As an attorney and/or consultant, I have advised institutions of higher education on a wide variety of topics for more than 35 years. The issues have included employee relations, diversity and inclusion, student affairs, disability accommodations, academic freedom, tenure disputes, policy development, internal investigations, studies abroad, risk management, threat assessment, governance, accreditation and institutional development.

My guiding philosophy has been to persuade clients to make the right decision in the best interests of those concerned, including affected students and the institution itself.

While it may seem strange for an attorney to view a client relationship in this way, I had an opportunity to be mentored by outstanding institutional presidents. The president of the first liberal arts college with whom I worked held five degrees, three from Ivy League institutions, and had an outstanding career as an academic. As a president, he was highly regarded for his personal integrity, leadership initiatives and decisions, and fundraising abilities.

I also had the opportunity to work for several years with the entrepreneurial president of the first technical community college in the country to be featured in a very positive article on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. He was creating collaborative partnerships and training programs with local businesses and industries before other institutions were focused on that.

Unfortunately, I have also seen the underside of institutional “leadership” in higher education.

I have observed presidential and trustee self-absorption and incompetency. I have seen presidents and members of a board executive committee structure meeting agendas to avoid informing the larger board, faculty and staff of serious pending problems.

I was involved in a situation somewhat similar to what occurred at Penn State at a small liberal arts college. In that instance, the president, the board chair, other trustees, senior administrators and legal counsel made decisions based on self-interest rather than what was in the best interests of students and the institution.

I have repeatedly seen presidential job performance evaluated solely on laundered information provided by the president, without the board reaching out to verify its accuracy or solicit and consider other important information.

At a point in the late 1980s, trustees at a number of technical community colleges in North Carolina were criticized and faced accreditation issues for maintaining personal contacts and sources of information inside the institution by going around the college’s president.

That approach may have been unprofessional and wrong for a number of reasons, but at least some of the trustees knew what was really happening at the institution. Nowadays I do not believe most trustees know what’s really going on at their institutions — at least at any I am aware of.

There has been a lot of media attention recently regarding serious issues of leadership, governance, integrity and transparency at Penn State; Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey; and several other large universities. However, larger institutions are not unique in a negative sense. Similar problems are just as likely to occur at a small liberal arts college or a community college, but if they do, they may be easier to hide or the glare of the media may be less intense.

In the rapidly evolving world of higher education, we must think more creatively to fix the leadership and governance problems that keep occurring.

Institutions need to commit more resources to training administrators at every level to do their jobs professionally. Just because a professor has a Ph.D. and is a good researcher and/or teacher does not mean he will be a good department chair or dean.

The same is true regarding each of the progressive steps to the presidential level. Regardless of how outstanding they are perceived to be, all administrators need leadership, management and risk-management training to help to ensure that they are fully prepared to make the right decisions in the right way. And a similar focus needs to be placed on incoming board members to ensure that they are also prepared to make the right decisions in the best interests of the institutional mission and, in particular, its students.

Follow these best practice guidelines

The following are some of the key recommendations I have made over the years regarding best practices that need to be occurring on your campus.

Leadership and governance

  • All employees, including the president, should understand why it is inappropriate for them to be represented by the institution’s legal counsel when the institution’s interests and legal positions diverge with theirs.
  • Use legal counsel correctly. Many attorneys tend to be risk-averse and focus on the singular objective of avoiding litigation.
  • Make the right decisions from a common-sense perspective. Take into account the best interests of the students directly involved and those potentially affected, as well as the interests of the campus community generally and the mission, values, reputation and safety of the institution itself.
  • Develop and implement an institutional strategic plan. Ensure it is a living document with broad-based input. Align institutional operations with strategic goals and an assessment plan.

Transparency

  • Ensure that those who enforce your policies and procedures and those who communicate them with the outside world understand and uphold their intent and integrity.
  • Develop a formal process to ensure your board receives input about what is happening from more than just the president and senior administrators.
  • Implement a formalized process for reviewing the yearly performance of not only the president, but also the board members. Hold all accountable for their decisions and actions.
  • Incorporate the Association of Governing Boards’ guidelines and best practices in light of your institution’s mission and culture.
  • Ensure governance and committees disclose major risks for decision-making and action plans.
  • Assess the composition and effectiveness of your governance structure, making sure all board members are “in the know,” not just those on the executive committee.
  • Make clear public statements supported by the facts in response to a crisis situation.

Risk management

  • Involve legal counsel to protect the confidentiality of discussions and documentation when issues may put your institution at risk.
  • Clarify the differences between outside legal and court proceedings and internal student conduct or disciplinary proceedings.
  • Educate administrators and public relations staff regarding the importance of using common sense when sending emails.
  • Involve students, administrators, staff and alumni, when appropriate, in developing strategies to address campus cultural and conduct problems.
  • Implement policies that hold individuals and organizations that break the rules accountable. For serious violations, consequences should include the possibility of suspension or expulsion of students and withdrawal of recognition of student organizations.
  • Implement strategies to ensure there are not serious, undiscovered problems on your campus (e.g., not having whistleblower procedures).
  • Integrate institutional risk management in the daily, unit-level management of the institution.

— Allan L. Shackelford

In memoriam

Allan L. Shackelford, whose articles appeared regularly in Dean & Provost, passed away from ALS on Aug. 26. We will miss his legal guidance, professionalism, collegiality and good nature. Condolences may be sent to his wife, Anne Lundquist, at lundquistanne@gmail.com.