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Getting the most out of the college CEO-trustee dynamic

George Boggs

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from an article in the February/March 2011 edition of the Community College Journal, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges.

Community college CEOs—presidents, superintendents or chancellors—consistently rate developing and maintaining positive and productive relationships with their boards of trustees as one of the most important but challenging aspects of their jobs.

These relationships do not happen accidentally; they must be cultivated. The real challenge for CEOs who report to college or district governing boards is to help their boards be more effective.

An excerpt from the 'Handbook on CEO-Board Relations and Responsibilities.'

Community college board members are elected or appointed to serve their communities in a very special way. As trustees, they are responsible for the current and future vitality of institutions central to the educational and economic health of their communities. Members are entrusted to ensure that the college is operated effectively, efficiently and ethically; that it is responsive to the needs of the community; and that it is positioned to effectively serve future generations.

The board delegates the actual administration of the college and its internal governance and planning processes to its CEO. The relationship between a board and its CEO is important, as neither can be very effective unless both are.

Work in tandem

Trustees need to be informed. But it is a mistake to overwhelm board members with unnecessary information. CEOs should help trustees focus on the information they need to make policy decisions, to monitor the implementation of those policies, and to assess the progress of the college in meeting the goals established by the board.

Initiatives such as Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count focus boards on important college outcomes and the progress the institution is making to improve them. Closing achievement gaps and improving course and program completion rates are among the most significant issues colleges face, and boards should have the data to establish realistic goals and monitor progress.

While the college staff often is focused on short-term problems, trustees have an obligation to insist on long-term planning. Here again, it is not the responsibility of the board to draw up long-range plans, but to insist that the administration, faculty, and staff do so in terms the board can approve.

Trustees and CEOs are human and subject to the full range of emotions, political pressures, interests and reactions that impact decision-making in any group. Positive and productive relationships set a positive tone.

Likewise, reports of “split boards,” CEO-board problems or “rogue trustees” extend beyond local communities and often make national news. It’s important for college leaders and board members to rise above these pressures for the good of the institution.

Board decisions, for example, should be made on the merits of the issue and not on preconceived positions of factions or individuals. Since trustees bring a variety of perspectives to their roles, it may not always be possible, even after thorough discussion, to reach consensus on every issue. In such cases, the CEO and board should respect the minority opinion, but support the decision of the majority.

The board and the CEO must move on to the next issue without hard feelings. Trustees deserve advice from their CEO on every important action.

High ethical principles must guide the CEO and the board in all they do. When a CEO has to work with a split board, it is important that the CEO not become politically aligned with one faction over another. Political winds change, and a majority faction might find itself in the minority after the next election or appointment.

A CEO can get trapped by these political shifts. Political turmoil among trustees or between the CEO and the board is not healthy for any college.

Stakeholder input

The most effective college leaders facilitate the participation of people in making the decisions that will affect them. Faculty, staff members, students and community members often serve on advisory or participatory governance committees.

Because of the size and complexity of the organization, CEOs must delegate many decisions to others. Neither the delegation nor the participation of others, however, relieves the CEO or the board of responsibility for proper administration and governance of the college. The CEO and the board must retain the right to send a recommendation back to a committee or an administrator for further consideration or to make a decision different from the one recommended.

Although maintaining a positive institutional climate is an important responsibility for CEOs and boards, constituents will not always agree with a decision or a position that the CEO or board takes. CEOs, in particular, often come under attack. Confidence and trust between a board and a CEO must be built on a long-term relationship and cannot wax and wane with the immediate concerns of the campus community.

The board’s evaluation of the CEO must be more than a reflection of current popularity. Boards can do a great deal to support, both publicly and privately, a CEO under fire for making an unpopular, but correct, decision.

Boggs is president emeritus of the American Association of Community Colleges.