As a trustee of Rollins College for 29 years, chairing the board more than a decade ago, and now re-seated as the current chair, I have experienced the array of relationships and issues that develop and benefit—and in some cases, impair—trustee-faculty relations.
First, most trustees come from business or corporate backgrounds. From the premise of tenure, to the egalitarian style of most faculties, the academic approach to college governance is foreign and counter-intuitive to our experiences. A good president and administration are essential in reducing and/or eliminating this cultural divide. This process is not one that occurs overnight, or even over a few years, but one that requires constant attention to the way a college “works” as well as the responsibility for trustees to have a meaningful relationship with the faculty.
The second key element for trustees to embrace, and respect completely, is the importance of the faculty to a college or university. It is easy to focus on the typical “corporate governance” model and not fully appreciate the critical role the faculty plays in the mission of the college and the success of its students.
All this is of even greater import during a time of stress in the relationship between the governing board and the faculty. A few years ago, Rollins found itself in an uncomfortable position when a decision the president made, with the full support of the board, alienated the faculty and led to a vote of no confidence in the president. From the board’s perspective, this action was unwarranted. The faculty, however, felt strongly that that decision posed a threat to the institution, and it was this threat, along with the process by which the decision was made, that precipitated the vote of the faculty.
How was the board to restore equilibrium? Under the guidance of a proactive board chair, our trustees engaged the faculty on multiple levels, seeking to interact directly, and with sincerity, with all factions. The board not only needed to confirm and communicate its ultimate responsibility for governance of the college, but also create an open dialog about the board’s intention in this matter. More important, we needed to demonstrate that the board was not inaccessible to the faculty, and our trustees were open to hearing their concerns. The board began a series of meetings with groups of the faculty, including informal late-Friday afternoon gatherings, where two to four trustees attended only to listen, offering some comments at the conclusion of the meetings.
This process humanized the board with the faculty, and by establishing direct communication, dispelled misconceptions and misinformation that had developed—on both sides. During this 15-month process, trustees met 16 times with various faculty members or groups in constructive dialog about the board’s vision for the college. In all of those meetings, we listened, engaged, and respected the faculty’s opinion and approach for moving the college forward.
This dialog has continued with a new administration, underscored by the new president’s introduction of a practice from his prior institution, where a group of five trustees and five members of the faculty leadership meet prior to each board meeting, without the president in attendance, followed by a trustee debriefing with the president. At first, this seemed like a potentially risky undertaking, but these meetings have only strengthened the relationship and trust between the board and the faculty.
First, and most critical, the board must recognize the delicate balance of the interaction with the faculty. It must be clear to both sides that this dialog will not undermine or overstep a trustee’s role in governance. We do not interfere in the work of the president and administration. Second, do not be afraid of “shared governance.” Too often, trustees meet only three or four times a year, with limited contact with the faculty, which can lead to misconceptions that may become reality without some form of open communication. Work with your president to find a way to have constructive interaction with the faculty, while staying “between the lines.” And if needed, gently nudge your president to foster this approach. It has worked wonderfully at Rollins College. How many board members get invited to the faculty holiday party? Ours are…