Advice From College Presidents On Building Trust to Weather a Crisis
College leaders may be feeling some relief as the spring semester draws to a close. The arrival of May means that many of them officially survived the first wave of important decisions required to respond to COVID-19. As I wrote a few weeks ago, those leaders who put people first as they made these decisions and communicated with vulnerability, kindness and empathy were most likely to get the best results.
As we enter summer, though, college presidents, provosts and deans are facing the next wave of decisions, which looks even more menacing than the first. A striking number of institutions have announced plans to resume in-person instruction in the fall, requiring an unfathomable level of logistical coordination. Nearly a dozen states have announced or started preparing for budget cuts, forcing some public college leaders to consider phasing out academic programs and laying off faculty and staff. For some small private colleges, the loss of tuition or housing revenue in the fall could be financially catastrophic.
College leaders have had to figure out how to keep solvent the institutions they have been hired to manage and keep healthy the people they have been entrusted to serve. This has not gone smoothly everywhere. There have been votes of no-confidence, lawsuits demanding larger refunds, petitions to protect vulnerable employees, and accusations that leaders haven’t been forthcoming about their institutions’ finances.
Some of these cases can be boiled down to disagreement or dissatisfaction with choices. But as a researcher of higher education finance and leadership, I see more at play: the culmination of an erosion of trust between college leaders and their constituents. As challenges multiply, the pandemic will reveal which college leaders have built up a storehouse of trust and why that matters when managing a crisis.
It is easy to say trust matters but harder to know how to achieve it. I put this question to my Twitter followers, and many of them lifted up their leaders as examples. This prompted me to call three college presidents and a vice president for student affairs, leaders at the types of institutions that most Americans attend, yet that rarely receive the attention they deserve, including a rural community college, a private college serving low-income students of color, and two regional public universities.
Here’s what they had to say about the value of trust and how it has factored into their pandemic leadership.
Invest In Trust Capital
Trust is a critically important resource for college leaders—just as important as financial or political resources. For this reason, I think of trust as a type of capital that needs to be cultivated over time through regular investments. When college leaders have built up trust capital, their constituents, including faculty, staff, students, parents, alumni and others, may be more inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt or suspend skepticism. Rather than meet decisions with reactive opposition or suspicion, these constituents may be more open to leaders’ ideas and more willing to provide some latitude. To trust someone is to know them and know the values underlying decisions.
Researchers have noted that trust in higher education fosters both institutional progress and resilience in times of crisis. In fact, they called it one of five essential ingredients in shared governance, which the Association of Governing Boards defines as “the process by which various constituents … contribute to decision-making related to college or university policy or procedure.” Shared governance can also build greater trust, creating a virtuous cycle that improves the quality of decisions and establishes systems of accountability. When trust is breached, problems can deepen, making the collaborative decision-making necessary to enact solutions almost impossible. It’s no surprise that all four leaders I interviewed mentioned shared governance, co-leadership and inclusive leadership as important components of building trust across campus.
This does not mean trust capital eliminates conflict or ensures popularity. No one cheers news of layoffs or budget cuts. Nevertheless, by investing in trust capital, college leaders can avoid needless conflict, reduce misunderstandings, gain the support of key stakeholders and increase the likelihood that their plans will come to fruition and have the desired effect.
Trust Is Earned
None of the leaders I spoke with assumed they would be trusted simply because they were in a leadership role. All of them made intentional efforts to build up trust over time and saw this as an ongoing process.
When Patricia McGuire became president of Trinity Washington University in Washington, D.C., more than 30 years ago, it was after the institution had cycled through several presidents in quick succession. The board chair instructed her to “fix it or close it.”
She quickly learned that the “reservoir of mistrust, hurt and pain was so deep. There had been no raises for years,” she says.
McGuire estimates that it took her five to six years to overcome that trust deficit and to navigate many hostilities and fears stemming from wounds that she says her predecessors inflicted. She says she chipped away at the mistrust, in part, by always caring for people, including by never again freezing faculty salaries—a promise she has kept for three decades.
Geoffrey Mearns, the president of Ball State University in Indiana since 2017, got to work right away building trust. He cautions against waiting too long to do so.
“In good times, you have to be building credibility and trust with your various constituents because you won’t be able to do it in the midst of a crisis,” he says.
Mearns dedicated a good chunk of his first year as president to doing “walking tours” of campus.
“My wife and I literally walked every office on campus,” he says. “Every faculty office, every staff office, every facilities location.”
Each tour was several hours long, but Mearns believes it made a difference: “I can’t tell you how many times I heard from people, ‘I’ve been here 23 years and no president has ever come to my work station.’”
Start With Values
Clearly articulating values and sticking to them were essential first steps to building trust for these college leaders. Now, in the midst of significant uncertainty caused by the pandemic, pointing to those same values can help leaders provide their constituents with some sense of what to expect. Although faculty, staff and students may not be in the room when all decisions are being made, they may find comfort in knowing the values their leaders bring to the table.
Will Simpkins is the vice president for student affairs at Metropolitan State University of Denver. In his very first meeting with the division he leads, Simpkins made clear the three main priorities of their work: career success, student engagement, and equity and inclusion.
“We haven’t deviated from that since. Those should be our organizing principles,” he says. “And that’s more important now than ever.”
Simpkins says that even if he doesn’t know the answer to every question posed in the open meetings he regularly hosts, at least his constituents know the big ideas that have animated the division’s work.
Values was one of the very first things Mearns at Ball State mentioned in our conversation. Although strategies may change, any big decisions should reflect the values that have carried the institution forward for years, he says.
“In my communications,” Mearns explains, “I’ve been very intentional from the start to continue to emphasize our commitment to values. I always refer to them as ‘our enduring values.’”
Truth All the Time
This is perhaps a no-brainer, but telling the truth came up frequently in my conversations with college leaders as a vital way to build trust.
“I’m from the Carribean,” says Yves Salomon-Fernández, the president of Greenfield Community College in Massachusetts. “We tell it like it is.”
She says she has always been candid, which may have been a little shocking to others at first, but people now seem to appreciate it. This approach has been essential to making hard decisions during the pandemic, according to Salomon-Fernández.
“My ‘yes’ is a ‘yes,’ my ‘no’ is a ‘no,’ and my ‘I don’t know’ is truly ‘I don’t know and I need to think it over,’” she explains.
Being consistently honest is essential to trust, agrees Maguire at Trinity Washington University. But don’t confuse that with being popular or loved. Rather, aim to be respected for being transparent and making hard choices, she advises.
“You build a reservoir of trust over the years when they realize you're being consistent, you’re telling the truth, you’re not sugarcoating reality, but also living up the value of taking care of people first,” she says, adding that deans and faculty members have told her in the past few weeks they trust that she’s “doing the right thing.”
Practice Humility and Remove Barriers
One of the more salient themes in my conversations was how these leaders strive to interact with the campus communities they serve. They say they seek to eschew pomp and to break down barriers that can emerge in an organizational hierarchy.
The hardship of COVID-19 hits close to home for Salomon-Fernández at Greenfield Community College. This enables her to try to operate from a place of deep empathy with the rural community her institution serves.
“My mom is not working right now because she’s a childcare provider,” she says. “My dad has lost his job and is commuting to a job that pays slightly above minimum wage. So, I know what it’s like. I want to treat people as I would want my family treated.”
Too many presidents get swept up in trying to assert their power or protect their own position, according to McGuire at Trinity Washington.
“Sometimes presidents miss the understanding of how you’ve got to work shoulder-to-shoulder with the people you’re trying to lead,” she says. “You can’t get too distant from them.”
Mearns at Ball State has made spending time in the community a hallmark of his presidency. People are used to seeing the president at nice restaurants or a country club, he says, but he’s tried to visit parts of the community where the president hasn’t traditionally gone, such as local churches and small businesses.
“It’s not a big show,” he says. “We prefer to be in those places when we’re not working more than country clubs, so it’s very natural for us.”
When a crisis hits, Mearns explains, there’s a void of information that people have a tendency to fill with cynicism. But if people know you, they’re more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt. That will be tested in the months ahead, when there will be no shortage of difficult decisions for college leaders to make. Their success may well depend on the extent to which they have invested in trust capital in the months and years leading up the pandemic. Although a crisis isn’t the ideal time to build up trust capital, it’s never too late for a leader to center honesty, humility and shared governance.