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Collaborative Strategic Leadership and Planning in an Era of Structural Change: Highlighting the Role of the Governing Board

The dislocations of the financial crisis and the great recession of 2008 revealed deep fault-lines in both the business and educational models of colleges and universities. Since that time, enormous energy has been invested in cutting budgets, shrinking programs, and pressing for new resources, but the structural challenges of affordability, sustainability, and educational quality remain unresolved. In January 2013, the bond rating agency Moody’s indicated a negative outlook for the financial position of higher education, noting that net revenues continue to decline and that the business model of most institutions of higher learning, including many major universities, remains unsustainable.

The financial challenges would be quite enough, but the educational model is also fractured. Often within, and commonly beyond higher education, we no longer find confidence in what students should learn, or whether they are learning “what matters.” Trend lines also cast doubt that the rates of degree and credential completion in the United States can sustain economic growth and meet the needs of a democracy. Recent state surveys of starting salaries and constant streams of polling data show that students, their parents, and many policy makers, including several governors, believe that preparation for jobs alone defines educational value rather than the broader value of study in the arts and sciences. Innovations in online learning in MOOCs and new courseware for teaching basic skills evoke college doomsday scenarios for some, and a low-cost panacea for others. Whatever else, these possibilities sharply focus attention on the issues of structural change.

The Culture of Academic Decision Making

These forms of change are daunting for any organization, but doubly so for colleges and universities. Though often not recognized, more difficult than either the economic or the educational disruptions are the limitations of the academy’s decision-making model and its forms of leadership. As influential leadership scholar James Macgregor Burns suggests in Transforming Leadership, nothing etches the contours of effective leadership more sharply than the ability to mobilize others to deal productively with change. When change reaches the basic elements of organizational life it forces us to rethink the very assumptions behind our purposes, and to recast the presuppositions beneath the way we make decisions and use resources. At times like these, collaborative campus leadership in many forms and levels from staff and faculty, to presidents and governing boards, becomes indispensable. More often than not, however, these forms of interactive leadership have a hard time emerging on campus, and issues of fundamental change are avoided because the conflicts are too deep and the conversations too painful.

Why is this so? Those who have studied and participated in leadership in higher education often trace the explanation to the mental models we hold about the effectiveness and legitimacy of the decision-making processes and protocols in academic communities. As they must, expert knowledge, professional autonomy, and academic freedom drive the system and explain much of the resourcefulness and creativity of academic professionals to enlarge and convey knowledge. Yet below that system of autonomy and its strengths is an accompanying resistance to change and a cumbersome method of making decisions. Every campus knows the problems of fragmented decision making driven by decentralization of authority in departments and programs that are largely self-governing. Issues that cross boundaries like general education, innovation in teaching and in curricular programs, the quality and evaluation of student learning, moral and civic education, and retention and graduation rates are dealt with on a piecemeal basis, often in separate faculty and staff committees that work in isolation. What is often called the “independent contractor” model of faculty work, in which disciplinary identification takes precedence over organizational citizenship, suggests a whole set of personal and professional prerogatives that complicate change. These faculty members’ issues—from setting office hours to deciding who teaches what and when—are often settled by privilege and preference rather than shared responsibility.

Most significantly, though, the challenges go, again, to the structural level. The discovery of knowledge is a good in itself, and it resists the instrumental forms of measurement and control that come with institutionalization and the realities of markets. The norms of shared governance often reflect these tensions, while depicting the requirements of joint action and consultation as professional and moral obligations. Shared governance has to reconcile two systems of value that resist connection—the intrinsic and instrumental—if it is to deal with the structural challenges of economic and educational change. It is often not up to the task, and needs to be reformulated in a new era. As William Bowen suggested forcefully in the Tanner Lectures at Stanford University in 2012, the academy needs fresh thinking about decision making and governance to confront the challenges and opportunities of a digital age and the unrelenting problem of increased costs in higher education.

Collaborative Strategic Leadership
What is to be done? Since the stakes are so high, the possibilities of integrative and collaborative strategic decision making deserve the concentrated attention of every collegiate leader, both those who hold positions of authority, and those who lead through patterns of influence. The governing board and the president, as well as faculty, staff, and students, all deserve a place at the table. Strategic thinking and decision making is a continuous process that takes many forms at different times in the cycles of change and development, and it should not be the creature of rigid forms of planning that create empty wish lists every five or ten years. Institutions and their major units need above all to define a compelling sense of purpose that authentically reflects their narratives of identity and core capabilities, and that translates into an ambitious agenda for action. The work of strategy is always about integrating the powerful intrinsic values and motivation that come from a strong sense of educational purpose with the need to gain advantage in a competitive and precarious world of limited resources.

Setting a vision and an agenda of priorities are critical components in collaborative strategic leadership, which offers a way to reframe the methods of shared governance, as well. A strategic agenda may be a critical component of leadership, but it does not implement itself. Rather, it frames a variety of ongoing and continuous board, administrative, and faculty deliberations and actions. Now governance can be more than a zero sum game in which the participants debate endlessly about their distinctive rights and powers. It can become a process that creates an integrated set of collaborative decisions.

The Strategic Responsibilities of the Governing Board

More than is often recognized, members of governing boards have a vital role in assuring that both the processes and the results of strategic decision making are woven into the life of the organization. Although boards have their own share of vulnerabilities and challenges, they have the authority and the responsibility to see the institution as a whole with a long view. In a recent set of articles in Change magazine (January/February 2013) under the general title “Leading the University: The Roles of Trustees, Presidents, and Faculty,” Richard Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB); John Lombardi, past president of three major public universities over nearly twenty years; and Gary Rhoades, former general secretary of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), analyze the intense political, organizational, and sometimes cynical challenges to effective campus governance. They reflect on the conundrums of leadership faced by all the parties with a stake in shared governance, drawing on insights and personal experience from a wide variety of sources. As the authors suggest (I both accept and enlarge on their claims), the contemporary debates about leadership and governance have a significant base in research by George Keller, Burton Clark, Robert Birnbaum, James March, Michael Cohen, Richard Chait, and others, as well as in the studies, publications, and policy statements of the AGB concerning the responsibilities of governing boards and presidents. Among the recent studies and statements of the AGB there has been a focus on the board’s role in the oversight of academic quality and the assessment of student learning. AGB issued a formal statement and a set of recommendations in April 2011describing the board’s collaborative responsibilities.

Based on my experience as a faculty member, board member, and chair in both corporate and charitable organizations, and as a college and foundation president for some twenty-five years, I have been privileged to live some of the challenges of decision making in the academy and to contribute to the scholarship on leadership and governance. I have come to the conclusion based on both theory and practice that the boards of organizations increasingly do well to set their fiduciary responsibilities within a strategic framework that is enlivened by the organization’s vital sense of purpose and vision, which can set the terms for the board’s place in the shared leadership of the organization. The board’s important fiduciary duties of oversight of policies and programs, and of financial and physical resources, is enriched and enlivened by a focus on the strategic performance of the institution in reaching the goals it sets for itself.

Many of these points are made pervasively in the literature on leadership and governance suggested above, and are nicely pointed up in a recent article by Carol T. Christ, president of Smith College, called “The Power of Strategic Thinking,” which appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of AGB’s Trusteeship. Christ describes how the Smith faculty and board benefited from taking the long view of strategic economic, demographic, and technological change, free from the pressures of having to develop immediate action plans for next year’s budget and other pressing tactical and operational decisions.

Based on these considerations, we can suggest that there are several dimensions in the board’s strategic work. The board assures and participates in the strategy process, and it adopts, evaluates, and reinforces accountability for the strategy. The board does not formulate the strategy, which is primarily the responsibility of the president, administration, and the faculty; however, the board insists that the work of strategy be accomplished, preferably as a continuous process of integrative planning and decision making.

The board’s duty of assuring that there is an effective strategy process has to go well beyond requiring and overseeing the periodic production of a strategic plan. In particular, the board may have to address and resolve sticky conflicts about the role of various participants in the process, and the status in the governance system of the ideas and priorities that issue from the plan. If the development of strategy is to be an effective process of shared leadership, the board has every reason to set basic conditions, define broad expectations, and press questions about the process itself. Many faculty members in various institutions remain skeptical of the whole notion of strategic decision making since its language and methods are derived from contexts outside the academy. Staff members also often resist the way the tasks of strategy take time and energy away from their operational responsibilities and challenge their independence. The board, as a consequence, needs to be confident that the strategy process can fulfill its potential as a collaborative method of leadership, not simply an episodic method of management. The board will want to ask probing questions to ensure that the conditions for effective strategy are in place to produce a collaborative form of setting directions for the future. Although there is no single script for effective work in strategy, the board will want to know how the elements of strategy can be drawn together into an effective whole to overcome the fragmentation of much campus decision making.

Beyond assuring that the process occurs properly and effectively, the board participates in it. The board can do this in a number of ways, often as individuals who have special talents, expertise, or experience. Board members serve as members of committees and taskforces, sometimes in leadership roles. Strategy benefits immensely from committed individuals with insights and expertise in areas like technology, finance, management, law, advancement, marketing, and communication. Many board members often have an excellent understanding of strategy development itself. They may be especially insightful in analyzing external challenges, so it can be extremely helpful in contributing to an environmental scan. Most have a rich understanding of the organization’s story and identity, though some alumni may be tempted to define it by the unchanging golden years of their attendance. Immersion in the work of strategy usually cures nostalgia. As participants in the work of strategy, board members will know that as individuals they have no special authority–that belongs only to the board as a whole.

Beyond assuring and participating, the board engages with the strategy as it considers adopting it. It does so through an active review and careful scrutiny of the strategy report in draft form, not as the passive recipient of a finished document. At this stage, the board raises probing questions. It asks for evidence in a variety of forms and presses for presuppositions. It looks for inspiration in the values and poetry of the organization’s story and for insight about comparative financial and market position in quantified strategic indicators. Those who formulate the strategy will produce a far better product if they are aware that it will undergo probing analysis and questioning by the board. Through anticipatory responsibility, the authors build a rigor into their work that can meet the high standards that they know will be applied. As a result, the board’s influence is real and substantial without intruding into faculty or staff responsibilities to enact the agenda. The board’s endorsement of the strategy is deepened by its symbolic and real status as the institution’s guarantor and final authority. Through its integrative work, the board’s strategic and fiduciary responsibilities coalesce into one of the elements of integrated leadership, which is leadership that involves an active partnership among the participants.

Monitoring and Evaluation
Once the report is adopted, it becomes a central point of reference in the board’s monitoring and evaluation of progress in fulfilling its goals. Now the board’s monitoring of organizational achievement has a set of strategic benchmarks. This involves the board in shaping and using the metrics, indicators, and information that they will find useful in effectively assessing the aims of the college. The board also does well to organize its own work in committees and as a board around the major goals of the strategy, and in doing so creates more cohesion and vitality in its deliberations. It comes to see clearly how all the pieces of the collegiate puzzle fit together.

Implementation and Accountability
The primary test of any strategy is effective execution. Here again, the board plays a pivotal role in reinforcing the implementation of the plan by holding the president—and through that office the staff and faculty—accountable for results. Major strategic initiatives that are flourishing or languishing will become apparent, giving the board a chance to affirm achievements or to charge the president to develop specific solutions to problems that are being neglected. A whole range of steps from dialogue to counsel, from special studies to board resolutions, can all be in the mix to stir results. The responsibility for fulfilling the goals of the plan can be worked into the annual assessment of effectiveness of the president and other top officers. The strategy gives the board a set of tools to reinforce accountability in ways that support and affirm the work of the president and others on campus and that demonstrate the board’s commitment to the success of the institution.

New Dimensions of Strategy
These strategic responsibilities of the board necessarily take shape only through the continuous renewal and improvement of the critical elements of strategy development that occur on campus through the leadership of the president, administration, and the faculty. The components of the strategy process take on new dimensions and provide integrative forms of leadership when set in the context of the board’s responsibility to set the conditions, expectations, and accountability for the process. Several of these elements are described below.

Strategy Council. The total work of strategy occurs at many levels and in different units, but a central steering committee or coordinating body by whatever name, with broad faculty and staff involvement and effective leadership, is typically a vital part of the process. It assures legitimacy, while also setting a clear sense of direction, developing an agenda for action and providing frequent communication to the campus. The strategic agenda does not displace the responsibilities of existing campus decision-making bodies for deliberation and implementation, but frames their work in strategic terms and sets timelines and expectations for action.

Presidential Engagement. Presidents are involved in the work of strategy in a variety of different forms, and may be more or less visible in the day-to-day work of the Strategy Council. Strategic work is not successful, however, without presidential engagement at a high level of commitment and involvement, especially in the critical tasks of decisions related to vision, implementation, communication, and resources.

Faculty Educational Leadership. Collaborative strategic leadership asks for more, not less, faculty involvement. New mechanisms of coordination and decision making are needed in the ways in which the faculty takes leadership and responsibility for student learning, by recognizing, for instance, those approaches to teaching that demonstrate success. The shared goals of the educational program should be developed and overseen by new or revised faculty bodies such as councils, centers, and “communities of practice.” The aim should be to move away from the passive and disconnected work that often now occurs, for example, in separate educational policy, curriculum, and assessment committees. Links from this work and other sources of faculty initiative should be made directly to the tasks of renewing organizational mission and vision, and to the strategy process.

Communication: Transparent Information and Accountability. If higher education is to respond to change more nimbly, both the public and the campus will need to have more information about the institution and its strategic goals and achievements, especially in student learning. One aim should be to give campus decision makers the information that enables their collaborative leadership and their shared responsibility. Providing information creates a sense of common circumstance and ownership that builds trust and motivates action.

In ways that we might not anticipate, the strategy process can become one of the board’s and the campus’s major vehicles for effective governance and shared leadership of the institution. Through the collaborative deliberations at the heart of a good strategy process, the institution has a method for hearing many voices while integrating decision making and creating a vision for the future. When strategic leadership takes hold in a college or university, the purposes that it serves and the vision that it provides move to center stage. Disagreements and distractions over position and protocols are pushed to the side. In a community like this it becomes nearly impossible to draw sharp lines between those who lead and those who follow. There is more than enough work to go around, and more than enough responsibility to be shared by different individuals and groups in different ways at different times. The work of the board is of defining importance in setting the conditions and crystallizing the motivation for collaborative leadership in a period of fundamental change.



Bowen, W. 2012. The Tanner Lectures, The Cost Disease in Higher Education: Is Technology the Answer?-Palo Alto: Stanford University, 34–35

Burns, J. M. 2004. Transforming Leadership. New York: Grove Press.

Christ, C. T. 2012. “The Power of Strategic Thinking.” Trusteeship 20 (2):

Legon, R., J. Lombardi, and G. Rhodes. 2013.“Leading the University: The Roles of Trustees, Presidents, and Faculty.” Change 45 (1): 24-32.

Morrill, R. 2007. Strategic Leadership: Integrating Strategy and Leadership in Colleges and Universities. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Richard Morrill is the president of the Teagle Foundation.

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