College scandals remind us that fiduciary responsibility entails more than finances.

The prestige of being a top higher education leader is highly alluring.

The perks of the office, the collaborative leadership style, and the constant focus on maintaining positive public relations on behalf of the institution and the leadership can create a bubble of false security and pride. However, that bubble can quickly burst when fiduciary responsibility has crumbled.

We saw this rupture at Pensacola Christian College (accused of casting out students who reported being sexually assaulted), Bob Jones University (students reporting sexual assault were called liars and sinners and told by school administrators not to report their attacks to the police because it would hurt Jesus) and Brigham Young University (a student was raped and the university charged her with violating its code of conduct).  And, Christianity Today reported that on May 30, 2018, the board of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary unanimously fired President Paige Patterson and stripped him of his retirement benefits. The accusations include rapes and mishandling of sexual abuse allegations.

None of these, though, are more egregious than those of Penn State or Michigan State at which resignations and/or lawsuits and/or jail time resulted for their leaders.

The resignation of Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon should serve as another reminder to higher education leaders that what happens on campus is ultimately their responsibility, REGARDLESS whether they knew about it or not. Why? Because the university failed to protect the victims, and they were in charge at the time.

Simon’s fall should sound familiar. Similar athletic scandals brought down top leaders at Penn State and Baylor, and in some cases led to criminal charges. However, scandals are not limited to the college stadium or arena. Scandals concerning student cheating, research, IT hacking, and financial issues have rocked the top offices of the ivory tower. Therefore, it is critical that the lure and trappings of the presidential office do not overshadow the basic requirements of being a leader.

We live in new and daunting times, and higher education leaders are increasingly “being pulled in different directions than their predecessors,” wrote Jonathan Gagliardi on American Council of Education’s Higher Education Today blog.

“Chief among their responsibilities is the need to guide their institutions through a series of transformational changes that will ensure their impact long into the future. This ultimately means serving the student of the 21st century, reinventing academic programs and student services, and reconsidering finance models.”

In light of these factors, we at The Change Leader believe that to succeed in these challenging times, presidents have to return to the basic tenets of leadership.

Embracing the Foundations of Leadership

During my days at the Naval Academy, we were taught that three legs comprise the leadership stool: authority, accountability, and responsibility. It seems that a review of each leg is needed here:

Authority.  Higher education leaders should not delegate their authority away to the point that they are unable to maintain a meaningful level of accountability. It can be tempting to turn major issues or projects over to a trusted lieutenant to handle. However, in today’s polarized environment that is driven by social media, higher education leaders would be wise to post (and regularly refer to) President Harry S. Truman’s signage that stated, “The buck stops here.”

Accountability. Higher education’s top leaders must make sure that accountability is part of their daily schedule. “People respect what you inspect” is another adage that needs to remain at the forefront of a university leader’s mindset.

Responsibility. Higher education leaders need to claim responsibility when things don’t turn out well. Doing so builds trust among an institution’s various constituents and can help prevent a long and drawn out public relations nightmare. Claiming responsibility also sets the tone for organizational culture that extends deeply throughout the institution, thus helping to create an environment of integrity and excellence.

Responsibility may be the most difficult of the three in today’s litigious environment.  Nevertheless, the greatest leaders take responsibility when things don’t go well (and give the credit to others when they do).

Remaining On (the) Board and Above Board

Leadership issues are not confined to an institution’s administration. Board members increasingly have had to step up to the plate as their own roles have broadened. For instance, boards of trustees now are responsible for fundraising, hiring and firing presidents, and providing feedback on institutional polices, strategic planning, governance, culture, cybersecurity, and risk assessment.

With that said, it’s important for boards to take their proper place in higher education. Nominating committees must put people on higher ed boards who understand education and good governance, not just how to pastor a church.

To maintain a high level of responsibility, boards need to balance not rubberstamping recommendations put forward by higher education administrators, while at the same time, not micromanaging the institution’s day-to-day activities.

They can do this by embracing due diligence. They also need to be engaged, conscientious, curious and positive while being both strategic and tactical in their thinking.  This can be a delicate balancing act given the new responsibilities required of boards and their members.

While boards have had a history of only wanting to speak to the university president about university matters, accrediting agencies are concerned about boards undercutting the president, getting involved in the president’s realm, and not giving the president freedom in how he or she implements board policies.

Boards can meet the concerns of accrediting agencies and their fiduciary responsibilities by keeping a finger on the pulse of all things going on at the institution.  According to the Blue Ribbon Commission report by the National Association of Corporate Directors, “Because of its significant interdependencies with strategy and risk, active monitoring of the organization’s culture is a full-board responsibility, with specific oversight activities housed in committees as appropriate.”

This includes ensuring outliers — those who operate outside the norms of the institution — are reined in and/or dismissed from the institution.  Just because you have a superstar working for you doesn’t mean that he/she should be allowed to behave in ways that are outside the organization culture.

Furthermore, board members also have fiduciary responsibilities that cannot be delegated. Fiduciaries hold a position of trust, must act with the highest good of the organization in mind and should maintain a higher standard than the professional staff.

There are three core fiduciary responsibilities: duty of care, duty of loyalty, and duty of obedience.

Duty of care means treating the university’s affairs — financial oversight, compliance with laws, and commitment to the institutional mission and rules — with the same care as they should be doing with their own individual responsibilities.

Duty of loyalty requires a trustee to put the university’s interests first, practice personal integrity and transparency, support the Board’s decisions, and adhere to the university’s conflict of interest policy.

Duty of compliance ensures that the university is in alignment with all federal, state, and local laws as well as institutional bylaws and policies.

As fiduciaries, board members must realize that their individual duties as trustees make them personally responsible and liable for actions, errors and omissions. The whole board also shares responsibility and liability to broadly ensure that the university fulfills its mission while remaining legally compliant and financially sound.

This is a particularly important requirement that is sometimes overlooked by board for smaller and newer Christian Colleges and Universities.  Their board members are sometimes selected because they “pastor of the local church” or the like, not because of their higher ed and/or business expertise.

Nominating Committees (and yes, there needs to be nominating committees for board members) MUST ENSURE that the board has the requisite skills required for running and overseeing a business corporation, as nearly all colleges are incorporated businesses and require their being run like one. Their accrediting agency will encourage the school to develop a board with various areas of expertise (e.g., law, finance, education …and some members with pastoral experience).

Privileges and Responsibilities: Call to Action

We are seeing the backlash first-hand. Too many have turned a blind eye to the bad/criminal behaviors that have given rise to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. Frankly, it’s about time.  These behaviors have NO PLACE in society, but especially NOT in higher ed, as we have a special charge for being responsible for those who interact with vulnerable populations.

Vulnerable populations are not only defined in terms of research and 45 CFR 46 and/or Title IX; they are defined as ANYONE who because of their relationship and what they might have to lose are put in a position that might make them vulnerable.

In the Navy, there used to be a saying, “RHIP” — rank has its privileges.  The rejoinder to that is RHIR — rank has its responsibilities.

In the U.S. Navy, a “collision at sea” generally results in the commanding officer (CO) of the ship or the squadron CO of the aircraft being relieved of his/her command if there are “mistakes” on the part of people for whom they have responsibility.  To wit: In the past six months, there have been two collisions at sea of U.S. Naval vessels in the Pacific Fleet, and both commanding officers and the fleet commander were relieved of their command. Moreover, the commanding officers of the ships involved are being brought up on criminal charges.

This is an unprecedented level of accountability, even for the Navy, but when someone is appointed to command of the Naval vessel, he/she is responsible for EVERYTHING that happens to the ship — good AND bad — because they set the tone and culture for the organization, including the training that the sailors must undergo to do their jobs effectively.

It is the same for the chief executive of an institution of higher learning.

As a leader, it is our responsibility to ensure the safety of our charges to the best of our ability.

Organizations such as Michigan State, Penn State, Baylor, and other institutions failed in their duties.

With Penn State, criminal charges were brought. In the Michigan State case, a special prosecutor has been appointed to investigate what employees knew.  This is needed, especially since the New York Times reported that the Michigan State internal investigation (which reported that no one in the chain of command knew of Nasser’s actions) was not independent and was created solely to shield the university from potential liability.  The state’s attorney general indicated that criminal charges are possible.

Some people do not agree. They question how we can hold someone in a leadership position responsible for something they knew nothing of.  For someone who doesn’t come from a military background (or perhaps doesn’t understand leadership), this would appear to be correct.  However, the chief executive / leadership of an organization sets the tone and culture for that institution, and she/he is responsible for everything that happens in that institution.  RHIR.

I am not sure what it will take to get people to realize that being on the board or in a senior leadership position at a university isn’t just for the prestige, visibility / connections, and perks. There are clear fiduciary responsibilities that must be taken seriously.  I hope and suspect that the increasingly vocal movements for accountability will have some effect.


  • Drumm McNaughton

    Dr. Drumm McNaughton is a higher education innovator, strategic management pioneer, / turnaround / mergers specialist, and governance expert. With experience in multiple industries, he has stimulated transformation and propelled double-digit growth at higher ed institutions, startups, and Fortune 500 companies, leveraging his extensive international experience having lived overseas 19 years and worked / traveled in 50+ countries. His change initiatives and counsel have resulted in over $500 million to organizations’ bottom line.

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