Wanted: A President with a Compelling Vision

By Robert Alexander    //    Volume 21,  Number 4   //    July/August 2013

Selecting the right president is the most important thing a board must do. But, as E.B. Wilson noted in a 2005 Trusteeship article, close behind is the need for board members to insist that the board and the president agree on a strategic vision, “the glue that holds together the system of governance. Without it, the work of the board is disconnected, lacks forward thrust, and drifts from the trivial to the innocuous.” Or, in the words of Joseph S. Johnston and James P. Ferrare in A Complete Guide to Presidential Search for Universities and Colleges (AGB Press, 2013), “More than other leaders, a president comes to personify an institution and shape its future.”

The ability of candidates for a college presidency to clearly and convincingly articulate an institutional vision is a trait highly valued by board members and presidential-selection committees. As volunteers, board members need to feel that their time and affiliation with the institution serve a fulfilling purpose and that the institution’s new leader will make positive change. Trustees also realize the importance of a compelling vision in attracting new donors, faculty members, staff members, and students, and also in re-energizing existing ones.

For a research project on presidential transitions, I interviewed board members, new presidents, and other administrators at six private institutions over several months in 2011 and 2012. Each of the new presidents had been hired within the previous three years and has successfully worked with their boards to author a new vision and get their institution on track.

At one East Coast college, board members lauded their new president because she could “articulate a clear vision for the institution, and make a compelling case for prospective students, faculty, and donors.” The new president’s vision aims to elevate the academic reputation of the college, requiring increasing financial and infrastructure investments. According to the president herself: “Currently, the reputation of the college is fine, but in fact the college is better than fine. … We should be known as one of the premier liberal arts colleges in the country.” She described the importance of increased fundraising efforts to compensate for an endowment that had stagnated while peers’ have surged ahead.

Board members reported a newfound understanding of the challenges facing their college, because the new president provided context and articulated what achieving her vision would require from the board: both participative governance and renewed commitment to fundraising. The board chair observed that the new president “knows where she wants to go, and got the board excited to figure out how to get there.” The new president’s vision is a stretch, but not an impossibility, and she has articulated it in a way that is passionate, believable, and authentic.

Establishing a Candidate’s Nascent Vision

During a presidential search, board members indicated they were excited most by those candidates who provided at least some semblance of a compelling vision for the future of the institution—and for the board’s role in shaping that future. Trustees want a new president who can help the board adapt, modernize, and maximize its use to the institution. I found that through presidential guidance and increased opportunities to educate themselves, board members want to be empowered to help the president chart the course ahead.

The best presidential candidates made an impression on the boards early in their candidacies by shifting conversation away from their own past personal experiences and qualifications and toward their vision for the institution, gleaned from a thorough understanding of the institution’s history and current challenges in the context of the larger landscape of higher education. For example, in selecting a new president at a college in western New England, the search committee said one candidate stood out from the rest: “She really knew her stuff and had an absolute belief in where she wanted to go—a vision for the future. … No one came more prepared in knowledge about [this institution], and she was focused on our potential.”

Careful preparation can allow a successful candidate to begin leading the board in strategic conversations during the interview phase. For the candidates, being well-informed allows them to focus their interviews on the institution’s strengths and weaknesses, rather than boasting about themselves and their past accomplishments. Often, the most successful candidates begin to demonstrate their competence during the interview process by asserting themselves as leaders and sketching a basic framework for their vision to improve the institution.

In the cases I studied, careful reflection, often facilitated by search firms or consultants, enables presidential candidates and board members to begin to address several questions key to shaping an institutional vision: Where do we want to move this institution? What strategies will enable us to get there? How will we know when we reach our destination? Are changes to the board part of this ideal vision?

Board-level Change to Aid the New Vision

At a mid-Atlantic college, a new president took over the post from a chief executive who had been more caretaker than innovator, and after one year on the job, the new president’s enthusiasm and ideas have energized the campus. He described arriving at a stagnant institution, financially afloat but aimlessly adrift, without any particular course-heading. As president, he has worked with his board to make some quick moves to reinvigorate the board itself as a first step toward moving the institution forward—revamping new-trustee orientation, pushing board reports to an online dashboard, and fostering substantive, generative discussions instead of the “dog and pony shows” of the past.

The way the board functioned had not changed much since the 1950s. As one administrator remarked, “The board had no vision, and no healthy tension to stimulate the discussion to generate visionary thinking.” The new president envisioned a slow cultural change of the board, drawing board members into a more engaged role through intentional educational sessions at each board meeting. The president said, “I was surprised how many people on the board didn’t know a lot about the college. They loved it, they had a passion for the place, but they didn’t understand the business of the college. Things I would have considered to be Higher Ed 101 seemed to be revelations to the board.”

In the words of one vice president, “The board had no vision—they needed the new president to help bring them together to establish one.” So far, the new president is pleased with the board’s progress toward thinking and acting more strategically, saying, “Now, we talk and debate in a way that has not happened before. We talk through the agenda and get into deep and spirited discussions.” As a result, new board committees, including one on trusteeship and another on strategic planning, have been established, and the length and frequency of board meetings have been reviewed.

Now that board members receive dashboard reports rather than have to sit through lengthy verbal updates in every committee, schedules were adjusted to increase the time that trustees spend in substantive meetings. The new president also moved his presentation to be the first item on the agenda at each board meeting. The board chair sees an intentional strategy behind the change: “Prior presidents spoke at the end of the meetings, but by being first out of the gate, he’s not recapping what happened, he’s sharing his vision and asking us to help figure out how to get there.” The framework of a vision from the president, coupled with constructive criticism from the board, has enabled campus leaders to vet strategies that have successfully differentiated the college and reinvigorate enrollment and fundraising—both of which have increased.

University of North Florida: Transformation through Aspiration

As one of 11 public institutions in the state University System of Florida, the University of North Florida (UNF) is neither a research powerhouse like the University of Florida in Gainesville, nor a niche liberal arts institution like the New College in Sarasota. Founded in 1972 and located in Jacksonville, UNF sought to distinguish itself over a decade ago with a new president and board chair who facilitated the university’s transformation from a commuter institution into one that offers a national-quality education for the price of a regional state college.

President John A. Delaney came to UNF 10 years ago as a well-known entity, but not an academic. A former prosecutor and popular mayor of Jacksonville, Delaney described UNF when he took the reins as “about to be loaded into the cannon.” The board had been asking the question of “what’s next,” he said, and had settled on four goals: quality, accountability, excellence, and relevance to the region.

Using a tactic he’d employed in the state attorney’s office, Delaney began taking his leadership team on visits to peer institutions, using metrics to compare UNF to what it aspired to be. About three years ago, he said, the board started asking to get in on these visits. They look at everything: library spending, SAT scores, salaries, diversity, the percentage of students living on campus, and more. “I’ve gotten more out of these visits than I have out of any conference I’ve attended,” said Delaney, who noted that the administrations at the institutions they’ve visited have been “surprised, but gracious and generous.” The visits have been so beneficial, he wonders why other institutions don’t do the same thing.

Board Chair R. Bruce Taylor, who joined the UNF board when Delaney was being hired but who did not serve on the search committee, is in his eighth year as chair. “We’ve come a long way in 10 years,” he said. After Delaney’s hiring, he and the board began to imagine what the university could be. “Forget about all the constraints,” Taylor said they told themselves. “What do we want to do? What do we want to be? What is our vision? We’ve got to establish our core values. They will guide every decision as we move forward.”

UNF has added a number of programs to its curriculum in the last decade, notably Transformational Learning Opportunities, which include study abroad, undergraduate research, art performances, and service learning, among other things more typically associated with a private institution. They’ve also designated six “Flagship Programs” based on UNF’s core competencies in areas that cover regionally important topics: music, nutrition and dietetics, coastal biology, international business, nursing, and transportation and logistics.

“We are sneaking up on Harvard,” Delaney said, only partly in jest, “one program at a time.”

—Julie Bourbon, AGB

The Board’s Role in a New Vision

While the new presidents I interviewed worked quickly to lay out their vision for their institution’s future, they didn’t act alone. The presidents whom I studied built reciprocal relationships with their boards, each leveraging the expertise of the other. As they transition into office, new presidents can learn much from board members, who are likely to be well informed on the attitudes of the community and the alumni as well as the institution’s history. New presidents need help from their boards to gauge various constituencies’ receptivity to particular new ideas. Conversely, the board looks to the president as the expert on academe writ large. Board members want the president to provide context on contemporary higher education issues and the implications of those issues for the future of the institution.

In my research, the new president and board chair at a liberal arts college in the Midwest explained how they formed a collaborative partnership in their approach to institutional leadership after the president was hired. They described how important it was for the chair and the president to have mutual confidence in one another. Said the president, “I need to know that the board chair is competent about the board—how it functions formally and informally and who’s thinking what. The chair needs to know that the president is competent about higher education and can use that context to set a vision for the institution.”

While aspiring presidents can begin developing their vision when still candidates, once in office, they can fine-tune it with input from the board, as well as faculty and others on the campus. I asked my interview subjects, “Who leads change within the board?” In the cases I studied, it was the new president leading change, with the board’s support. Often, the board chair admitted that change was needed in the way the board approached its work, but the chair was unsure what specifically to do and how to do it, and the president, as an ex officio member of the board, provided the necessary guidance.

Typically, the new president introduced new strategies, and sometimes he or she charged new staff members (a board secretary or other vice president or cabinet member) with implementing changes that the board members had long requested. But, in one instance, a new president found the existing board chair was reluctant to embrace change to the board itself, and the president had to wait nearly two years for a new chair to be named. At that point, long-awaited changes were implemented in the board’s membership to refresh its ranks.

In some cases, not all board members agreed with the vision set out by the president, especially if that vision included modifying existing board structures like establishing term limits or annual minimum financial contributions. Successful new presidents worked to engender broad support from a majority of board members to ensure that if dissent emerged, it was from only a small minority of board members. If a few trustees left the board during the period following the new president’s arrival, their departure allowed room for new members who were better aligned with the president and the new institutional vision. By working with their board chairs, and in some cases establishing a governance committee when none had existed, new presidents began to build their own boards, filling gaps in members’ skills, backgrounds, giving capacity, or other desired characteristics.

Once the vision has been articulated, the successful new presidents whom I studied relied on the help and leadership of the board to generate and allocate resources to implement their joint vision. New presidents need boards with diverse sets of skills and perspectives, as well as trustees who can provide such financial support. Institutions that find themselves in trouble, either financially or managerially, often lay at least partial blame on insular thinking and static board membership. For boards that have gone to sleep at the wheel, it can take a willing president and board chair to wake them up by adding new members and infusing new practices into board operations. One president I studied intentionally added trustees with complementary attributes: Some had financial wealth and investment expertise, while others had long careers in higher education but little giving potential.

Board members working with a new president should plan to dedicate significant time and energy to building a strong relationship with him or her. Board retreats focused on developing a vision, setting goals, and defining metrics for institutional key performance indicators can produce tangible results in the form of revised plans, goals, and strategies, but also can be important for their less tangible outcomes: The president and trustees get to know one another and forge comfortable working relationships. The presidents and board chairs I interviewed who attended multi-day governance workshops remarked on the powerfully positive effects of spending focused time away from daily distractions. Both trustees and presidents who attended such workshops agreed that the informal time spent getting to know one another and discussing visions for the institution seemed just as rewarding as material presented to them during formal sessions.

Three Missteps to Avoid

Many a new college president has stumbled when it comes to developing and implementing an institutional vision, usually when he or she makes one of three missteps:

1. Insisting on a new vision when the institution really needs leadership in other areas. For example, a fine American public university let its incumbent president go following a series of financial, athletic, and ethical scandals. The new president and his board needed to restore confidence with tough-minded policy changes and vigorous communications. Proclaiming a new vision in this situation would be somewhere down the list of priorities.

2. Seeking sole authorship for the vision, thus never gaining traction with the faculty, the board, alumni, or, in some cases, all three. A vision statement which captures the special genius of the place, its fundamental identity, will confirm its most cherished values. It should suggest why the college or university is so important to society at large as well as to students, their parents, donors, and others. Not easy to do. The best way to uncover the genius of the place, especially for a new president not yet familiar with the terrain, is to listen—to the faculty and staff, the students, and especially board members. If the new president is expected to lead change (and which one isn’t?), the change agenda will enjoy more support if the fresh vision emerges from conversations rather than springs from on high.

3. At the other extreme, turning the visioning process over to the faculty, the board, or, worse yet, a consultant. The message in this case will be that the president lacked the talent or interest to provide leadership for this important work.

—Terrence MacTaggart, author of Leading Change: How Boards and Presidents Build Exceptional Academic Institutions and former chancellor of the University of Maine System

A Visionary Partnership

A new president’s distinct vantage point can illuminate the best and worst aspects of an institution, helping the board gain a fresh perspective. My interviews made it clear that when the presidential search process works well, the board and new president can sense in each other, and in the institution, an untapped potential that can be unleashed under the right leadership. Thus, many successful new presidents embark on their maiden voyages by acting as visionary leaders even before their first day in office, refining and articulating an institutional vision as they prepare to take charge. Once in office, they educate themselves and their boards about best practices for governance and use trustee retreats, informal social engagements, topical presentation sessions, and regular board meetings to foster a culture in which the board works as a cohesive unit. Governance scholar Barbara Taylor describes the relationship between a president and board as a symbiotic exchange of reciprocal authority, neither side functioning fully without the other. The board must support and empower the president’s leadership, and the president must respect and engage the board in developing a shared vision for the institution.

As outlined in The Leadership Imperative (AGB, 2006), successful new presidents and their boards demonstrate AGB’s philosophy of integral leadership—an approach in which “a president exerts a presence that is purposeful and consultative, deliberative yet decisive, and capable of course corrections as new challenges emerge.” This approach aligns “a well-functioning partnership purposefully devoted to a well-defined, broadly affirmed, institutional vision.” When presidents and trustees fulfill their respective functions simultaneously, a new president can partner with his or her board to scan the horizon and set a course toward good governance and institutional success.

University of New Haven: A Bold Vision for Survival

In 2004, the University of New Haven was suffering from a number of ills, including deferred maintenance caused by budget constraints, a dearth of student amenities, and no cohesive identity outside the region, where we were known primarily for our highly regarded criminal justice, fire safety, and forensic science programs. Enrollment was dangerously low: just over 2,000 full-time undergraduates, far below the 4,000 needed to sustain a comprehensive university with a very small endowment. It was a moment for bold action.

The board was looking for a leader with a new vision for UNH, and that is what I brought. I don’t believe in collective vision—it usually ends up in a document on a shelf somewhere. That said, I worked my first year to listen to faculty and other key groups about what they thought needed to be done at UNH and to get buy-in from them. We also brought in some new board members who were more amenable to change. The only roadblock we faced was financial—we lacked resources. So how did the board and I work with faculty and other constituencies to make the vision a reality?

  • We made the most of what we already had. UNH had a solid reputation in business and engineering, with a track record of producing highly successful entrepreneurs and corporate leaders. We invested considerable resources into both of these colleges.
  • We buttressed our brand. Taking stock of our historical strength in providing practical, experienced-based education, we more aggressively integrated opportunities in study abroad, service-learning, faculty-mentored research, and internships. Soon our brand of “experiential education” became a key recruitment and retention tool.
  • We pursued transformational gifts. In my first year, we obtained a naming gift for the engineering college and began the cultivation of a similar gift for the College of Business. We also doubled our debt load to $40 million, promising to match anything borrowed with private gifts within the next few years. The strategy worked. We averaged about $6 million annually in gifts the following five years, and a little over $10 million a year since then.
  • We built and renovated facilities for students, including a new residence hall and a student activities and career-development center. And we expanded student life activities—student organizations grew from 45 to 153—and brought back a Division II football program previously eliminated due to budget constraints.

Two major outcomes resulted. First, enrollment has increased by well over 50 percent in the last five years, including significantly more out-of-staters. Second, fundraising has grown dramatically. We routinely see seven-figure gifts from alumni, board members, and corporate leaders who are energized by our recent resurgence.

We have accomplished much in a short time, and during an economic downturn, because we carried out a bold and daring vision when prudence might have suggested a more gradual approach. The lessons we learned hold implications for all private colleges facing dwindling enrollments, shifting demographics, and an uncertain global economy. It’s dangerous not to take risks. It’s also dangerous to grow too comfortable once you’ve made positive changes. If it’s not broke, you should start thinking about what you’re going to do next. In other words, it may be time for a new vision.

—Steven H. Kaplan, president of the University of New Haven