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On a day in 2002 later known as “Black Wednesday,” Texas Rangers arrested the board chair and three trustees of the Alamo Colleges and carted away computers and files.
They were indicted on bribery, conspiracy and money laundering charges related to an architectural contract, says Adriana Contreras, deputy to the chancellor of the college system.
The scheme came to light when another trustee contacted the state controller and requested an audit, says Contreras, who wasn’t on staff at the time, but later wrote a dissertation about the situation.
There was “name-calling and yelling at board meetings. . . . It was a really difficult time,” she says.
Some board members wanted to do the right thing, while others were in contact with potential vendors, she says. There was real divisiveness on the board, and the chancellor resigned.
Following that incident, a new leadership team at Alamo Colleges established an ethics office, legal affairs office and ethics hotline, and required training in ethics for all staff, Contreras says.
The new board “worked hard to repair the college’s reputation,” she says, making students the number-one priority.
Of course, situations like that are rare. Most boards are not dealing with conflict, notes Narcisa Polonia, vice president for research, education and board leadership services at the Association of Community College Trustees.
“The majority of boards do a good job and are really committed” to serving their college and its students, she says.
But CEOs and board members do need to know what to do when there is a conflict or when a misunderstanding has the potential to become a full-blown dispute.
Conflicts can arise when trustees believe they can go directly to administrators and when board members lack commitment to the institution and view their service on the board as merely “a stepping stone” to a spot on the city council or state legislature, says Bruce Leslie, the current chancellor at Alamo Colleges.
“Transparency is really important between the CEO and trustees,” Leslie says. Board members have to clearly understand their main role—“to hold the chancellor responsible and accountable”—and recognize that the “CEO is their only employee.”
“What gets a lot of CEOs into trouble is ego. They want to take credit for everything,” says George Boggs, former president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges, who wrote a handbook on president-board relationships.
Getting the most out of the college CEO-trustee dynamic.
Conflicts often arise when board members want to micromanage, act independently rather than represent the full board, want special treatment for their cronies or family, or want to use the board to advance their personal or political agendas, adds Terry O’Banion, president emeritus of the League for Innovation in the Community College. CEOs cause conflicts when they fail to keep board members informed and involved or “become arrogant and believe the board is in their pocket,” he says.
Finding common ground
“If you’re already dealing with problems, it’s a lot more difficult,” says Boggs. In that case, the best course of action is for the board and CEO to schedule a working retreat.
“They should bring in a facilitator—someone both sides trust—to lead them in a conversation,” focusing on what the board and CEO expect from one another, he says.
Most of the time when she’s asked to work with a board in conflict, it’s often a matter of misunderstanding, and it is resolvable, says consultant Pamila Fisher. Before meeting with the group as a whole, she meets with each party individually and helps them look for common ground.
When confronted with situations involving repeated split votes on boards or board members who are not civil toward one another in public, Fisher helps them see the impact of their behavior by asking, “Is this how you want the college to be perceived by the public?”
One common outcome of these discussions is a decision to develop a code of conduct, Fisher says. After a dispute about accreditation at Solano Community College in California generated a lot of coverage in the local media, for example, the leadership approved guidelines stating that only the president can talk to the press and only about issues that have been decided.
If there is a conflict that can’t be resolved by bringing in a consultant, the CEO, other board members or community leaders should “create opportunities to replace members who represent unreasonable positions,” O’Banion says. That is a “very touchy issue,” he acknowledges, comparing it to “dancing with porcupines.”
In fact, most CEOs would probably say that is not a good idea, O’Banion says. But there are situations where faculty members or community leaders would want to mount a recall campaign, and a CEO could encourage those efforts discretely, he says.
“There are probably 25 to 100 cases right now where a rogue trustee is causing major trouble for a community college,” O’Banion says. “Rogue trustees run roughshod over the norms and standards of behavior expected of public officials,” and they “trample over the ideas and cautions of the CEO, the trustee chair and member trustees.”
O’Banion suggests boards and CEOs take these actions to prevent rogue trustees from taking over:
Set clear expectations
Whenever there are new board members, Fisher suggests the president and board should schedule a retreat right away to talk about their goals and expectations and make sure everyone is on the same page. The agenda for these sessions should cover roles and responsibilities and such issues as how and when board members want to be notified and whether board members should be able to directly communicate with staff.
It’s important to have a positive relationship because “it sets a tone for the whole college or district,” Boggs says. “If there’s tension, it affects the whole atmosphere of the college.”
He advises CEOs to let the spotlight shine on the board. CEOs need to recognize that board members put in a lot of work and receive limited compensation, so CEOs should be sure to give them recognition whenever possible, he says.
“It’s very important to communicate to boards early and often about critical decisions that need to be made. I can’t emphasize that enough,” says Frances White, former superintendent and president of the College of Marin in California and a former member of the AACC board of directors.
White’s advice comes from her experiences with the elimination of the college’s football program. She recommended football be cut because a review of student data showed low success and completion rates among athletes, the college was struggling with a tight budget, and community residents didn’t come to football games.
The board passed White’s recommendations to eliminate football by a narrow majority, but one board member and his two allies were so adamant about retaining football, that the vote caused a split on the board that remained until White retired a couple of years later. That trustee took the opposite position on every issue, from strategic planning to facilities planning, White says.
Looking back, White says she would not have done anything differently.
“Sometimes you can turn someone around,” she says. “But when there are individuals who will not come around, be respectful, be professional, but there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. Some people just will not like the way you part your hair.”
When it gets personal, “You just can’t let it get to you,” White adds.
Copyright ©2014 American Association of Community Colleges