Academic journal article Community College Review

A Case Study of Select Illinois Community College Board Chair Perspectives on Their Leadership Role

Academic journal article Community College Review

A Case Study of Select Illinois Community College Board Chair Perspectives on Their Leadership Role

Article excerpt

The leadership perspectives of three community college board chairs were examined in a multiple-case study. Qualitative data were collected and analyzed. The themes of facilitation, communication, information, participation, expectation, and collaboration emerged from the data. The author summarizes the chairs' perspectives and offers a guide to board chair leadership.


Generally, leadership studies in higher education tend to focus on the role of the president or other administrators, and the leadership role of the chair has been largely ignored. However, in the past few years, a growing body of literature has recognized the leadership exhibited by the chair in setting the tone of board governance, in contributing to the effectiveness of the president and, ultimately, in ensuring the success of the institution.

   The quality of its leadership can make or break a board. Good
   governance requires sound leadership and is inhibited by weak
   leadership. Although an excellent board chair does not guarantee
   superior governance, a poor or inadequate one nearly always
   thwarts it. (Orlikoff, 2000, p. 24)

Ineffective leadership from the chair can create instability on the board of trustees. One of the criticisms of the trustees of public institutions by presidents is that too often they can be "fractionated and fractionalized" (Bailies, 1996, para. 14). A chair who is unable to form the board into a cohesive unit will not be able keep it attentive to the important governance functions of the institution. Without effective leadership from the chair, a board can easily become divided and distracted from the business of governance by seemingly insignificant issues.

The effectiveness of the president also depends, in part, on the leadership of the chair. The chair acts as the liaison between the board and the president (Orlikoff, 2000). In communicating with the board and the president, the chair gains insight into the likely reaction of the trustees to actions contemplated by the president (Ingram, 1993). In performing this function, the chair is directly involved in the effectiveness of the president by gauging the satisfaction or dissatisfaction of the board without a formal proposal from the president. "Nothing is more critical to the president's effectiveness than the relationship of the board chairperson to the president" (Kauffman, 1993, p. 133). The chair and president working together as a team communicate a message of stability to the entire institution, and such teamwork aids the president in achieving his or her goals. In the ideal situation, the chair provides the president with dependable support, trustworthy advice, and even friendship (Ingram, 1993). The leadership of the chair is an integral factor in demonstrating support for the president, which enables the president to project the confidence needed to influence the direction of the institution.

The relationship between the chair and the president is one of the most important factors determining the success of the institution (Clos, 2000). The chair and the president are joined in a partnership, and they "must learn to dance together" (Chait, Holland, & Taylor, 1996, p. 123). The president must recognize the responsibilities and burdens of the chair in leading the board of trustees and in dealing with external constituencies. The chair must facilitate the leadership of the president within the institution and provide a bridge to understanding the board of trustees. To have a successful relationship, "neither can stray far from each other's gaze or proceed independently" (Chait et al., 1996, p. 123). Cooperation and collegiality are keys to a successful partnership.

The Role of the Chair

The board chair has been described as "the most important officer of the board" (Smith, 2000, p. 35), and the "first among equals" (Davis, 1992, p. 164). The position of the leader of the board distinguishes the chair from the other trustees, and the responsibilities associated with the position are significant. …

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