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This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

“The care and feeding of a college president” (speech: WA State Trustees Association)

“Taking Charge of Change: Focus on Leadership” conference
Washington State Trustees Association of Community Colleges
May 17, 1985

John Coleman, President of Haverford College in Philadelphia, in his book, Blue Collar Journal: A College President’s Sabbatical, relates the following incident:

“On one of my first days at Haverford, an alumnus who loved the college very much took me out for a drink and for an expression of his hopes for my term. He talked at some length about why Haverford meant so much to him.
‘But what do you expect of me?’ I asked at last. ‘Excellence.’

His word keeps coming back. More than once in a time of decision, I have asked myself what an excellent solution would look like. Occasionally at the end of the day I have even walked home past the grove of trees back of Barclay Hall and asked myself, ‘Was I excellent today?’ The answer is irrelevant; it’s the question that matters.”

It seems to me that story captures the essence of the obligation of a Board of Trustees towards a college President – That of creating and sustaining a working environment that enables the president to continually ask, and answer, that question, “Was I excellent today?”, in the managing of this institution.

The only environment in which that question can be asked and answered in a sane and deliberative manner for the entire institution, composed as it is of its varied and competing factions, is an environment of protection and support from a group trusted equals – the Board of Trustees. And, parenthetically, the chief trusted equal must be the Board Chairman for that person and that person alone, presumptively, has the collective trust and delegated authority of the Board to speak on its behalf.

The independent, non-resident governing Board of Trustees is really an extraordinary concept. Functioning properly, it provides the President with the shield of protection and cover of security that individual must have if he is going to push for excellence; however that may be defined, in a given institution. The Board can provide this protection and security because it is professionally immune from the special interest groups in the academic community. And if educated in the ways and mores of academe the Board can provide enlightened judgments on general policy questions and directions for the institution without a self-serving motive.

When looking at the relationship between a Board of Trustees and its President one often reads of a paradigm of a business corporation with its delegated authority and management by objectives, or a civil government structure with a tightly authoritarian and directive relationship, or a laissez-faire arrangement whereby the President has no accountability or advisement capability and the Board just floats through its term of office. As an ex-Presbyterian minister, I see, however, a more constructive and useful paradigm for the relationship between a Board and its President in that of a church congregation.

By that I mean the following: As a church has its full time pastor, so does the college its President. As the church has its congregation composed of various elements, so does the college – faculty, students, employees, etc. And as the church has its governing Board of Deacons or elders to aid, comfort and assist its pastor, so does the university – it’s Board of Trustees. In some respects, the university executive management team functions as the church’s assistant pastors. Now the church board is not employed by the congregation so it can take more heat of controversy than the pastor because the church board members have less to lose professionally. When there is a commonality of thinking between the board members and the pastor the board members can be the shield for any adverse response from the various members of the congregation.

Applying our paradigm now to the college setting: To exaggerate the point, but to make it nevertheless, the Board of Trustees should protect the President’s functioning ability, even at its own risk. This is crucial, because as the chief executive officer and the resident organizational prophet, the fortunes of the institution are animated to a great extent by the functioning excellence of the President. If that Board protection and support is not possible then I suggest a new President is in order.

The President has his management team who look to him for support, guidance and direction. The President, in turn, must be able to find the same, plus protection, in the professional fellowship of the Board of Trustees.

When I say the Board must protect the President’s functioning ability even at its own risk I am referring to the often heard charge against the Board that it either is nothing more than a rubber stamp for the President or that it’s nothing more than a flock of sheep being manipulated by the President. I believe the tension of walking that fine line of maintaining its independency and protecting the President is appropriate and desirable from a governing standpoint. If the President takes the time to educate the Board members on his visions, his values, his agenda, his motivations, his definitions (all formed in concert with his management team, i.e., assistant pastors?) then the Board of Trustees have an obligation to support and defend and press for the President’s program. If the Board doesn’t agree with the President’s program then I submit it has the wrong President.

It seems to me a Board of Trustees has only three legitimate choices in dealing with a President.

1. Wholeheartedly support, defend and fight for the President
2. Individual members of the Board resign.
3. Fire the President

To paraphrase a Biblical verse in Revelation 3:16, “Lukewarm Boards are like spit.”

Having said the Board of Trustees must be supportive, protective and defensive of the President, I am not saying the Board must roll over for the President at his every whim. Quite the contrary. The President needs an independent Board of wise counselors who truly understand that the college’s fortunes rise or fall to a great extent on the excellency of the President’s decisions. And so, the President must have respect and trust in the Board’s independent counsel and judgment concerning academic policy directions, personnel questions, financial allocations, and public relations. The President must be able to confide in the Board, not as his management team, but as his (to mix my ecclesiastical metaphors) college of bishops, as his policy generating equals.

Some specific ways in which a Board of Trustees might aid and comfort its President:

1. Protect his salary and fringe benefits and perquisites. Don’t let notions of egalitarianism destroy just compensation for the most important individual on the campus.
2. Provide money for him to assemble an effective management team. The team may have to be small but it must be appropriate to accomplish the President’s program.
3. Provide for and protect the President’s personal life: This means vacations periodic short study sabbaticals to renew his vision, enthusiasm and drive; and his private time while in residency.
4. Provide administrative equipment, tools and office space appropriate to the responsibilities and position of the Presidency.
5. Be fund raisers and recruitment counselors for the institution.
6. Publicly support and defend the President’s administrative decisions. Privately criticize, if need be, but publicly defend your man.
7. Publicly support the President’s management team. Privately criticize all you want to the President because no one’s team is perfect, but publicly show a united front.

In conclusion, if the Board works in supportive tandem with its President then I’m convinced the Presidency will be bathed in an atmosphere that encourages excellency in management and fosters the type of leadership that contributes to each institution reaching for its full potential.

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