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The Board Chair and the President: An Essential Partnership

The Board Chair and the President: An Essential Partnership

Charles Middleton is the chair of the board of trustees of City Colleges of Chicago, president emeritus of Roosevelt University, and a senior consultant with AGB Consulting.

Thoughtful people have written extensively about the effective interaction of presidents and boards in leading institutions of higher education. First-time presidents and board members are well advised to read about these matters. Indeed, orientation programs frequently schedule specific sessions on them.

But one aspect has received less attention than it might: the unified role that the board chair and the president play to ensure that their institution operates smoothly and collaboratively between their respective spheres of responsibility.

This fine balance is best served by effective, open, and continuous communication between the board chair and the president.  At a basic level these two people are charged with mutual responsibility to determine how to maintain that balance between the singular role of the president on the one hand and the collective responsibility of the board on the other.

These individuals must share a common vision for the institution as it moves into an uncertain and challenging future.  They must educate each other continuously about the views of those they lead so that each has a fuller and more nuanced understanding of the issues and people than others might.

As an example, the president has to be certain that the chair knows at some level of detail the most important policy and personnel matters the president is grappling with so that the chair can help, as needed, to assure an appropriate board discussion of them.

The chair must be sure that the president fully appreciates gradations of opinion among trustees so that she or he can adequately prepare to address issues effectively when the board meets.

A key component of success lies in confidential and regular meetings of just these two individuals.  These need to be frequent enough to assure the smooth flow of information without becoming overly intrusive on the time of either person.  No one pattern fits all, but in my experience both as president and now as board chair, the key lies in mutual collaboration so that each leader can be maximally effective in his or her primary sphere of responsibility. 

I think these partnerships always lie at the core of the most effective institutions. Both people have a unique responsibility to assure that they function optimally. Everything and everyone depends on it.

Seeking to strengthen your president-chair partnership? Consider attending AGB's Institute for Board Chairs and Presidents of Independent Colleges and Universities, June 20-22, 2017.
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