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The President and The Board

E. Gordon Gee
Remarks at Southern University Conference
April 9, 2016

The concept of external volunteers guiding college and universities is a uniquely American innovation that dates back to Colonial times. And external perspectives are a uniquely valuable asset to 21st century presidents, in this age of rapid change and public distrust.

In truth, most presidents see the value in governing boards, whose members are living links to the world beyond the ivory tower.

The world we are preparing students to enter. The world that shapes our institution’s future.

In 2013, the Association of Governing Boards of College and Universities surveyed presidents and found that almost 80 percent were satisfied or very satisfied with their boards.

Of course, as you mathematicians out there may have noticed, that means over one-fifth of presidents were less than satisfied.

Interestingly, newer presidents were much more likely to be dissatisfied than their long-suffering — sorry, I mean, long-serving — counterparts.

Almost one-third of newer presidents expressed dissatisfaction. Does it seem strange that in the honeymoon period following their hiring, so many presidents are sleeping on the metaphorical couch?

Do we, who have been around for a while, just get resigned to our "spouse’s" annoying habits, like leaving the toilet seat up or interfering in football coach hiring?

In truth, I think negotiating the delicate balance between president and board — between management and governance — is a skill that must be learned. Mostly, it is learned through years of trial and error because no one takes a college class on this stuff. And, no matter how long you have been a president, you always have more to learn.

You do not want to follow the infamous trajectory of University of California President Clark Kerr — hired with enthusiasm when the board hired him and fired with enthusiasm by the board nine years later.

I have exceeded his tenure as a president by more than two decades, and I have not been "fired with enthusiasm," although I have occasionally been bid farewell with great sighs of relief.

Along the way, I have learned a lot. So today I will share with you what has worked for me.

10 Lessons to Help You Get Along with Your Governing Board

1. Sometimes you are the captain and sometimes you are deckhand.

I find it amusing that in the survey I mentioned, two of presidents’ most common complaints about board members are "lack of engagement" and "micromanaging."

Imagine how hard it is for board members to know where to draw the line when even we do not seem to know where they should draw the line.

The first thing we must understand is our own role. While we are atop the administrative heap on campus, we are accountable to many — students, alumni, donors, the public.

Board members represent the interests of those stakeholders. So, when it comes to working with them, no leadership task should go above our heads or be beneath our notice.

Quite simply, we must be willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.

And our shared work must include an ongoing conversation about role and responsibilities that help to refine the board’s proper level of engagement.

Which brings me to my next lesson.

2. Put the skunk on the table.

Do not let problems fester. We are all adults, and one would hope that includes your board members.

A study by Public Agenda found that university board members become frustrated when they hear spin instead of substance from campus leaders.

Or, in the colorful words of one trustee: "The staff likes to treat you like mushrooms: keep you in the dark and shovel you with manure. They just want to tell you, 'Here's a stack of papers and you don’t need to read it all, just look, here’s what we think you ought to do.'"

Candor is a better relationship-builder, even when the topics are uncomfortable. Clear the air and move on.

And while what you communicate is important, how you communicate matters, too.

Which brings me to Lesson 3.

3. Pick up the damn telephone.

Institutional governance is complicated and nuanced. If important conversations take place over email — or, God forbid, text message —  confusion is sure to result.

Context gets lost, tone becomes indistinguishable, and misunderstandings proliferate.

When important issues arise, make sure you talk with board members in person or at least over the phone.

And if you are calling with bad news, remember my next lesson.

4. EAFL: Excuses are for losers.

It may not be the most memorable or easily pronounceable acronym, but it is one of the most important.

In my experience, excuses destroy organizations. I do not accept them from my staff, and I do not expect board member to accept them from me.

To build a strong governance relationship, make sure the boardroom is an excuse-free zone.

Instead of giving excuses, seek input. That is why we have board members. So fully absorb my next lesson.

5. Some are smarter than some of us, but none are smarter than all of us.

We cannot all be federal judges, or venture capitalists, or hospital administrators.

But having a governing board means we have access to wisdom from many different disciplines and sectors. Board members are a great resource for widening the circle of your conversations.

They are also a great pipeline into what the general public is thinking about higher education. These days, those thoughts can be disheartening, but covering our ears and humming the fight song loudly will not make perception problems go away.

Instead, learn from your critics — and help your board members act as ambassadors for your institution.

Take advantage of their expertise, and believe in the power of your team.

Above all, keep looking forward. That is the message of my sixth lesson.

6. Never look through the rearview mirror.

Do not waste time pining for the way things used to be, or the way the old board chairman communicated, or did not communicate, or the way the whole board looked so happy at the press conference after your hiring.

Too much peering in the rear-view mirror will only cause you to veer off-course. If your current board is keeping you a bit off-balance, that may be a good thing. A surfeit of comfort can foster complacency. And it does not pay to become complacent about board approval, no matter how friendly your members seem over bagels and coffee in executive session.

The truth is: Your governing board will love you right up until they fire you.

Which brings us to Lesson 7.

7. Cultivate your constituents — they are your firewall.

While it is important to keep your board happy, it is more important to meet the needs of your constituents — faculty, staff, alumni, and especially students.

It is vital because these are the people who make your institution what it is. As a side benefit, if your board becomes unhappy with you, good relationships with these groups can save you — at least for a while.

In my experience, every president has three turns to ask for forgiveness.

If you find yourself on apology number four, it is time to proceed to Lesson 8.

8. When it comes your time to leave, leave.

If you feel you can no longer contribute to your institution’s success, for whatever reason, do not wait for them to "fire you with enthusiasm."

Take the initiative to leave.

It is the best thing you can do for your institution and for yourself. This way at least you get a nice reception and maybe a scholarship named after you.

And I have found that after memories have faded, they may even hire you back.

Considering the circumstances of my own most recent university departure, Lesson 9 may come as a surprise.

9. Cultivate a sense of humor.

Even in light of my experience, I still believe a sense of humor is one of the most important arrows in the presidential quiver.

It reduces tension and helps with every aspect of the job, including board relations.

Shared laughter bonds you to people in ways that lofty speeches and detailed memos never will.

But learn from my mistakes and make yourself the butt of your best jokes — and definitely do not bring the Little Sisters of the Poor into it.

It is all about taking your work seriously, without taking yourself too seriously.

And so my final advice is:

10. Cultivate humility.

This may seem like strange advice, too, from the selfie king of higher education.

Note that I am not advising you to be a shrinking violet. You should be tooting your institution’s horn so often you make Dizzy Gillespie look like a slacker.

But beware the cult of personality that can form around you and the sense of entitlement that can creep in when your position provides everything from a house to the best seats in the football stadium.

Above all, do not start taking to heart all the press releases and Alumni Magazine articles that portray you as the second coming. You are not! We are all dispensable, and our board members know that better than anyone.

A bit of humility may be your saving grace, even if it does not always save your job.The phrase "shared governance" may never excite you as much as ones like "unrestricted donation" or "national championship."

But learning these lessons thoroughly and putting them into practice can make your board interactions better. Certainly they have worked for me at West Virginia University, where I have been blessed with an extraordinarily thoughtful and supportive Board.

This I do know: by working together effectively, you and your board members can make your college or university stronger.

Now, I would love to hear your thoughts.