Three warning signs that university leadership is on autopilot


Statue of Thomas Jefferson, University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. (ALAMY/ALAMY)
August 15, 2012

This piece is part of an On Leadership round table on rethinking university governance, in the wake of the U-Va. and Penn State crises.

The fall from grace of the boards of the University of Virginia and Pennsylvania State University are a wake-up call to the men and women who govern our nation’s colleges and universities. They’ve raised a public outcry and legitimate questions about how crises at two such highly regarded universities could ever happen. Who is in charge here? How could these boards have missed the potential governance train wrecks and public relations nightmares that lay ahead? And weren’t there red flags these trustees should have seen?

Indeed, there were.

Three clear warning signs could have helped to save these boards from the crises they endured: weak communication between the board and the president, and within the board itself; a lack of effective board training and development on good governance practices; and perhaps most important, the absence of a culture of evidence and inquiry that should be guiding the board at every turn. For those of us whose job it is to safeguard our colleges and universities from such damaging episodes, we would be wise to pay heed.

Boards delegate the job of running the university to the president and then hold him or her accountable. Thus, a healthy partnership grounded in open, honest communication must exist between the board and the president. But at Penn State, the president, in the words of the Freeh report, was someone who “discouraged discussion and dissent.” Some board members learned of the Sandusky arrest and staff indictments in the newspaper, and the president actively concealed information from the board—an unforgiveable breach of the board’s need to know and the president’s responsibility to disclose.

At U-Va., meanwhile, communication problems were apparent within the board itself. For instance, decisions that led to the president’s forced resignation were never discussed or endorsed by the full board. That scenario contradicts at least four best practices of effective boards, such as meeting acceptable standards of board-president communications, having full board participation in any major decision, being open and transparent in order to confer legitimacy on board actions, and considering the impact and reaction of the university community and the public relations consequences. It was a perfect case study of how not to fire a president. These glaring communication failures led to public outrage toward the U-Va. board. 

Another red flag occurs when board education and training are not actively encouraged or pursued. Good board members are made, not born. They do not know automatically what is expected of them, or necessarily understand the scope of their responsibilities. Even if Penn State’s board did have such training opportunities in place, they do not appear to have been very effective. If they had been, the board would have done more to exercise the oversight and reasonable inquiry responsibilities that the Freeh report flagged and that are so clearly outlined in its by-laws.

Boards may delegate administration and curriculum responsibilities, but they are on the hook for the overall well-being of their institutions. They should expect and prepare for the kind of crises and breakdowns that happen in any human institution. Knowing good governance practice from bad, and recognizing warning signs that lead to trouble, can spare boards grief and avoid heartbreaking damage to the institutions they serve.

The final red flag any trustee should be watching out for is a culture that avoids tough questions and does little to demand evidence. Board members, however obvious it may seem, do not always understand this imperative, or at least have the courage to practice it. Going hand-in-hand with such a culture are regular and systematic processes for monitoring and evaluating both the institution’s and the president’s performance. At Penn State, the president was a voting member of the board—an unusual practice at public institutions and one that can complicate effective evaluations. In addition, trustees complained that the president did not tell them what was going on. That’s not good enough. Their job was to ask questions, require answers and expect evidence. 

This is especially the case in American higher education, where governance responsibility lies with boards of citizen trustees rather than government agencies, as is the case in other countries. This unique approach is often credited, at least in part, with fostering a system of higher education that is the envy of the world. It is a winning model, when it works. Yet citizen trustees, who are not higher education experts, depend on the professionals to whom they delegate authority—the president and his or her administration—to assist the board. Trust in those leaders is crucial; blind trust is irresponsible.

And so we’re left with the question: Who is in charge here?

The president may be responsible for running the university, but the buck stops at the boardroom door. Board members may take pride in the honorary aspect of their position. But their fiduciary responsibility demands the exercise of good communication, effective training, and the courage to ask tough questions. Without these, they too could be headed for trouble.

Jill Derby is a governance consultant with the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities and a cultural anthropologist. She served 18 years on the Nevada Board of Regents, and was the board’s chair for three terms.

The full On Leadership round table on university trustees:

A bruising summer for governing boards

Drawing back the curtain on our deeply flawed trustee system

Three warning signs that university leadership is on autopilot

What we have here is failure to communicate

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