Last week, we considered challenges trustees face when selecting the CEO for a higher education organization. This week, we consider communications among trustees and the CEO, as well as succession planning for the CEO.
CEO and Trustee Communications
To establish a context for my comments regarding communication challenges, consider how the UA System is organized. There are several university systems within the State of Arkansas, including the UA System, the Arkansas State University System, and multiple stand-alone universities and community colleges. The UA System has a 10-person board of trustees, with trustees appointed by the governor for 10-year terms; hence, unless a trustee resigns, the governor makes a single appointment each year. The State Senate must approve the appointments. Arguably, appointment to be a UA trustee is the most prized appointment the governor makes.
The UA’s trustees appoint a president, who is the CEO for the system. The UA system includes five 4-year universities and a medical school (all having graduate programs) and seven 2-year colleges, each with a CEO who reports to the UA System president. In addition, the UA system includes an online delivery program, a division of agriculture, and several other units. From an organizational chart perspective, chancellors report to the president and the president reports to the board of trustees.
As chancellor of the university’s flagship campus in Fayetteville, if trustees communicated with me directly, they bypassed the president. Therefore, when such communications occurred, I informed the president. Likewise, if trustees communicated directly with my team members, I asked them to keep me informed. To avoid being a bottleneck in the flow of information between the board and team members, I encouraged team members to communicate frequently with trustees, but they kept me informed; examples include the vice chancellor for finance and administration (CFO) and his associate vice chancellor for facilities management, as well as the vice chancellor for intercollegiate athletics. If I’d attempted to restrict or limit such communication, first, it wouldn’t have worked, second, it was unnecessary because team members kept me apprised of interactions with trustees, and, third, if I’d done so, trustees could’ve drawn incorrect conclusions regarding my desire for open communication.
Just as it’s an important duty for corporate directors, succession planning is an important duty for trustees. However, anecdotal evidence suggests it occurs far less frequently in academia than in business. Trustees must be ready to deal with unexpected, even tragic, circumstances and be prepared to, at least, appoint an acting CEO when the current CEO is unable to perform his or her duties or has been removed from the position by the trustees. In addition, trustees should ensure CEOs perform succession planning within their organization.
In my role as UA’s chancellor, I knew who the successor would be for each of my direct reports if an unexpected change occurred. To ensure viable candidates would be considered, successors would hold interim appointments, a search committee would be appointed, and permanent successors would be selected. Generally, the person who held an interim appointment was recommended by the person currently holding the position; however, no guarantee was provided because I wanted to avoid placing constraints on the interim appointment. The greatest challenge I faced was identifying the successor to J. Frank Broyles, an icon in intercollegiate athletics.
Broyles was reluctant to engage in a discussion of who I should turn to if he could not perform. He knew several people in intercollegiate athletics who died within a year of their retirement and didn’t want to think about retirement. Finally, I said “Frank, if you are hit by a bus, who should I ask to step in and assist me.” Then, and only then, did he give me a name.
Next Week’s Blog: Higher Education Boards—Part 3