Fortress Head, Fortress School: Attacks from Within and Attacks from Without

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Fortress Head, Fortress School: Attacks from Within and Attacks from Without

Independent schools may have healthy boards operating within healthy governance parameters, or so the leaders of schools think. The head may have had an outstanding tenure, maintaining support among students, faculty, parents and alumni as well as board. And then the unthinkable occurs- teachers, parents or alumni launch an organized effort to unseat the head and/or board. Too often it succeeds.

    1. An Event Becomes a “Conflagration”
      1. Alumni and/or Faculty “Campaigns”

In boarding schools, these efforts tend to come from a few disgruntled alumni who may be fed volatile and partial information from one or more unhappy members of the staff. This was the case five years ago in one of the nation’s premier boarding schools.

A head is retained to make some difficult and potentially controversial decisions concerning boarding life and the quality of faculty commitment to it. Having the backing of the Executive Committee, he believes that he and board will withstand any unpleasant repercussions resulting from an unpopular decision. However, he is undone by a determined alumni group which dominates the larger board and to which the faculty has been funneling hostile information about the head for three years. This small but powerful group forces the head’s resignation mid-year. The school’s reputation is diminished, for a while. The damage could have been more extensive had this not been one of the nation’s best schools. The nastiness of some student and faculty behavior toward the head was truly appalling.

There is another recent story of a boarding school with a long-standing head who is especially popular among the students. His legacy is among the strongest by any measure of performance. Yet, he makes a misstep in dealing with a long term administrator with alumni ties, and the circumstances are communicated poorly to the community. Using e mail and letters, an alumni campaign to unseat him begins. An earlier generation of alumni cites one or two recent unpopular decisions, and the effort gathers momentum. Real or perceived resentments from the past come to the surface and fuel the fire. This creates a power vacuum that undermines the head, the leadership of the board and possibly the fundamental mission and future direction of the school. The many years of good will and the legacy of a valued head are jeopardized. In a unique quirk, a parent-led tide of pro-head support then discredits the alumni group, and forces rally around the Head to extend his tenure.

      1. Parental Influence

In another example, a head in his fifth year terminates a few teachers for performance reasons and to address enrollment concerns. A faculty nurtured campaign is supported by some vocal parents who write the “concerned parent” letter that so many schools have experienced. These parents may represent only a narrow slice of that constituency. In this case, the parents purporting to speak for the entire school make unpleasant and in some cases unfounded allegations about the head’s leadership and the board. The head and board come under attack from elements of both faculty and parents, but for different reasons. The management team is fractured, and the decisions supported by the division heads privately to the head are then disowned privately by the division heads to individual teachers.

In one international school, a parents’ group, which lacks the actual votes to force the head’s resignation but which has been tenacious and vocal in its disapproval of him, has successfully managed to create dissension and fractures within the board and school community. Although the majority of the faculty supports the head, this group’s loud persistent voice has damaged school climate. They demand the head’s immediate departure with no thought given to the effect of precipitous change upon the health of the School, the ability to recruit a new head and upon the head’s personal and professional future.

The board of this school has factions built into its structure: five alumni, five elected parents, three community members and five members of the founding church group. The head has the support of most of the alumni and the community group but not the parent and church group. The board calls for the head’s departure. Some want the head gone now with no face saving exit. Others want to create at least the appearance of a normal departure and a normal search process. The latter logical forces win out.

In another case, a new head finds a faculty member to have had inappropriate relationships with at least one recent graduate, all initiated while the students were in high school. The teacher is popular with parents and faculty. The teacher is dismissed, and turmoil follows including the departure of the head. The board tries to ensure the teacher is rehired, but the new head is able to prevent this. The new head then pays a political price as well. The popularity of the teacher overshadows the morality issues involved.

These are a few of the multitude of stories worldwide that come to our attention each year from independent and international school settings. Such attacks are often mounted by e mail campaigns, sometimes when the school is closed, such as on vacations or in the summer and when the leadership of the board and head may seem absent and vulnerable.

In each case, that vulnerability may stem from the perception that the board and/or head mismanaged a crisis, a termination or an issue, or made a poor decision. Possibly the board’s or head’s decision was, in fact, incorrect. A head’s emotional and defensive response may have fueled the fires of discontent.

However, the danger arises when the reaction of some segments of the community is out of proportion, or at least appears to be, for the size of the perceived mistakes or decisions made. Such perceptions undermine the head or board and create a wider opportunity for an organized discontented group to mobilize.

    1. Reactions of the School Leadership and the Consequences

Most boards, when they first sense the head or they are under fire from one or more constituent groups, stand firm and publicly support the head. However, if and when the second volley of letters and attacks begins from a determined and organized constituent group, the resolve of the previously determined board often weakens. In the worst case, it may break ranks and leak information to and obtain further information from the outside group.The Board creates the clear impression that it is either about to “fold its deck”, or take some other action that the Board just swore publicly it would not do.

When a board does a complete reversal undermining its former public stance, such actions provide an easy opportunity for disgruntled constituent groups to claim “victory” and to seek a broader range of influence beyond the group’s initial, narrow goal.

These groups often claim they speak for the majority of a group. More often they represent the angry voices of an organized minority. For example, in any parent opinion survey, the first third of returned responses are the more negative. People with “causes” tend to respond more quickly than the satisfied client or happy faculty member.

The consequence is a power vacuum, and the school is at risk. If the eventual outcome is the premature or unexpected departure of a key board chair or head, that power vacuum may be filled by a narrow base of alumni, parents and/or teachers who represent and promote their own particular view of the school’s direction and mission.

In addition to the hurt and accusations that are damaging to the parties involved and negatively affect school climate, the school may also experience: less effective fund raising ability; enrollment decline; the loss of key individuals; damage to the success of a head search effort; and a diminished school reputation in the community.

These incidents occur in all kinds of schools from those that appear to be the strongest and best managed to those clearly with a history of troubled board governance and frequent turnover of heads.

Yet most heads and boards are often unaware of the underlying currents within constituent groups that could be ignited by a single incident, staff departure, policy change, decision or comment from a leader. Sometimes heads and boards acknowledge the existence of these underlying tensions and pressures, but believe that they are not a serious threat.

    1. Preventing Crises
      1. Maintaining Linkages

The delicate balance lies in carefully, thoughtfully and methodically building bridges to constituent groups. At the same time, the leader cannot cede important authority or open doors for consultation and decision making that may undermine the ability of the faculty to teach, the head to lead and the board to govern.

Key individuals within the faculty can “hold” the faculty together for the head when a difficult decision is reached whether about a firing, a policy, a change in curriculum, schedule, workload, or compensation. This group of faculty may have no formal power, title or pay but is still a group individually or collectively whom the head trusts and more importantly, whom the faculty, in turn, trust. This is critical if a head is in his very early years and has not yet built the reservoir of political good will he needs to make difficult decisions. A similar scenario may exist if he or she is a long term head who may have fallen into a rut of thinking that old systems are still working.

Vocal and knowledgeable parents, former board members, or influential alumni may also form important sources of information and guidance to the head and board, even if they do not constitute formally any power group or titled role.

Astute heads, and their wise chairs, will know the importance of keeping these valuable informal channels of communication and support open as long as those channels do not undermine existing structures and appropriate channels of communication.

      1. Holding the Base

Those boards that are composed of a majority of individuals, who are accustomed to dealing with crises and tough decisions and in their own businesses and leadership roles, tend to “hold” the ground and negotiate from strength. The leaders of these boards continue to demonstrate unwavering, public support of the head because they know full well the consequences of a show of weakness: the search process for the next head will be undermined, and his or her ability to lead in the power vacuum left in the wake of the previous board’s actions will be compromised.

    1. Strength and Consultation

When a head or board comes under intense criticism from the organizational efforts of a narrow constituent group, there are several actions to consider.

When confronted by an upset constituency, and assuming that previous consultations and linkages recommended above were executed or were unsuccessful, the best defense is a strong offense.

The Chair should call upon the leader(s) of the constituents to meet with him or her or perhaps with the officers of the board. The balance of numbers here is important. The head should ALWAYS be present.

The Chair and head should be prepared immediately to send out a communication to the entire constituency explaining the board’s actions, its meeting with the leadership of the group, and its view of the school’s actions.

The leadership of the school should never fall into these TRAPS:

      • Entering a “tit” for “tat” written campaign of nasty letters or e mail with the leadership of the constituent group. Such groups have normally done a great deal of homework already before they have leveled their first “shot.” Back and forth volleys do not serve the interest of the board or school.
      • Writing the group and the entire constituency, until organized and ready. There should be written communication, but the missive should be forceful, fairly complete, and take the “high road.”
      • Holding “town meetings.” Such meetings, including AGMs (annual general meetings), are usually opportunities for a better organized opposition to embarrass and undermine the board and head.

The legitimate constituent issue or issues should be addressed and corrected. The board should attempt to reduce and eliminate from the group followers who were misled, or joined the attack for a very narrow reason. The leaders of such constituent attack groups often have bigger, deeper, personal agendas that other protestors do not carry.

It is not in the interest of this group’s angry leaders to have the board appear reasonable or to satisfy some of the legitimate concerns raised. That would reduce the clout of the group.

    1. Summary

Healthy schools with effective boards and heads maintain important linkages to constituent groups. They do not “cave” to pressure tactics. They do not create opportunities for schisms on the board. And they never presume that the crisis of constituent anger will not happen to them.

John Littleford
Senior Partner