The Board Chair: A Vital Bridge and Buffer

By Jill Derby    //    Volume 28,  Number 4   //    July/August 2020

The term “bridge and buffer” has been used to characterize the role of higher education governing boards standing between the wider public and the colleges and universities they serve. A “bridge” to external communities in terms of advocacy and outreach; a “buffer” from external intrusion into the affairs of the institutions they serve. This same metaphor could well apply to the role of the board chair. Being the chair of a governing board for a college or university is among the most challenging roles in higher education.

The U.S. system of board governance for its colleges and universities has never faced the kinds of challenges it is facing today. Public skepticism about the enterprise with its pricing and admission practices is at an all-time high. Technological advances have brought disruptive change to traditional ways of doing business, long established business models no longer apply, and highly publicized controversies have brought questions about accountability into the forefront. Declining enrollment numbers are an existential threat in some quarters.

College and university boards have traditionally operated in the background rather than in the spotlight. Presidents have long been the public face of colleges and universities. The inner workings of higher education institutions, among the nations most esteemed enterprises, were rarely questioned by a trusting public. Recently, however, the landscape has changed, and boards are faced with a new, less predictable environment to navigate if they are to protect and advance the institutions they serve as fiduciaries.

Boards are not charged with running the institutions they govern; they hire presidents with the appropriate background and skill sets for that purpose. That role distinction, however, is not always clearly defined or smoothly carried out. The role of the chair in understanding and navigating the challenges inherent in this governing model that entails two lanes of authority—the policy and over-sight domain of boards and the management role of president—is critical. Being the bridge that connects the lanes and the buffer that keeps them separate is a significant leadership challenge of the board chair. At stake is developing the sense of partnership and common cause between the board and president, which provides for optimal governance and institutional success.

The challenge the board chair faces in successfully steering a course that takes advantage of the strengths of a dual lane system of authority, and mitigates its potential pitfalls, is best expressed in the words of former AGB President Rick Legon: “Governance is a team sport, but boards are mostly composed of quarterbacks.”

Board members, whether appointed or elected, are commonly distinguished members of the larger community who have served in leadership roles in other capacities. Few “shrinking violets” end up serving as college and university trustees. Of great advantage to the institutions they serve, they bring networks of connection to the wider community and an array of backgrounds and experience that provide a rich source of diverse thinking to policy deliberations. Equally important, they can offer informed and thoughtful advice to the president. Successful presidents appreciate the expertise trustees can offer. A strength the governance system provides is the collective thinking that leads to well-vetted decision outcomes.

Boards on the other hand, not experts in running academic institutions, go astray if they fail to respect the professional expertise, recommendations, and insider knowledge of the president. It is a strong and effective partnership when it works well; key to it working well is the role of the board chair as a bridge and buffer in the relationship.

Governing boards elect their leadership on a regular cycle. Lack of effective leadership can limit the opportunity that effective governance provides and cause stress both internally and externally to the institution. Employing best practices in selecting board leadership makes a critical difference in board performance. Four strengths stand out as important skills and competencies in guiding that selection process: communication, collegiality, consensus building, and counseling.

Communication: For board chairs being an effective spokesperson for the board to all stakeholders, articulating board concerns to the president, and conveying presidential concerns to board members are all relevant capacities. The relationship between the president and the board is central to the smooth functioning of an institution, its progress, reputation, and success. A sense of partnership is vital, and the role of the board chair in facilitating that spirit of alignment is key.

Many of the highly publicized leadership failures in the last decade in higher education, from Penn State’s football scandal, the University of Virginia’s presidential crisis, and the current admissions scandals, have at their core a failure of communication. Boards are charged with holding presidents accountable for institutional performance and developments. When communication between the administrative leadership and the board falls short and crisis strikes, governing boards are not held harmless. The board chair is a critical link in that relationship; trust and open communication are vital to its effectiveness. Both chairs and presidents benefit from investing time in cultivating a strong sense of partnership.

Other communication challenges apply to effective board functioning. Good communication between the board chair and fellow trustees is essential for building a sense of cohesion and trust among them. Ensuring that agendas serve the communication needs of trustees and that they receive the information they need for policy deliberations and oversight responsibilities are also part of the communication responsibilities of the chair.

Collegiality: The term derives from the root word, “college,” and refers to the relationship among peers. The board chair, who is considered a “first among equals,” has no coercive authority or power over board colleagues. That is where skilled leadership becomes important. The ability to build and nurture good relationships among colleagues, and to support efforts that build affinity and collegiality among board members, can be a strong factor in high-performing boards. Contentious and divisive issues are inevitably part of the landscape boards navigate and can easily divide trustees into heated factions under this pressure. Bridging these divides through active listening and maintaining a reputation of fairness in presiding over discussions, can help de-escalate tensions. Boards that have developed bonds of affinity among members, have better ties of connectedness to sustain a sense of collegiality, through divisive issues. Board decisions are made through voting. Persuading the losing side of divided votes to accept the majority decision is not an easy proposition but is facilitated by a chair’s reputation for evenhandedness and good relationships with colleagues, reinforced and cultivated over time. The tendency to villainize those who hold opposing views—a human tendency—best not be modeled by an effective board chair.

New board member orientation and board education can be key factors in developing a sense of common purpose and collegiality among trustees. While some leadership roles are clearly outlined and easily understood, the role of a university or college board member is less clearly defined. Trustees, newly sworn in, rarely arrive with a clear sense of the role they have assumed and the responsibilities that apply. The board chair’s commitment to their smooth transition, orientation to role specifics, and sense of welcome to a team of colleagues can advance the sense of board cohesion and affinity.

Consensus builder: Representatives from the public square bring diverse backgrounds from other sectors. While that diversity of perspectives is valuable in policy deliberations, it does not automatically meld into a common resolve. Successful presidents and board chairs find ways of acknowledging contributions of varying perspectives, and guiding discussions into pathways of growing consensus. Those who have full opportunity to express their own views are often more conciliatory towards opposing perspectives. A board chair’s skill at presiding over meetings is among the most important leadership roles he or she plays. Boards should highlight that skill in the leaders they choose, particularly in the public sector, where board meetings take place in the open. Allowing all board members to have the opportunity to speak, while avoiding redundancy or allowing a few voices to dominate, is central to effective presiding. Everyone in attendance at board meetings appreciates a board chair’s ability to manage agendas efficiently. Inclusive participation, time management, and encouragement toward emerging consensus can provide welcome leadership to lengthy deliberations.

Counselor: The role of board chair as counselor to the president can function as a critical bridge supporting a healthy board-president relationship. In more turbulent times, it can also provide a buffer for presidents from unfounded rumors that can emerge in campus environments. Chairs can provide information and background that enhances a president’s ongoing understanding of board dynamics, personalities, and relationships among its members. Presidents who have the 24/7 time demands of running institutions, benefit from the bridge the chair provides, keeping the president apprised of trustee concerns and dynamics. A board chair who maintains good communication channels with fellow trustees can be helpful to presidents in augmenting understanding between presidents and their boards. The ability to maintain confidentiality is a critical capacity in this key relationship.

In summary, board elections of their leadership often have greater consequences than are initially foreseen. Careful consideration of the leadership strengths of potential candidates can turn out to be among the most consequential decisions a board makes. Simple rotation of the chairmanship, as some boards practice, does not guarantee optimal leadership. Assessing how candidates under considerations have comported themselves in the past can be a good indicator of how they will serve in leadership. Having the respect of colleagues is also vital in the selection of a board chair. Of utmost importance in board leadership, modeling appropriate behavior and best practices is central to the role of an effective board chair. Leaders set the tone in how meetings are conducted and the expectation of comportment for those involved. Difficult issues will continue to confront boards in these challenging times. Those that have elected individuals who are up to the challenges of effective leadership and the bridging and buffering demands it requires, will be best positioned to weather whatever governance uncertainties may lie ahead.

Jill Derby, PhD, is currently the board chair of the American University of Iraq in Kurdistan. She served on the Nevada Board of Regents from 1988 and 2006, including three terms as board chair.

Takeaways

  • Higher education governing boards have been described as the “bridge” to external communities and the “buffer” from external interference with the affairs of their institutions. This same metaphor of bridge and buffer applies to the role of a board chair as well. The chair must navigate the two lanes of authority, the board and the president. The board and the president must share a sense of partnership and common cause to effectively work together.
  • The landscape of higher education has changed. These changes include an increasing mistrust in higher education, declining enrollment numbers, technological advances, and highly publicized controversies. With these changes, university and college boards have been brought into the public eye.
  • Choosing good board leadership is key to good board performance. The four strengths that guide this selection process are communication, collegiality, consensus building, and counseling. Board chairs must be effective spokespersons, have the ability to build and nurture good relationships with their colleagues, have the skill of finding consensus among varying opinions, and be able to act as a counselor to the president. Having all of these traits in a board chair will result in an effective leader for governing boards.
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