In 2006, in the wake of a spending scandal involving a former president, American University’s Board of Trustees made several broad changes in its procedures to, among other things, become more active in overseeing the president. Observers of university governance expected trustees at other institutions to follow suit.
But despite the attention those reforms received, a good quarter of college governing boards have chosen not to follow American’s lead.
According to The Chronicle’s survey of trustees at four-year colleges, at least one in four boards takes a relatively disengaged approach to reviewing presidential performance, participating in hiring presidents, and overseeing presidential compensation. Three-quarters of trustees said their boards assessed presidential performance each year. Nearly the same percentage conducted an annual review of presidential compensation.
More boards need to conduct annual reviews, according to several trustees and governance experts. “The president should be assessed annually,” says Gary M. Abramson, chairman of American’s board. During the controversy at American, trustees argued over whether the full board ever saw the contract for Benjamin Ladner, the president, who claimed that he had not been subjected to a formal performance review. The new board procedures require annual performance reviews, with input from faculty members and students, that are to be tied to presidential compensation.
Deanna W. Oppenheimer, chairwoman of the Board of Trustees of the University of Puget Sound, agrees with that approach. She says her board’s review is both qualitative and quantitative and includes a self-assessment from the president. The board considers the compensation levels of its president and other top administrators each year. She says they also do periodic “temperature checks” of presidential performance during the course of the year.
“High-performance boards would definitely be doing an annual assessment of the president,” says Ms. Oppenheimer, chief operating officer for Barclays’ banking division in Britain.
If annual reviews are not conducted, survey respondents say, they evaluate presidents during contract renewal or when boards determine a need. Some 23 percent of trustees said they did not know if their boards used comparative data to help determine the president’s compensation, while 5 percent said the board had no role in determining a president’s salary. That number rose to 11.4 percent among trustees of public universities.
Trust and Shared Vision Rank High
When it comes to evaluating presidents, trustees overwhelmingly put trust and shared vision over performance issues like raising money or balancing budgets. Asked in the survey to rank criteria for defining a president’s success, trustees listed promotion of the institution’s mission, the quality of educational programs, and quality of faculty above a balanced budget (which ranked fourth) and meeting fund-raising goals (sixth).
Trustees said they were extremely satisfied with their working relationships with presidents. About 90 percent of survey respondents described that relationship as excellent (67 percent) or very good (27 percent). They listed good communication with presidents as their boards’ top accomplishment among a list of a dozen tasks, and said they relied on briefings from presidents as their most important source of information. About 56 percent of trustees said they had contact with their president on at least a monthly basis.
Rita Bornstein, a former president of Rollins College who has written a book about the college presidency, says trustees hesitate to be negative in evaluating presidents because many colleges face precarious financial positions and hiring a new president to take over a struggling institution can be an arduous process. “They’re afraid of losing their presidents,” she says. “They don’t want to give any indication that they don’t support the president.”
Boards will sour on presidents if they are found to have kept information from the board, according to the survey.
Trustees were asked to rate the likelihood that certain problems would cost a president his or her job. First on that list was “personal scandal,” followed by keeping information from the board. At the bottom of the list was failure to meet fund-raising goals, further evidence that trustees are focused more on trust than performance.
James M. Weaver, a member of the Board of Directors of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, says it is likely that scandal tops the list because of recent high-profile presidential meltdowns, most notably the one at American University. “They’re fresh on people’s minds,” he says.
Mr. Weaver, who is also chairman of the Board of Trustees of Gettysburg College, says many boards have improved their oversight in recent years, in part because of heightened awareness of good governance that followed corporate scandals.
Richard D. Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards, says trustees must rely on presidents for the bulk of facts about the well-being of the colleges they govern. However, Mr. Legon says trustees must know how to sort through the details and ask the right questions.
“These are volunteers. These aren’t full-time jobs,” Mr. Legon says. “It’s very appropriate that they are going to lean on information from the president.”
In all, 31 percent of trustees reported being dissatisfied with a president at some point. That number rose to 53 percent among those who had been on boards for more than a decade. The most typical method to resolve the conflict, according to the survey, was that the president chose to retire earlier than planned.
In the survey, trustees were asked the most important question they would pose to a candidate for president of their college. The most common question they would ask sought an understanding of and commitment to the institution’s mission. Questions about fund-raising skills or other qualifications were at the bottom of the list.
“How do you construct a vision that separates our institution from those that the public sees as ‘same’ or similar?” wrote a male trustee of a private religious college.
Such questions are the “gateway” to queries about specific job experiences, says Ms. Oppenheimer.
“You may have a lot of people who are qualified for the job,” Ms. Oppenheimer says. “But if they are not tuned in to the mission, you’re going to get the wrong president.”
Nearly all, about 97 percent, of trustees are involved in presidential searches, according to the survey’s results, but to varying degrees.
The most common practice among trustees of public universities, said 39 percent of respondents, is for search firms to do most of the work, with the board helping to select the short list of candidates and making the final decision. About 26 percent of trustees at private religious colleges selected that answer, with 47 percent saying a search firm does some work while a board-appointed committee plays the major role.
Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said boards should become more involved in presidential searches. “The status quo is not good enough,” Ms. Neal says. “Trustees need to become more informed and active.”