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?
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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.