Dec. 21, 2007
By Joe Brennan
An ad-hoc committee of the Ohio University Board of Trustees charged with examining the procedures for evaluating the performance of the university president heard from a national expert yesterday in Columbus.
The five-member panel asked Robert Woodbury, a consultant from the Association of Governing Boards, to talk about best practices in presidential evaluation. Woodbury, who earned a doctorate in American studies at Yale, was president of the University of Southern Maine and then chancellor of the seven-campus University of Maine system. He has consulted for boards in more than 25 states and has served as a trustee for Amherst College and the American University in Bulgaria.
AGB Guidelines for Annual Presidential Evaluations
What to do:
- Lay the foundation for assessment during the search process with clear expectations for performance.
- Establish a board policy for the review process. Consult with the president and revise it as appropriate.
- Base the assessment on agreed-upon goals and benchmarks.
- Make the president's written self-assessment statement the central element in the process.
- Seek legal counsel on confidentiality and open-meeting/open-record laws to clarify what should or will be confidential, especially if yours is a public college or university.
- Complete the process in as short a time as possible (about one month).
- Schedule a private meeting with the president and board committee (including the board chair) to discuss the review. Include a synthesis of the board's feedback on performance.
- Use the review process to agree on goals for the coming year.
- Follow up with appropriate recommendations about compensation adjustment.
- Review the assessment process each year and make needed changes.
- Make annual assessments part of a cycle that includes periodic board self-assessments and comprehensive assessments of the board and president.
- Remember that assessment is not a substitute for regular, ongoing communication between the president, the board and its leaders.
What to avoid:
- Don't initiate a review in response to a crisis or event.
- Don't impose a process on the president without providing him or her with the opportunity to participate in shaping it.
- Don't use rating scales or checklists to collect information about the president -- they are ineffective tools that demean the process and the presidency.
- Don't delegate the board's responsibility for reviewing the president to other constituents.
- Don't breach confidentiality.
- Don't make the review a meaningless, pro forma review.
Source: Merrill P. Schwartz, Board Basics: Annual Presidential Performance Reviews. Washington, DC: Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.
Woodbury said that the evaluation process he recommends is based on research and on AGB's decades of work with governing boards. The primary purpose of the AGB model of presidential evaluation is to improve the president's and the board's joint leadership of the institution. "The goal is how the president can be more effective and how the presidency can be more effective."
He said that most university boards conduct an annual review that focuses on the accomplishments of the past year. This type of review does not typically involve extensive input from faculty, staff, students and other stakeholder groups. "It is an act undertaken by the board and the president alone, and its purpose is to review how goals have been carried out in the last year and set the goals for the coming year. It is an organized conversation."
In addition, many boards conduct a comprehensive presidential review every four to seven years. The major difference between the annual and the comprehensive review, Woodbury explained, is that in the comprehensive review "the board is trying to have a longer term view, and they are reaching out to stakeholders."
These stakeholders often include the leaders of campus bodies, such as faculty senators or student government officers, as well as students and faculty who have had contact with the president, rank-and-file employees and external sources, such as public officials, community leaders, alumni and donors.
Woodbury also said that although boards sometimes bring in external consultants to help gather input from these varied audiences, trustees must not delegate to the consultant their responsibility for evaluating the president. "The number one duty of a board is to set the mission of the university. The number two duty is to select, evaluate and support the chief executive."
Woodbury several times stressed the importance of maintaining confidentiality around the evaluation because that encourages a frank, open conversation between the board and the president. "If a personnel action becomes public, people will pull their punches," the veteran educator observed. "The argument against confidentiality is that how we reach decisions should be more transparent. But I would argue that the effect [of an open personnel process] is just the opposite. It forces people to hold one-on-one conversations. It inhibits frankness."
Also at the meeting, Student Trustee Tracy Kelly presented comments she'd solicited from the leaders of the five university senates. "They want input to the process, and they want the board to accept written documents," Kelly said. "We should not be afraid to be progressive in this respect."
Committee chairwoman Sandra Anderson said, "The committee now has a full basket of resources, including information on peer institutions and other Ohio universities, advice from a national expert, and input from some of the university's stakeholders. We will draw upon these resources to develop a recommendation for the full board."
Anderson will prepare a draft policy and procedure statement for the committee to discuss at its next meeting, tentatively slated for Jan. 3 at 10 a.m. at the Ohio University Pickerington Center.
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