"No institution can ever be better than its board." The words, issued in the 1950s by Clark Kerr—the first chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley—continue to ring true. In fact, as the challenges facing colleges and universities become more numerous and difficult to anticipate, it becomes crucial for boards of trustees to partner effectively with their presidents to serve as thought partners and to provide vital support and guidance. Only by working together can boards and presidents anticipate needs and solutions and shape a sustainable, innovative future for the institutions they serve.
For a board and president to work together effectively, their relationship has to be strong, based on shared work, frank discussions, and trust built over time. Boards must be curious and engaged, able to ask appropriately probing questions while supporting the president, especially during tense times of hard decisions. Each needs to trust the other and be transparent with information. The balance can be hard to achieve but it's critical to the success of the president as well as the institution.
The key to creating and maintaining this balance—and therefore the heart of the board-president relationship—is a strong partnership between the president and the board chair. One challenge for many president-chair teams is the length of service of the chair. It's not uncommon (although not good practice) for chairs to serve only one- or two-year terms, making it critical for the president and board chair to find a way to jump-start their relationship. Even board chairs serving a longer term need to start strong and continue to build the relationship with the president over time. Whether through structured meeting time focused on board and institutional needs or through frequent, regular informal conversations—or a combination of the two—board chairs and presidents benefit from developing an effective working relationship. Boards also benefit from high-performing leadership from their chair and president, and as a result, institutions can better navigate the challenges and respond to the opportunities before them.