Leader, Listener, Liaison: How Presidents Can Foster Trust in Academic Communities

The world is changing. Higher education must also change. Such words are now said so often they hardly seem provocative.  And, a quick read of the news quickly illustrates the necessity of change (or at least the implications for not doing so). An increasing number of colleges and universities are reorganizing, merging, or closing.

The key now is not simply recognizing that change needs to happen, but understanding how quickly and in what way change needs to occur. This also disrupts notions of what the role of the college president is – which we partly unpack here.

The Ever-Changing Role of Institution Presidents

Presidents are being looked to for more and different leadership as they guide their college or university through uncertain and often uncomfortable times. The world, it seems, changes at a faster pace than colleges and universities are able, or willing, to change. In the past, many leaders attempted to weather changes until better times returned. Such approaches have proven not to work, as the environment that we now operate in is fundamentally different – the students are different, perceptions of the value of a higher education are different, accountability is different, finances are different, and expectations for everything from access to student services and even post-graduation success are different.

Great Expectations

Presidents must navigate the university and its many communities through those changes, at the same time positioning the institution intellectually and financially for the future. They are looked to for stability, leadership, vision, resource generation, representation and advocacy, and are expected to be as well versed and as comfortable with the campus’ history and politics as they are about the broad and changing landscape of higher education. Presidents are the bridge between their campus and the rest of the world.

Yet, change can be hard, both individually and institutionally.

In the midst of change, people need to feel that they are heard, and leaders need to garner understanding from those who will or are experiencing the change. As such, presidents are also expected to be great listeners – authentic, inclusive, and responsive – and to model that behavior for their leadership team and the campus. While it is understood that the president must also be decisive and balance many demands/expectations, it is nonetheless expected that s/he is respectful of shared governance, responsive to internal and external stakeholders, and actively engaging, listening, and hearing. It is expected that the president is an informed and inclusive decision maker.

Presidents who listen carefully soon realize the contradictory roles that they are often asked to play. Presidents are expected to provide stable yet visionary, cautious yet ambitious leadership. Boards and faculty often have different understandings and expectations of the president, the functioning of the university, and their respective governance roles. In many ways, the president serves as a liaison (what the org theorists call a boundary spanner) among these various groups.

It is by no means an enviable position – living between various groups, but never being part of one.  Yet, that is the role of the president – listening and liaising among them and then, hopefully, moving the institution forward.

How Presidents Can Meet the Challenge

The president can help clarify roles, unpack differing opinions, unfounded judgments, and shared understandings. This takes careful listening and engagement. Whether it is working with the governing board (e.g., trustees, regents, visitors) faculty senate, or other university governing body, the president can play an important role in helping each understand institutional challenges and how to move forward collectively.

Part of this role is meeting with these groups. Not simply to articulate one’s vision, but to listen carefully to the concerns and ideas and respond to questions. One option may be to conduct listening tours with all faculty and staff each fall, as does Havidán Rodríguez, president of the University at Albany, and an AGB Institute for Leadership & Governance faculty member. Or, hosting “Chancellor’s Questions” as did SUNY Chancellor Emeritus and Institute Co-Director Nancy Zimpher did with the system-wide faculty senate twice a year.  And, while it is important for the president to be seen; it does not always have to be the president. High level delegates can often stand in; but the focus on active listening and engagement is still essential.

Presidents may need to help the board understand how shared governance functions, the role of the faculty, and when and how to be visible on campus. Having faculty and staff either on the board or engaging with the board can be helpful in opening dialog and fostering understanding. Presidents may also need to help the faculty better understand the board’s responsibilities to the institution and specific expectations of the president. The president plays a critical role in breaking down barriers created by mistrust or misunderstanding. High functioning governance can only exist with a president who is successful in this bridging role.

And we cannot forget about the importance of the student voice. Student governance plays an important role in the evolution of the college/university, and students have long demonstrated interest in having a say in the direction of the university, and feeling empowered to create change. The more they understand about the university and its management and oversight, the better positioned they will be to have impact and the less likely they will seek more disruptive (and less productive) means of garnering attention. Presidents can help create this understanding and facilitate opportunities for input and engagement.

Only when there is trust among groups built through the listening and liaising of the president can the person in that role effectively lead an institution through meaningful change.

By: Dr. David Rosowsky, Professor of Civil Engineering and former Provost and Senior Vice President, University of Vermont; Participant (inaugural cohort), AGB Institute for Leadership & Governance

Dr. Jason Lane, Professor of Higher Education & Leadership and Interim Dean, School of Education, University at Albany (SUNY); Co-Director, AGB Institute for Leadership & Governance. 

Posted on 10.21.2019