How presidents should engage boards during current protests (opinion)

May 15, 2024
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Among the many phone calls and messages presidents are receiving about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the associated campus challenges, a healthy dose of them probably come from board members.

Trustees are reading the news, thinking about their college or university and its students, faculty and staff members, presidents, and other senior administrators. They are wondering what the proper function and role of the board is in times like these. What should trustees be doing—and not doing—right now?

First a reminder: Administrators, not the boards, should be the lead actors in these situations, while the key role of boards is to hold those administrators to account for wise and unwise acts. Boards can ask for an after-action report from presidents and senior leaders about what happened and with what effects. In addition, these are difficult situations with no familiar playbook, and presidents are under great strain, so board leaders should provide safe harbors for presidents to talk through issues and strategy. Finally, trustees should lend expertise and insight when they have it and when appropriate to those leaders whose job it is to manage the campus.

In other words, the responsibility for framing appropriate board-level conversations in these days of conflict and protest falls to presidents and their senior teams, who should be working in tandem with board leaders. And while the conversations between presidents and boards will be varied, they are likely to fall into four main areas: 1) free speech and academic freedom; 2) campus safety and continuity; 3) student care and well-being; and 4) board governance generally (or “What is the board’s lane here?”). These four areas also all play into one overall concern, the attendant risks, reputational and otherwise, to the institution.

Free speech and academic freedom. If they’ve had good orientations, boards will hopefully not be hearing about the importance of speech freedoms in an academic environment for the first time during this crisis. But presidents would be well served to continue to emphasize that point more often than not.

Presidents should also make sure that their boards are aware that freedom of speech rights vary depending on the type of campus. What is appropriate for a public university is not the same as it is for a private institution. For those at public institutions and state systems, they may not abridge constitutional rights, including free speech. On a private campus, the board should be aware of the rights offered to campus constituents in the form of speech codes, which often mimic the rights found at public campuses but for which interpretation and redress is contractual. For example, has the institution avowed to uphold the University of Chicago principles on campus free expression?

These obligations of law or policy shape and inform other policies. For example, the president should discuss with the board the institution’s policies regarding how a protest may occur on the campus. The conversation should extend beyond the policy language itself and include broader considerations to avoid creating a bigger problem through uninformed acts. This may include such actions as allowing an encampment, as mentioned below, despite policy language that would allow it to be removed. It is helpful if a president reminds boards that what you can do is not necessarily what you should do.

Beyond the legal obligations, a board should understand speech under the broad umbrella of academic freedom. Presidents should explain to boards this importance and its higher education history. A savvy board will seek to protect those freedoms because of their fundamental importance to effective higher education. Although not immediately helpful, a president might consider as a board retreat topic the principles and limits of these various freedoms in case other situations arise in the future.

Campus safety and continuity. Presidents should also engage boards in discussions about what they and their senior teams are doing to mitigate risk and ensure the safety of students as well as other members of the campus and local communities. Giving necessary attention to the safety of students but also faculty and staff is of utmost importance.

Beyond this, presidents should engage boards on business continuity plans. Protesters on some campuses are occupying buildings and offices. Therefore, institutions need to ensure they have and convey to the board, business continuity or incident-management plans for possible disruptions. If offices are inaccessible, how will those units continue to function? How are documents and files secured? How is privacy protected? And then there is the issue of instructional continuity. If classes cannot meet in person, how will learning continue?

In addition, campus leaders should ensure the board that a communications strategy exists and that the institution has a plan to keep the board up-to-date. Often these ideas have been anticipated in continuity or incident-management processes. It is worth offering that reassurance to the board.

Finally, for institutions where student conduct or employee policy violations occur—for instance, interrupting classes or harassing or threatening individuals—reassure the board that the institution has process safeguards in place. Review those processes with the board, including how they may interact with any criminal proceedings initiated by outside authorities. For board members who demand immediate disciplinary action, a solid understanding of these policies, why they exist, how they operate, and in what timeframe, may alleviate some of that urgency. Leaders, and therefore boards, are walking a fine line, so process matters.

Student care and well-being. Boards and presidents should discuss the ways in which the current conflicts in higher education may negatively impact certain students more than others. Some feel the strain more immediately, given their religion and ethnicity or personal and family connections to Israel or Gaza. Others are impacted by the protests on their doorsteps and the contentiousness in their residences, dining halls and classrooms.

Make sure that the board is aware of and focused on all aspects of student well-being, and detail the ways in which the administration is taking needed measures to support students’ mental health, assist those individuals in crises and address their long-term well-being. This strain is not just on students, but also on staff and faculty. Describe what the campus is doing to support its employees, as well.

A fulsome discussion with the board might include the ways in which today’s campus unrest can provide a learning opportunity. Inhabiting an educational institution, students sit in the best possible place to understand what is happening. What higher education does best should not be lost.

Board governance domains. Much of what we’ve described calls on presidents to assure their boards that management is doing its job. But what about the board’s job? Part of that is to make sure management is acting properly, but other issues will work their way onto board agendas.

One example is divestment, as some students are calling on their institutions to cancel any investments in Israel. This is a conversation that should occur between the president and board or at least a subcommittee of it focused on institutional investments. Some institutions, such as the University of Pennsylvania, have divestment guidelines and policies, but many institutions probably do not. And even at institutions that have them, presidents and boards might want to consider assessing whether those guidelines and policies are as helpful as they should be.

Furthermore, the board may be called upon to waive or suspend certain policies. For example, at Michigan State University, the president consulted with board leaders about granting a permit to allow encampment tents for a week, which violated a campus ordinance. Such moves present difficult choices, and presidents would be wise to make them only after careful discussion with the board or at least its leadership.

Reputational risk. Every board considers as part of its purview reputational risk and how what is happening on the campus has implications for their institution’s reputation. The challenge is that stakeholders have different expectations and view reputation differently. Decisions to clear an encampment or leave one intact, as well as institutional explanations of those decisions, may spur a backlash in some corners but support in others. Not everyone will agree with choices and how those choices will play out in the news or in the halls of government, and the risks to colleges and universities can be significant.

Presidents should talk to their boards about reputation and associated risks and what they might mean in terms of public support, alumni engagement, political intrusion and student enrollment. At their core, such decisions are really about trade-offs and balancing different, if not competing, priorities and expectations about the institution.

A final conversation concerns to what extent the board, the president and key constituencies are comfortable with the messages that the actions and explanations convey. Stakeholders, including policy makers, prospective students, alumni and donors, see what the institution does with more clarity than they hear what the institution and its spokespeople say. For examples, institutional choices about the level and type of police intervention conveys much.

In conclusion, not all campuses are facing the same level of contentiousness as shown on the national news. However, among those that are, campus cultures further influence the focus and impact that events will have. Therefore, the conversations in each boardroom will not be the same as it is in others.

One thing holds true for all colleges and universities: At the heart of these and other discussions around the current crisis is a fundamental awareness of the board’s obligation to protect the institution for the long term. Presidents and their senior teams can work to ensure that boards are fulfilling their fiduciary roles by directing boards to the right questions and receiving answers on an appropriate and timely basis.

Peter Eckel is a senior fellow and director of the Global Higher Education Management program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and Rob Farrell serves as general counsel and university secretary at The University of Scranton.



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