What Confidence Should Boards Give No-Confidence Votes?

By Terrence MacTaggart    //    Volume 20,  Number 6   //    November/December 2012

As boards and presidents are increasingly in the vanguard of change that disturbs the status quo, they may also find themselves the targets of expressions of concern, censure, and no confidence from faculty members who may be averse to a new order of things or to the manner of bringing it about. Since presidents or other chief executives are typically the object of choice and boards the intended audience, this article focuses on what boards should do when faculty members say they have lost faith in the president’s policies and style of leadership.

More intense economic and competitive pressures demand that presidents and boards lead change that itself often sparks faculty resistance and censure. Once described as “the nuclear option,” a no-confidence vote in the past all but ensured an early presidential departure. Today, by contrast, heat from the faculty senate may signal that the president is making the tough decisions that boards expect and institutions need if they are to prosper and, in some cases, survive. How should boards respond when they get wind of a negative vote in the offing or learn that one has taken place?

Of the 20 cases of no-confidence votes drawn upon for this article, three-quarters occurred within the last decade and half within the past five years; eight involved institutions within multi-campus systems with a system-wide board, while the rest involved institutional-specific boards; and 12 of the votes occurred in public institutions.

Institutional types ranging from elite research universities to regional comprehensives to public systems to independent institutions were included. Based on that sample, this article addresses three questions that every board should consider when the faculty formally withdraws support for the president:

  • What are the real factors driving faculty members to organize themselves to deliver a vote of no confidence?
  • What actions should the board take, and what missteps should it avoid, in the short run following a no-confidence ballot?
  • If resistance to a change agenda contributed to the vote, how should the board act to sustain or restore the change momentum?

The origins of a vote of no confidence are seldom as straightforward as participants allege. Consider this all-too-typical illustration of the complexities surrounding votes of no confidence:

Several trustees, as well as influential business and political leaders, believed the president was just the ticket to restore fiscal soundness and competitive edge to a beleaguered university. After three years on the job, he had reduced the structural deficit, reorganized five colleges down to three, and personally engaged in marketing efforts to enroll many more international students. Thus the trustees were taken aback when a solid majority of the tenured faculty voted no confidence in the president’s leadership. The document sent to the board and the news media cited the president’s failures to listen to faculty advice, provide adequate salary increases, or boost lagging enrollment. While hostility to the president had been festering for a time, his decision to accept the board’s offer of a $30,000 bonus triggered the vote.

Votes like this one usually elicit plenty of questions. Was the president really an effective change maker, as many outsiders believed, or had he merely convinced the board and the business community into thinking he was reversing the institution’s downward trajectory? Was the no-confidence vote a cynical tactic of obstinate academics averse to change who seized on the untimely bonus as a means to whip up colleagues who themselves hadn’t seen a raise in years? If the board issued a vote of confidence in the besieged president, would it quell the conflict or breed more controversy and distract from the change process? Would calling for an external review demonstrate the board’s fairness or undercut the president and amount to caving in to faculty hotheads?

Many people believed, rightly, that getting truthful answers to these questions and then acting upon them would determine the success of the university over the next several years.

Drivers of No-Confidence Votes

Based on the 20 cases reviewed for this article, there are three main inducements to these votes as well as two additional causes worth noting. To be sure, virtually all votes of no confidence are motivated by a mix of factors, although one in particular tends to dominate the narratives chronicling the president’s flaws. The task is to discern the difference between causes alleged by either the faculty or the president on the one hand and, on the other, what impartial observers and ultimately the board might conclude were really the drivers, such as:

  • Arrogance and failure to communicate. In nearly half the cases, faculty members objected most to a perceived failure to listen to their concerns or take them seriously, to a habit of issuing top-down edicts, and to what they viewed as an arrogant or dismissive attitude. Indeed, in many of the cases where faculty listed communications and attitude as the chief problem, others not directly involved in the conflict agreed that whatever virtues the president possessed, patience in conversing with faculty and accepting the inevitable academic criticism was not among them. In the famous case of the no-confidence vote in and subsequent resignation of Lawrence H. Summers, president of Harvard from 2001 to 2006, high-handedness and ill-considered observations about women’s ability to do hard science were among the chief points of contention. People who had worked with and liked summers agreed that he probably often considered himself the smartest guy in any room and wasn’t afraid to show it. Faculty members objected more to his style and opinions than his policies for changing the university.
  • Resistance to change. It comes as little surprise that painful change—reducing or reorganizing departments, laying off employees, cutting budgets, denying pay increases—often sparks faculty animosity. Disturbing the traditional teaching-learning equation—adding many adjunct teachers, developing online programs, shifting to pay for performance—frequently ignites a sense of outrage leading to votes of no confidence as well. In another, far less publicized situation in which the faculty complained about the president’s communication style and word choice, an external reviewer could find little basis for faculty critiques of a president’s attitude or communication style. The reviewer concluded that faculty members found it difficult to explicitly criticize the president’s strategic plan because they had participated in framing it. Lacking a substantive basis for objecting, they turned to an ad hominem critique of the president and his manner. The board backed this president, who continued to serve successfully.
  • Failure to pursue effective strategies or bring positive change. In a surprising number of cases, faculty used no-confidence votes to highlight flawed strategies and ineffective leaders, problems the board should have noticed much earlier. For example, a one-time all-women’s college suffered declining enrollments and shrinking budgets for years when a new president fell upon the strategy of opening a branch at a nearby ski resort. After witnessing hefty debt for a new building coupled with miniscule new enrollments to meet the debt payments, the faculty went to the board to signal the need for change. The board hired a new president who initiated a remarkable turnaround in the college’s fortunes.
  • Militant unions. Collective bargaining and a faculty union, particularly one with a militant history, markedly increase the likelihood of presidential censure. In more than half of the 20 cases reviewed for this article, union leaders played a major role in the no-confidence debate and vote. However, it would be a mistake to dismiss all union votes as negotiation by other means or retaliation for decisions such as retrenching members or holding the line on pay increases. In one unionized public university, for example, an external investigator found that the president, indeed, was an ineffective administrator who careened from one initiative to another without purpose or result. The faculty union called this one correctly. Yet when a union regularly issues no-confidence votes during contentious contract negotiations, an overly aggressive culture rather than presidential missteps is the likely cause.
  • Egregious or ill-timed actions. Excessive entertainment or travel expenditures, hefty bonuses, an expensive presidential home makeover, or even plagiarism may trigger a vote of no confidence by tapping into an existing reservoir of discontent, or they may be sufficient in themselves to spark faculty censure. No-confidence votes based in part on ethical lapses have triggered sanctions in an institution from accrediting bodies, as occurred recently in the Middle States region. Boards that grant, and presidents who accept, a significant bonus when faculty have gone without are asking for trouble. The same applies to a president doling out big pay hikes to senior staff. The argument that administrators deserved the raise begs the question: Didn’t hard-working faculty members deserve rewards as well?

A vote of no confidence is the most serious criticism of the president the faculty can launch, but there are often earlier warning signs that deserve board attention. Faculty unready or unwilling to deliver a no-confidence indictment may instead choose to censure the president over an action or policy without resorting to the so-called nuclear option. That gives both sides the opportunity to discuss the issue in an atmosphere that goes beyond concern but falls short of absolute lack of trust and confidence.

A delegation of faculty members may ask to meet with the chair, or the entire board, to express their concerns with presidential policies or behavior, or both. Such a group met with board members at a well-known East Coast university to express their distress with the institution’s commitment, under its president, to intensified civic engagement. After listening respectfully, the vice chair of the board responded that the board fully endorsed the policy of engagement and held great confidence in the president’s leadership, an action that put the matter to rest.

The faculty is well-advised to try less confrontational means—meetings with the president, followed by private meetings with the board or system head, or a letter of concern—before resorting to public announcements of lack of trust. After a very public vote of no confidence in a president who had been on the job only a few months, the instigators of the vote met with the system head to air their concerns. They were taken aback when the system head pushed them on how, after visibly excoriating the incumbent when new to the post, they expected to attract an able replacement.

Board Actions in the Short Run

In most instances, the board, acting through its chair, should express appropriate concern over the conflict and then appoint an outside reviewer to assess the situation through several days of confidential interviews.

Tempting as it may be to rush to the defense of a besieged president, the board should not move too quickly to voice an unqualified vote of confidence in the president, although positive comments about the president’s past performance and intentions are in order. One board immediately voted confidence in a president following faculty criticism, only to seek the president’s resignation a week later following evidence of moral turpitude. Nor should the board vilify the faculty in advance of getting the facts, although expressions of regret that the controversy hadn’t been addressed in a more collegial fashion are worth offering.

Bringing in an outside investigator may actually be the wrong move in some instances. For example, if the president has already undergone one or more recent evaluations, or the vote total represents only a small number of the faculty, or the motion fails to attract significant support, then a board inquiry short of a full outside evaluation is the better option.

If an outside review is pursued, it works best when the outsider surveys the whole institutional mosaic surrounding the vote but does not focus exclusively on the president’s performance, the attitudes of the faculty, or one single factor as the immediate cause. The realities of a no-confidence vote are always more complex than any one of the parties may allege; examining all the circumstances yields a more accurate picture for the board to rely upon. Focusing too much on the president implies that he or she is at fault when, in fact, factors beyond his or her control may be at work.

The ideal reviewer is a former president with years of experience in institutions akin to the one at issue. Someone who has worked directly for a board of trustees if the president reports to a board or in a system if the vote occurs at a system institution is a good choice. Most important, the reviewer should be known for fairness, impartiality, and the strength to tell the board what it needs to hear—especially if that message is discomforting.

The reviews themselves should be conducted largely as one-on-one confidential conversations. Interviewees should include the president, several trustees, faculty leaders involved on both sides of the vote, and student leaders, as well as alums and other friends of the institution in a position to comment firsthand on the situation. The reviewer should attempt to meet with senior and/or distinguished faculty members, as these individuals frequently offer a more dispassionate take on the president than colleagues with less experience.

The review itself serves two purposes. The first is to uncover both the facts and the human dynamics—the drivers—surrounding the vote, and the second is to develop conclusions for the board to consider. The board may ask the reviewer for advice on what actions it should take in light of the report. The appraisal typically presents the situation as understood by the faculty as well as a narrative from the president’s perspective. To those interpretations, the reviewer adds his best judgment of how the board should regard the events and what actions they should take.

Sustaining Change

The fundamental issue for the board is to determine if this president, all things considered, is able to exercise positive leadership into the future. The board’s focus must be on sustaining necessary change within the institution. Today that means successfully pursuing a change agenda that addresses the heady mix of fiscal and educational pressures that now afflict nearly all institutions. Current realities demand shifting resources within the institution, depriving or shutting down some programs while investing in others, and demanding better and quicker educational results—all of which threatens the status quo, fuels anxiety, and fosters votes of no confidence.

When the review following the vote reveals irredeemable weaknesses in the president’s policies, personality, or communication style, the board has little choice other than to arrange as graceful an exit as possible. If the review finds opposition to board-approved change is the key driver and the board believes the president continues to be the person to lead the institution, then it must support the executive and his or her policies.

Typically, the institutional scan will reveal one of three realities: The president is incapable of leading and must go; while imperfect, the executive remains the person to continue to advance the institution, although work needs to be done on communications with the academic community; or the negative vote sprang from opposition to the change agenda or other factors and is largely irrelevant to the board’s and the president’s work.

It may be that the board hired the wrong president or that a once-able leader is no longer the person to meet the demands of the job. Had the board conducted a comprehensive evaluation earlier and heeded the findings, trustees may have avoided the turmoil and embarrassment of a no-confidence vote from academic stakeholders. Some trustees may argue that removing a president amounts to caving in to the faculty, but the board’s responsibility for the welfare of the institution demands it find a graceful and timely exit for the president.

Experienced executives know that in varying degrees they are all “incomplete” leaders, to employ the useful term of Peter M. Senge, director of the Center for Organizational Learning at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and his colleagues. While executive DNA is largely fixed, a willing leader with some coaching can adjust, although not fundamentally alter, his leadership style. Members of the senior team can sometimes fill in the areas where the president is lacking. Presidents selected from nonacademic backgrounds must learn how to communicate effectively with faculty in an environment of shared governance. And veterans from within the academy sometimes need to renew their commitment to shared governance as well.

For executives willing and adroit enough to adjust their style of communicating with faculty, which always includes lessons in patience, the vote of no confidence need not spell the end of an effective working relationship. In our sample, nearly half of the presidents remained effective leaders for more than five years after the vote.

When Positive Change Itself Sparks the Vote

Sometimes in spite of all the well-meaning efforts to communicate and share the necessity of change, it is simply not possible to secure faculty concurrence, much less support. When faculty members find the change too dramatic or traumatic to accept, or they fundamentally disagree with the new directions, or union or senate politics come into play, the no-confidence vote that emerges often has more to do with objections to change than with the president’s ability. In those instances, the responsible board acknowledges the dissident viewpoints, encourages greater cooperation in the future, offers unequivocal support for the president, and continues to endorse the agenda it asked him or her to pursue.

No board or president welcomes a vote of no confidence. At the very least, this censure represents the inability of all players to unite around a common agenda for the institution. However, a vote of no confidence no longer inevitably signals a failed presidency or flawed agenda for change. Following a thoughtful and unbiased review of the dynamics leading up to the vote, a board may conclude that it was an unfortunate consequence of pursuing change—and that the president and his or her policies merit its continued strong support.

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