by Robert A. Scott
The “arrogance of power” and the “imperial presidency” are not unknown in higher education. Some presidents encourage fawning by subordinates and alumni. However, this is not helpful behavior. Leadership is about the institution, not the person at the helm. In my experience, effective leaders know they cannot know everything; they ask for help in framing the response to a challenge. Those who don’t ask can get in their own way, stalling the very progress they wish to make.
Assistance for those at the top can take many forms, both formal and informal. It can come from campus colleagues, the board of trustees, informal groups such as a president’s advisory council, or professional consultants. Advice can be framed for the campus in general or the president in particular.
External sources of assistance are numerous. National associations such as AGB (Association for Governing Boards) offer consulting and publications on strategic issues for presidents as well as for boards of trustees.
The institution’s audit firm can provide advice on numerous issues beyond the annual financial audit. In addition to conducting the annual audit and advising on internal audit functions, it can forecast finances, benchmark expense and revenue data against other institutions as well as historical trends, document risk assessment and management methods, and advise on cyber-security cautions and trends, among other forms of advice.
Many campuses bring in experts from academe and industry to review curricula and staffing and to suggest opportunities for strengthening programs and student experiences. Their reports can guide the development of certain programs, the cancellation of others, and the identification of strengths on which to create new programs and partnerships.
If an institution is seeking new or renewed accreditation, the accrediting association can provide a consultant to assist in the development of a self-study and initiatives for improvement.
Another key resource for outside help is the institution’s legal counsel. Some institutions hire in-house lawyers to advise the president and the board, and to coordinate any outside counsel. Some boards even have their own counsel for particularly complicated matters. Institutions also hire lawyers to manage Title IX compliance and responses to this federal mandate regarding gender discrimination and sexual assault.
Instead of hiring in-house counsel, some institutions rely on an outside firm with a range of legal talent to serve the role of general counsel. They then hire one or more separate firms for specific, highly specialized matters such as labor relations, construction contracts, and estate planning matters, for example. The wise board and president think of these lawyers as counselors, experts to offer advice during the process of decision-making.
In addition, the human resources staff may engage a consultant to conduct a compensation survey, both to ensure equitable policies on campus and to benchmark salaries and benefits with other institutions.
Consultants can be engaged to “take the heat” for an unpopular but necessary action. They can be commissioned to find ways to save money and improve effectiveness. At times, they recommend outsourcing functions, such as dining services, housekeeping, and investment management, to, at least theoretically, save on expenses.
Firms are hired to assist in strategic planning and listen to campus constituents’ comments on strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, as well as on priorities for action. The members of the firm interview faculty, staff, and students, and learn about policies that may seem sensible at first blush but that, in fact, may interfere with goals for student success and retention.
Another source of advice is the external chief investment officer, the firm engaged to manage relations with the individual investment managers. Few institutions can afford a full-time, experienced CIO and staff.
Campuses also engage consultants on effective board governance and operations. Consultants can also provide helpful guidance when searching for senior officers, building alumni relations programs, developing fundraising capacity, designing annual giving programs, and preparing for a comprehensive capital campaign. Some presidents find it helpful to have the campaign consultant talk to the board about the importance of campaigns and the role of the board in providing a major portion of the total sought.
As with all consulting assignments, it is essential to define goals clearly. For example, search consultants must really search for candidates, not simply screen applicants. And if non-traditional candidates are welcome, both the search firm and the search committee must be reminded of it.
Consultants can assist campus leadership in other ways as well, including health services and protocols, government relations, public relations and crisis communications, architecture, space planning, construction management, and advertising and marketing. In recent years, colleges and universities of all sizes and selectivity have spent millions of dollars to promote institutional identity, enrollment, online and continuing education programming, fundraising, employee recruitment, events, and athletic contests. Higher education institutions spend hundreds of dollars per enrolled student, counting staff, travel, the purchase of mailing and email addresses, recruitment travel, and enrollment management consultants.
While most of these consultants are engaged to assist the president and senior team in identifying and planning for institution-wide issues, a campus president may also desire private consulting, a kind of seminar to prepare for discussions with other staff and the trustees. One technique is to hire a coach with whom the president will consult monthly or periodically. Another is to form a president’s advisory council of outside experts.
The purpose of a president’s advisory council is to provide an informal venue for discussing ideas that are not fully formed and not ready for presentation to the board of trustees. The council can consist of a small group of experienced executives and professionals or a larger group of alumni and other regional leaders.
Another approach for seeking advice is to invite focus groups of employers, neighbors, and others to discuss institutional plans, regional employment needs for college graduates, and construction and zoning issues, among others.
These formal and informal sources of assistance are important aides to the leader who wants to broaden his or her perspective.
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