By E. Gordon Gee
As chief executive at five universities—with five different governing schemes and prevailing philosophies—I have learned one overriding truth about university governing boards: They love you until they don’t.
Governing boards typically have power to appoint and to fire presidents and chancellors. Thus, these leaders spend their time trying to avoid the infamous trajectory of one notable university president who was hired with enthusiasm then fired with enthusiasm by the board nine years later.
Perhaps that is one reason higher education’s various shared governance models provoke ambivalence on our campuses. Most presidents, however, appreciate the value in governing boards, whose members are living links to the world beyond the ivory tower. In 2013, the Association of Governing Boards of College and Universities surveyed presidents and found that almost 80 percent were satisfied or very satisfied with their boards.
To work well with board members, presidents and chancellors must first understand their own roles. While atop the campus heap, they are accountable to many—students, alumni, donors, the public.
Board members represent the interests of those stakeholders. So, presidents and board members must engage the campus community and the general public in their work. On campus, a board can seem distant and mysterious. Giving campus stakeholders representation helps; at West Virginia University we have a student, two faculty members and a staff member on our Board of Governors.
We also bring board members together with faculty, staff and students at on-campus events so that they develop a common set of conversations.
The general public is most apt to notice boards when prominent people become members. If they see people of real merit and heft in these roles, rather than just a political agenda, it gives an institution more credibility.
Mechanisms for choosing board members vary. Most often, governors appoint them at public universities, although when I served at the University of Colorado, members were elected to the board. At private universities, presidents or governing councils may choose members. North Carolina is somewhat an exception, with its governing board appointed entirely by the Legislature.
The ideal board member is truly concerned about governance, rather than in adding a high-profile role to his or her resume. Successful alumni who devote time to serving on college and department visiting committees are among the best candidates. Public university presidents who have gained the confidence of state leaders can play an active role in recommending talented and engaged people.
A close relationship between the president and board members will help to ensure that their views align regarding the institution’s mission, goals and values. On the rare occasions when a board member impedes the university’s success and the board’s work, the president and other board members should seek consensus and act in alliance to resolve the problem, either by asking the problematic member to resign or by recommending his or her removal to the appropriate authority.
At all times, the board’s proper level of engagement should be a robust topic of conversation among members and university leadership.
In negotiating the delicate balance between president and board—between management and governance—a few principles have proved helpful over my four decades in leadership.
1. Put the skunk on the table.
Do not let problems fester. A study by Public Agenda found that university board members become frustrated when they hear spin instead of substance from campus leaders.
Or, in the colorful words of one trustee: “The staff likes to treat you like mushrooms: keep you in the dark and shovel you with manure.”
Candor is a better relationship-builder, even when the topics are uncomfortable. Clear the air and move on.
Communication is not just for crises, however. Presidents should regularly inform board members about what is happening on campus but also about their thoughts on general higher education trends.
At least monthly, I write a candid, confidential message to board members exploring everything from fighting the cancer of cynicism to fostering free speech among the so-called “woke” generation.
2. Excuses are for losers.
Excuses destroy organizations. Presidents should not accept them from their staff, and board members should not accept them from presidents.
To build a strong governance relationship, everyone must make the boardroom an excuse-free zone.
3. Avoid looking at the rearview mirror.
Too much backward gazing can only propel leaders off-course.
Presidents must not waste time pining for cozy, comfortable governance and policy solutions that their institutions have outgrown. Keeping leaders slightly off-balance may be a board’s most important role. Too often, comfort fosters complacency.
Board members and university leaders work together to shape direction of our universities, our culture and society. Whatever governance model we use, we must all come to the table with high ideals, sincerity and an unyielding impulse toward growth and betterment.
E. Gordon Gee is serving his second term as President of West Virginia University. He has previously led the University of Colorado, The Ohio State University (twice), Brown University, and Vanderbilt University.