THE BLOG
04/16/2014 01:18 pm ET Updated Jun 16, 2014

HBCUs: Over-Governed and Under-Led

Invariably, when I meet new people they ask me what I do professionally. When I tell them that I am a retired three-time university chancellor, they respond by indicating how impressed they are by the fact that I served in such a capacity not one, but three times. They quickly proceed to ask what it was like working with today's students. More often than not, before I can respond they follow up with several rapid fire questions about the politics of working with faculty, alumni, trustees and elected officials. Having successfully navigated the academic waterways for a long time, I am never at a loss for words when it comes to articulating the basic structure of university governance, along with its underlying rationale. However, I haven't found an acceptable answer for why it takes so long for many colleges and universities to select a chief executive!

Since retiring from active university leadership almost two years ago and devoting my full attention to advocating on behalf of HBCs and serving as the co-principal investigator of a national project, Leading to Completion, aimed at assisting Minority Serving Institutions, MSIs, with increasing student persistence and degree attainment, I have had the opportunity to reflect on what I view as some of the key issues impacting institutions of higher learning in general and HBCUs in particular. Lest one conclude that I view these challenges as intractable, I hasten to add that this is not the case. To resolve them, however, begins with an acknowledgement of their existence and a willingness to tackle them.

Based on my close observations, undergirded by over 40 years of experience, I have concluded that too many HBCUs are over-governed and under-led.

Over-Governed

The public university is the only entity with which I am familiar which has so many levels of governance. There is the immediate governing board, by whatever name, e. g. trustees or regents. In the case of a statewide system of higher education, there is usually a board of governors or a coordinating board of some type. At the campus level, there is almost always a faculty senate, staff council/senate and a campus wide student government association that expects to be consulted on matters that affect them directly. Without exaggeration, I cannot think of a single issue that some university group would not be expected to be consulted on before an administrator makes a decision.

As if the multiple levels of governance don't present enough challenges for university leaders, there is always the issue of how much time it takes to gather input. The elaborate university committee structure adds immeasurably to time needed to review and resolve even the most routine issues. Moreover, too often those in the university governance structure fail to recognize the difference between providing input and expecting administrators to do what they recommend. This lack of appreciation can lead to long term distrust between faculty and administrators.

If we fast-forward beyond faculty and student governance, we quickly discover boards of trustees, governors or regents who find it necessary to subject the president to a plethora of repetitive questions to ensure themselves that the president knows what he/she is doing and that they know what they are doing. Unfortunately, in many instances those raising the questions are not equipped to do so from a knowledge perspective. Armed with a "boss mentality", they appear determined to police and keeping the president in check. The best place to see this attitude is during emotional-laden discussions about tuition increases and intercollegiate athletics.

Make no mistake about it; there is an appropriate role for faculty, students and trustees in the university governance process. At the same time it is critical that each entity refrain from attempting to manage the university. If the board has done an effective job of discharging its most important role, appointing a capable chief executive officer, the board has an obligation to support the person and to give him/her the freedom to lead without fear of reprisal from trustees or a vote of no confidence from faculty.

Under-Led

The issues confronting today's higher education enterprise require visionary, experienced and confident leaders who are prepared to work with trustees and others in the governance queue to achieve the aspirations to which their institutions aspire. Being a college president is hard work that demands unbridled energy, effective interpersonal communication skills and support from those who play a role in university governance.

As I have read in recent weeks and months about those presidents who have chosen to retire rather than contend with the interference from alumni, boards and others in the governance structure, it is not hard to understand the rationale for these presidential decisions. While board members may revel in their decision to make a change in presidential leadership, it places the institution in a difficult position with respect to attracting the caliber of candidates it seeks, and ultimately creates institutional instability.

Successful presidents enjoy among other things the respect and confidence of those in the governance queue. The respect of which I speak is earned based on the president's ability to get things done without becoming entangled in the web of governance dysfunction. Once consensus is reached between the board and the president on key goals, objectives and priorities, it is essential that there exist a collaborative approach to accomplishing the tasks that must be pursued to move the institution forward. The president has an obligation to approach his or her work as a facilitator of success rather than a dictator of directions.

Successful college presidents are willing to recommend and make decisions they believe to be in the best interest of the institution without worrying about unanimous approval from the board, faculty or other members of the governance structure. Successful presidents are those who know how to build consensus around a common agenda and they know how to manage governance disagreements without losing sight of the ultimate goal of achieving higher levels of educational excellence and institutional responsiveness. Similarly, good governance partners know the difference between the policy and input role of its members and the management role of the president and his/her leadership team. The question is not who is in charge. Rather, it is how well is the university doing in fulfilling its mission.

Every university president should be assured of his/her freedom to lead without fear of interference from those in the governance structure. Members of boards of trustees, regents, commissioners and governors can help by empowering presidents to lead and holding them accountable rather than micromanaging their actions and decisions. Faculty can help by modernizing those aspects of campus governance pertaining to academic, faculty and student affairs. And each entity can assist by appreciating the difference between the input they offer and the action taken by the president. Presidents can help by understanding the legitimate policy role of the board and the faculty and by not personalizing differences of opinion.

Finally, it's not about the president, the faculty or the board. It's about the students and those who are vested in the success of the institution.