University Governance: Evaluating the President

Steven Trachtenberg’s The Presidency Derailed (2016) was a precursor to a sea of change in the perception of the University Presidency in the United States. The time-honored tradition of long-sitting presidents from established academic backgrounds has given way to a willingness on the part of University Boards of Trustees/Regents to consider and select “non-traditional” candidates, e.g. politicians, lobbyists, corporate executives, and public policy experts. Other recent publications about the changing nature of the presidency and the skills required (“administrative and financial acumen, fundraising ability, and political deftness”…as well as the ability to be both “measured and restrained” in response to social media and crises) continue to challenge the notion of not only what it takes to fill this critical leadership position, but also how to evaluate and retain leaders in this role (Selingo et al., 2017, p. 2). Furthermore, the recent rising number of campus security issues, cultural diversity and sensitivity issues, and enrollment issues have highlighted again the need to re-evaluate the skills required for a successful president, and the most effective process to assess and improve the performance of the organization’s most senior leader.

The Evaluation: Why, How, and When?

Most University Boards see the evaluation of the president as a fiduciary duty required by regional accreditation requirements, and thereby often fail to take the opportunity to revisit the alignment of the president’s efforts with the university’s mission, values, and strategic plan. More than ever, university presidents are being called upon to build “democratic partnerships” across constituencies to address change in higher education– and consistently communicating how decisions are related to mission and values is critical (Hendrickson et al., 2012).

The presidential evaluation can be an important tool to communicate to the president, fellow board members, and the wider community the direction and timeline for implementation of strategic plans for the university. And, beyond the traditional opportunity for critical self-reflection and continuous individual improvement, the presidential evaluation offers the Board an opportunity for deeper engagement and conversation about how the Board and president can work together to achieve institutional success.

Guiding Principles for Effective Evaluation Process

First and foremost, there should be upfront agreement and buy-in among key constituencies on the objective and structure of the process. While a committee of the Board or the Executive Committee typically steer the process, it is important to involve key constituencies inside and outside of the University — and to communicate the timing, opportunities for feedback, and the final product and its uses. The process should be as transparent as possible to achieve the goals, while creating an environment that encourages honest and constructive feedback. In public institutions, it should be assumed that all documents and feedback will be available and accessible — and utilizing a general counsel where appropriate to protect individual privacy is essential. It should be acknowledged that the process is likely to identify problem areas and opportunities for improvements — creating a process that allows for constructive feedback of the President (rather than creating an environment where personal differences or agendas rises to the top) requires consistent communication about the process. Retaining an independent consultant to assure the integrity of the process, confidentiality, and an outcome that will serve the institution (rather than a particular constituency or individual) is critical.

The Evaluation Process

Just as each institution is unique, there is no one-size-fits all option for the evaluation process our outcome. Before starting the process, the following items should be clarified:

  1. The period under review;
  2. The participants in the process — i.e. who will be invited to provide feedback and in what manner;
  3. The schedule and timeline for the process; and
  4. The expected result/outcome.

The final outcome of the process could be a summary paper, a board presentation, an outline of strengths/weaknesses/areas for improvement with action plan for addressing weaknesses/areas for improvement, or a public document that aligns what was learned from the process, the strategic goals for the years ahead, and the modifications in tactics or behaviors that the President is encouraged to pursue as a result of the evaluation. The exact work-product is less important than returning to that critical question of what is the university attempting to accomplish through the evaluation, and having professional assistance that can keep the process on time and on task.

Case Studies

The president of a large public institution was evaluated by a committee of the Board charged with her annual evaluation. The committee was composed of three executive committee members who sought feedback from all board members, representatives of the faculty, representatives of the administrative staff, and the president’s direct reports. An online call for comments was created and the committee utilized the secretary to the Board of Trustees to compile the information and collect the survey results. The process was open to the public and, therefore, made discoverable in any potential litigation. The results pointed out the president’s strong relationship with legislators and donors, but highlighted a need to refocus efforts around shared governance and the compensation issues with the faculty. The president agreed with the findings, received a contract extension, and subsequently updated the Board quarterly on how she was responding to the feedback from the process.

A second president leading a small non-profit private institution was evaluated by the full board through an online survey instrument, accompanied by a presidential self-reflection statement, and whose results were shared with the Executive Committee. The Executive Committee had difficulty agreeing with exactly how to provide feedback, and simply shared the results of the survey and the accompanying comments with the president. The president received a contract extension and was given benchmarks that addressed some of the survey’s feedback around enrollment management, fundraising goals, and community development. However, the president left the process feeling as though it was only a formality that exposed divisions within the Board (and the President shortly thereafter left the institution).

A third president, who was in his third year of his presidency, worked with the Board Chair to identify a consultant to work with the university’s general counsel to produce a process for evaluation and contract renewal. The Board Chair coordinated with the other board members to gather their perspective on who to be included in the process, how to compile the results, how to disseminate the results, and how to use the results going forward. A consultant identified a process and timeline, and worked with the general counsel to solicit in-person feedback from 20 members of the university community, including faculty, staff, students, board members, alums, and donors. Finally, an online survey gave all university constituents the opportunity to provide feedback on the president’s performance related to specific elements of the University’s strategic plan. The results of the interviews and survey were shared with the Executive Committee, who also received a five page self-evaluation from the president, addressing his accomplishments, strengths, and suggested goals going forward. The Executive Committee created a draft matrix for the president’s evaluation on an annual basis over the subsequent five years (including benchmarks for enrollment, communication, fundraising, and personal development), and the consultant, Board Chair, and president met together to finalize the matrix, which was ultimately shared with the full board and members of the faculty leadership. The process helped the Chair and President to realize where they could better partner in board governance, and the wider community felt more engaged and committed to the President’s vision.

Conclusion

The presidential evaluation process requires considerable amount of preparation and expertise to arrive at a productive destination. There is no process that works for all institutions; however, there are certain guiding principles that should guide the process. The value of the opportunity for the Board, the president, and the wider community to develop meaningful relationships around shared values and measurable outcomes cannot be overstated. And, this opportunity can make all the difference between mission fulfillment and mission failure.

References

Hendrickson, R.M., Lane, J.E., Harris, J.T., Dorman, R.H. (2012). Academic Leadership and Governance of Higher Education: A Guide for Trustees, Leaders, and Aspiring Leaders of Two- and Four-Year Institutions. Stylus Publishing: Sterling, Virginia.

Selingo, J., Chheng, S., & Clark, C. (2017). Pathways to the university presidency: The future of higher education leadership. Deloitte University Press. Online Source at: https://dupress.deloitte.com/content/dam/dup-us-en/articles/3861_Pathways-to-the-university-presidency/DUP_Pathways-to-the-university-presidency.pdf

Trachtenberg, S.J., Kauvar, G., and Bogue, E.G. (2016). Presidencies Derailed. Why University Leaders Fail and How to Prevent it. Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore.