Presidents and Chairs on Common Ground: Handling Flashpoints

By December 13, 2011 January 10th, 2019 Trusteeship Article

One of the first phone calls that a president should make when a challenging situation arises on campus is to the board chair. But a strong working relationship must be in place before dialing the number, and that foundation takes time to build.

In more than 12 years as Drake University’s president, David has worked with four successful board chairs. When one of our board members is appointed to a term as chair, he or she has already observed an effective chair in action. Having that experience has helped incoming chairs quickly feel comfortable having candid and open conversations with the president. In times of crisis, that can be the difference between meeting a challenge head on and falling behind.

That has certainly been the case with Don as chair. The two of us have also identified several key elements in our work together over the past three years that have helped us deal with public controversies and other challenges. Those elements are: personal rapport, a foundation in core values, rapid response, and clear lines of responsibility.

Personal Rapport

Key ingredients to a good working relationship are mutual respect and trust. A president should feel that there is nothing he or she can’t talk about with the board chair. Both leaders should want information shared honestly—it doesn’t help either side of this relationship, or the university, if a president tries to sugarcoat communications to the board chair. The board chair needs to hear what the president is grappling with, and the president can only be successful with direct feedback.

Frank conversations between a president and board chair should begin early in the board chair’s tenure—preferably when a trustee contemplates assuming that leadership role. In our case, we laid the groundwork for our relationship through extensive interaction well before Don’s 2009 appointment as chair of Drake’s board of trustees. As we discussed the possibility over an afternoon and dinner, we talked about what we saw as the major issues Drake would face in the next three years, what our expectations of each other might be, how we could work closely together, and how and when we would communicate. As a result, David is extremely comfortable presenting ideas to Don while they remain works in progress, requesting his feedback and perspective, which leads to fewer surprises for the board and allows it to provide crucial and timely input.

A Foundation in Core Values

We don’t have to look far for the framework for our approach to working together: Drake’s Statement of Principles is truly a constitutional document, and it guides our decision making in many different ways. The 800-word statement, which was adopted by the faculty senate 20 years ago, “encourages and protects diverse perspectives and the free flow of ideas.” This core value is one of the foundations of our work as a board, and it is particularly helpful during flashpoints.

One recent example of a collaborative approach grounded in the “Statement of Principles” was a campus visit in the spring of 2010 by members of the Westboro Baptist Church, a conservative group from Kansas whose members protest homosexuality by, among other things, demonstrating at military funerals. The church was planning to protest a symposium hosted by Drake’s law school that focused on the constitutional issues raised by same-sex marriage.

Westboro members contacted local police in advance of their visit, and the police in turn notified the university that the picketers were headed to campus. Soon thereafter, our students began planning counter-protests. It was time for the president and board chair to have a discussion about how we were going to handle this as a university.

David called Don about the Westboro protest and gave him all available details. We talked about the Statement of Principles and how it applied to the situation. However unpleasant the church’s placards and chants were going to be—and we had reason to believe they would be very unpleasant—it was quickly clear to us that Drake’s responsibility was to allow the Westboro contingent a space for its demonstration and to do our best to ensure that any campus response was consistent with our core values as an institution. David’s job would be to explain why.

The university issued a statement in which David emphasized Drake’s commitment to open and civil discourse, as codified in the Statement of Principles. The campus e-mail from David to faculty, staff, and students included the following words:

Our response as a university community to the WBC’s presence on Saturday morning must be consistent with our core values—it is likely that the WBC’s hateful words will be one of the most powerful tests of our commitment to freedom of speech and civil debate in your time at Drake University. Whatever you elect to do—and the manner in which you choose to do it—should reflect who we are, and what we believe in, as the Drake University community.

As the symposium approached, the two of us spoke almost daily. Our discussions about the Westboro protests were a reminder of Drake’s commitment to freedom of speech and civil discourse. And, as we had hoped would be the case, the campus response to the event made us proud. Our students handled the counter-protest with elegance and maturity. The Westboro folks were on campus, but their ugly signs took a back seat to the tolerance expressed by our students, who sang the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love” and waved signs with messages such as “Love Does Not Discriminate” and “Love Always Wins.” There were no arrests or other security problems. On that day, Drake University literally “lived” its Statement of Principles by allowing for debate in a productive and respectful manner.

Rapid Response

The best time for a university president and board chair to find out how well they work together is not when bloggers turn their attention to the campus. News coverage of controversial events moves fast, particularly on the Internet, and it doesn’t wait for the president to develop a polished presentation for the board.

We faced such a situation in the wake of a multifaceted student recruitment campaign that the university began in the summer of 2010. Our marketing and communications staff had engaged a consulting firm to create a campaign that differentiated Drake from the institutions with whom we competed in admissions. Drake Advantage explained to potential students that “Drake plus you equals something awesome.” The firm market-tested the campaign—which employed an edgy graphic featuring a large blue and white capital “D” next to a plus symbol to capture a younger demographic’s attention—among college-bound seniors. It tested extremely well. Bright high-school students enjoyed the playful irony of “D+.” Reports from high-school counselors and our admissions team on the road indicated that the target audience—high-school students and their parents—responded very well to the approach.

But it turned out that important campus and alumni constituencies thought that the campaign demeaned our university’s reputation for academic excellence, and some alumni worried that the campaign decreased the value of their degrees. It was vital that we respond appropriately—and quickly—to their concerns, which had been communicated in e-mails and telephone calls to the president.

Much of the controversy was fueled by a blog on the Web that misrepresented the campaign. That entry went viral, and we had reason to believe that many of the people who were upset by the campaign had not actually seen the campaign itself—just the blog’s screen shot of the D+ and some critical commentary. That suspicion notwithstanding, we had real issues to confront, and we had to deal with them in ways that reflected our commitment to transparency and responsiveness to those who care deeply about Drake University.

We scheduled a call, during which we discussed the campaign’s back-story and why faculty and young alumni were upset. Our ensuing conversation was about Drake’s response strategy. In particular, we discussed what the university was doing to communicate, via email, personal meetings, and telephone calls, with those closest to the institution—the campus community and alumni.

Perhaps more important was what wasn’t said during the phone call. Don didn’t ask why Drake went forward with the campaign without the board’s approval. (The board of trustees normally does not review admissions materials and did not anticipate a need for a heads-up in this instance.) And David wasn’t defensive about the campaign; instead, he acknowledged that it had some significant unintended fallout and that he and his colleagues were developing a strategy to manage it. He welcomed Don’s advice in doing so.

We discussed the Drake Advantage campaign several times after that first phone call, and followed up with a brief discussion with the full board at its next meeting. The campaign’s final results with the target audience were quite positive. Campus visits by prospective undergrads were up 11 percent while group visits were up nearly 20 percent. Applications also increased by 4 percent, with Drake exceeding 6,000 applications for the first time in the university’s history. That increase is part of a trend that has culminated in a 100-percent increase in applications over the past five years.

But while the Drake Advantage campaign appears to have had the admissions impact we wanted, we learned valuable lessons about collateral impact that will inform our decisions in the future. We will think more broadly about the implications of the university’s marketing efforts beyond the intended “core” audience, and we will pay more attention to ways in which content on the university’s Web site may be extracted and used to the university’s detriment.

Clear Lines of Responsibility

Drake’s presidency and board chairmanship come with well-documented job descriptions. But in many ways, those descriptions are just starting points. As we began working together more closely, we discussed our responsibilities in greater depth, talking about our view of shared governance and the board’s role.

Having a firm grasp of responsibilities is particularly important when coping with a campus crisis. Boards must share ownership with the administration of a strategy to address the problem at hand, but the board victim of an apparent embezzlement by a university employee. Our financial controls uncovered the issue, which we referred to law enforcement. As soon as David learned of the embezzlement, he called Don and the chair of the board’s audit committee. We spoke several times a day during this difficult episode, and they provided crucial guidance on handling the legal issues and how to best review our financial controls in response to the event.

All three of us understood our roles during those discussions, thanks in part to preparation. Our efforts focused on addressing next steps, without having to first define our individual responsibilities. Of equal importance was the unified public response of the president and the board to the crisis. All of our board members understood that the board’s role was to advise, but David’s role was to speak for the institution.

Board members are volunteers and don’t have unlimited amounts of time to devote to the university. But in many ways, these are sacred roles. Board members must have a commitment to an institution’s mission and a nuanced understanding of their own governance authority and responsibility. The board chair and his or her colleagues must be invested in the institution’s core values— in our case articulated in the Statement of Principles—to the same extent that everyone on campus is.

Being equipped with a shared guiding principle and an open approach to communication is a tremendous asset when a president needs to pick up the phone to call the board chair about a challenge. It can even help resolve the situation. But that phone call won’t be nearly as pleasant or productive if the president hasn’t already built a strong foundation with the board chair. As with any relationship, if it is based in mutual trust and respect, it stands a much greater chance of weathering the storm and being stronger when the next one hits.