaining on-the-ground insight into the special challenges presented by each country and its universities.

At a prior institution where he served many years as president, he developed an honors college, complete with a mission statement, funding and enrollment strategies, and the curriculum for a select cohort of top students. As he explained to our trustees the institutional advantages of launching an honors college, his enthusiasm for the concept attracted the interest and funding commitment of a top donor and trustee emerita at my latest institution, where we are enrolling the first cohort of honors fellows and scholars to our own honors college named for that major donor and her late husband.

Importantly, my colleague’s integrity and credibility have served us well in developing trusteeship and trust. I have found that the veteran corporate and education leaders who constitute my boards of trustees respect the voice of a seasoned administrator who is wise in the ways of higher education and the business community, perceptive and persuasive, clear and credible in communication, and committed to achieving the kinds of larger goals that are often transformational at a college. Securing the services of this special presidential operative and envoy can pay dividends for years—as a trusted counselor to the president, and as a bonus gift of experience and counsel to the board.


High-profile failures of boards and of presidencies that make the news—likely prompted by scandal or controversy—tend to obscure the many strong and productive partnerships that trustees and their CEOs share at institutions large and small, both famous and little known. After 26 years as a president, I find that I’m still learning about the dynamics that arise between president and board, the professional and volunteer sectors that all institutions need for success. Most of the time, the relationship is just that—successful. It is enormously satisfying to showcase at board meetings the students and faculty who have done their institutions proud in scholarship, research, service learning, the arts, or athletics. Trustees have great respect for such achievements.

Also gratifying is hearing from board members and their networks about the admiration they have for a president’s performance and their praise for progress. The wise president also gives credit where credit is due to trustee leadership.

The toughest moments come when trust breaks down or institutional failures undermine the foundation of mutual support. If the president and board have forged a solid partnership of respect and reliance, the relationship can survive, even prosper. That’s why I’m a strong believer in gaining a solid start—from the institutional review and agreed-upon next steps in planning and promoting a common vision, to board orientation and training (including clear definitions of everyone’s respective roles), to standards and metrics for presidential evaluation and compensation. Building a productive working relationship with the president and his or her administration should be mutually satisfying, respectful, and reinvigorating. Managing and leading higher education is difficult enough in our time with those key tenets of trusteeship. It is impossible without them.

Underlying all successful colleges and universities are presidents and campus teams that excel, empowering the entire educational community to honor and promote the institutional mission. Standing with them in positions of authority, yes, but authority deriving from the root syllable of their name, are the trustees, partnering and pioneering with their presidents.

The AGB Institute: Developing Robust Partnerships
By Doug Orr

In the midst of what is considered a uniquely challenging higher education environment, the partnership of the college/university president and board chair has become preeminent. As boards have made notable efforts to be more engaged and interactive, that partnership has taken on new meaning. Certainly the role of the board chair has become more demanding and complex.

Since 1985, AGB has hosted the Institute for Board Chairs and Presidents of Independent Colleges and Universities. The meeting, held twice each year, allows presidents and chairs to come together as teams for an opportunity to build and enhance their working relationship in the context of today’s academic governance demands.

The Institutes generally draw 16 to 20 chair-president teams. The beginning of a chair term, and hence a new partnership with the president, is a particularly relevant time for teams to attend. During my 15-year tenure as president of Warren Wilson College, I attended the AGB Institute with three different board chairs at the start of their chairmanships. All were dedicated and capable individuals, yet they had very different personalities. The meeting proved immensely useful in launching our leadership partnership.

The format of the Institute is shaped around three features. First, selected AGB materials are provided for use during the two days and beyond: a notebook of materials tabbed by theme areas, selected articles from Trusteeship related to the themes, and AGB publications on topics ranging from governance to assessment. Second, the setting allows chairs to interact with each other, discuss common areas of concern, and share ideas. Finally, and particularly significant, the team breakout sessions provide an opportunity for the chairs and presidents to have in-depth dialogue, drawing upon best practices discussed in the larger sessions. They establish a basic understanding of their working relationship, discuss a shared vision, and develop action plans.

The program topics are covered through a combination of best practice presentations, interactive discussion by all participants, and smaller group discussions over a range of timely issues facing governing boards today: the overarching megatrends confronting independent higher education; board, chair, and president responsibilities; characteristics of an effective board; risk and the governing board; building and shaping a board; board and presidential assessment; effective board meetings; best use of committees; the board’s role in fundraising; and the board’s role in strategic planning. Through the team breakout sessions, each topic is translated into action plans with a stated action, timetable, and responsible party. —Doug Orr is AGB governance consultant, AGB Institute co-teacher, and Warren Wilson College president emeritus.

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