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Private universities strive for balance with their boards

At private colleges and universities, boards of trustees typically are involved in overall strategic direction but steer clear of managing daily operations.

Sandy Parker, board member at Rochester Institute of Technology, University of Rochester and Nazareth College, thinks a clear demarcation of power is a healthy thing.

“My personal belief is that boards need to be involved in policy setting and guidance, and not in day-to-day management,” says the former head of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce. Boards should focus on overall strategy and oversight, she adds.

That jibes with the best practices espoused by Ted Long, a senior consultant with the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

“There is generally a difference in governing and managing,” says Long, who is the former president of Pennsylvania-based Elizabethtown College.

Boards should focus on oversight and setting broad strategy for their institutions, he says.

“Boards have to spend a lot of time checking up on one side and on the other and also asking the big questions,” Long says.

While presidents and senior administrators should also participate in setting strategy, their main focus should be on executing it, Long says.

“The ideal is that boards and presidents form a partnership,” he adds. “The relationship—when it works—is a really big asset to the university.”

Gerard Rooney, president of St. John Fisher College, says that division of power between managing and administering is observed at his institution.

“As fiduciaries of the institution, the board is responsible for the selection and evaluation of the president and for ensuring the financial health and long-term direction of the institution, among other duties,” he says. “The president is responsible for providing direction to and leading the daily operations of the college, along with senior leaders of the institution, including the vice presidents and deans of the five schools.”

Over at Nazareth, president Daan Braveman says the college’s administration and faculty generally take the lead in proposing strategy and policy, while the board is involved all of the way through the process and has final say about what is implemented. Thanks to good communication and positive working relationships, the model has worked well for the college thus far, he adds.

“In 11 years here, I’ve never had an incident where the board tried to micromanage in any way,” Braveman says.

David Basinger, chief academic officer and vice president for academic affairs at Roberts Wesleyan College, says that strategic planning is introduced by a committee made up of the president, a board member and faculty and staff. The board of trustees as a whole makes the ultimate decision on whether or not to adopt policy, he adds.

“I would say that the board is very interested in strategic oversight and in where we are going,” Basinger says.

Collaboration and communication are key, Basinger says. The board, administration, faculty and staff take a range of steps to ensure transparency and make sure good working relationships are maintained. Relevant senior administrators are present at each of the board of trustee’s committee meetings, for example, and university president Deana Porterfield makes sure that board members are informed and kept up-to-date on key initiatives.

Discussion is encouraged at all levels, he adds. “I think that under this president we’ve got the best blend I’ve seen,” Basinger says. 

Braveman, Rooney and Basinger all say their institutions encourage less formal interaction as well.

“One of the things we care about is making sure there is a social aspect to the board,” says Braveman. Each board of trustees meeting at Nazareth includes a dinner where board members and senior staff can informally chat, and board members and he socialize in other ways, he adds.

Board meetings at Roberts Wesleyan College also have board/senior staff dinners, as well as additional time set aside for faculty, staff, senior administrators and board members to socialize, Basinger says.

Rooney described something similar at St. John Fisher.

“Board members are regularly invited to college events, at which there is opportunity for interaction with faculty, staff, students and alumni,” says Rooney. “In many cases, they are also engaged with their fellow alumni as 19 members of our board are graduates of the college.”

While everyone strives for open communication and good relationships, things sometimes turn sour between boards and presidents—as they have at Pennsylvania-based Temple University. In July, Temple president Neil Theobald resigned following a vote of no confidence from his board. Among other issues was the abrupt firing of then-provost Hai Lung Dai and a $22 million overrun of Temple’s financial aid budget. Board members claimed that Theobald was aware of the shortfall for nearly a year and did not inform them.

In these cases, fault often lies on both sides, says Long. Board members who find themselves in a similar position should take time to reflect on the board’s actions and how they may have contributed to the situation, he adds.

If boards hire wisely and provide support to their presidents, and if presidents maintain real transparency to boards and make sure board members are kept informed and involved on major issues and decisions facing their institutions, problems like Temple’s can generally be avoided, says Long.

Freelance writer Eric Walter is a Rochester native, now based in Singapore.

8/12/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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