As a senior leader, you need a strong working relationship with your board. Unfortunately, there’s no manual for how to do that. As a result, most leaders end up learning through experience (read: observation, hard work, and some painful mistakes).

In our latest Higher Ed Marketing Lab podcast, we sit down with Joel Bauman, SVP of Enrollment at Duquesne University, and Karen Foust, former EVP of Enrollment at Hendrix College, to talk about the finer points of building collaborative, productive relationships with board members.

We discuss:

  • Important ways board members can differ in their approach to the role
  • Tips for effectively communicating the complexities of your work
  • Why trying to be the smartest person in the room can backfire with board members
  • The right way to go about delivering bad news
  • How to respectfully nudge a board member back into their lane when they start to overreach.

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Transcript

Jarrett Smith:
You’re listening to The Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m your host, Jarrett Smith. Welcome to The Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m Jarrett Smith. Each episode, it’s my job to engage with some of the brightest minds in higher education and the broader world of marketing to bring you actionable insights you can use to level up your school’s marketing and enrollment efforts. This podcast is the second installment in our VP Summer Series, which is a miniseries focusing on the unique challenges facing senior enrollment and marketing leaders. In this episode, we’ll be discussing the critical task of building strong relationships with your trustees. Joining us in the conversation is Karen Foust, former EVP of enrollment at Hendrix College, and Joel Bauman, senior VP for enrollment management at Duquesne University. Also, joining us is Echo Delta’s own, Laura Martin Fedich, who’s my cohost for this series.

We cover a ton of interesting territory in this episode, including important ways board members can differ in their approach to their role, tips for helping board members understand the complexities of your work, why trying to be the smartest person in the room can backfire when you’re meeting with board members, the right way to go about delivering not-so-good news, and how to respectfully nudge a board member back into their lane when they start to overreach. Karen and Joel shared a wealth of hard-fought wisdom on this topic, that I know will be relevant to anyone who has to interact with board members on a regular basis. So, without further ado, here’s our conversation with Karen Foust and Joel Bauman. Karen, Joel, welcome to the show.

Karen Foust:
Great to be here. Thanks for inviting us.

Joel Bauman:
Thank you, Jarrett. It’s a real honor.

Jarrett Smith:
Laura and I are so excited to have you here. Really looking forward to this conversation on building great relationships with your trustees. Before we jump into that, I would love it if you could just take a moment to tell us a little bit about your professional background and work in higher ed. Karen, why don’t we start with you?

Karen Foust:
Well, most recently, I was the executive vice president for enrollment at Hendrix College, and retired from there a few years back. Prior to that, I was at Valparaiso University in Indiana. For a good portion of that time, I was there over 20 years, but I was the director of admission for a number of years, and then a host of other positions. During, especially my years as leader at Valparaiso and then at Hendrix, I did do some enrollment consulting with different people, and continue that, and have even done an interim position in the last two years. So, I have enjoyed working with other colleagues at their schools, and providing assistance that way.

Joel Bauman:
It’s scary to say, but almost 30 years in this business. Starting out as an admissions counselor at the University of Tampa, and then having some experience in admission and financial aid, some international admissions and recruitment experience at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I worked my way through the ranks at a couple different places in Florida, at a place in Salt Lake City, and now at a senior vice president for enrollment management at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

Jarrett Smith:
Good deal. Laura and I are here to talk with you today about building strong relationships with your trustees. I think a good place to start with that would just be to talk for a moment about why that’s so important. Laura and I have discussed in the past, this isn’t something they hand you, and the VP of enrollment management manual that I know comes with the job, but it is an important part for the success. Can you talk to us just a little bit about, I guess, the importance of getting those relationships right, and maybe the pain of getting it wrong? Joel, I’ll tee that one up to you first.

Joel Bauman:
I appreciate it. I think you learn, and just in general, you’ve heard, in general, you realize it’s a board of directors. The trustees is, in itself, a word that strikes importance. Right? They are entrusted with the university. Sometimes people think they’re the owners, but they’re there to advise. They’re there to have fiduciary responsibilities. They’re there to carry out the functions of the bylaws in the constitution, and it’s the organizing principle around in which the university functions and meets its mission, and they hand off that responsibility, and really entrust you, the cabinet, the president, and the officers of the university, to carry out the business of the university. Not just in meetings, but in networking, and in people raising, and in fundraising, the trustees are, obviously, central.

So, as staff and faculty interact, the words, and the impressions, and expressions of trustees carry a lot of weight. So, your ability to induce in them the proper reaction, or understanding, or support, can have influence in every corner of the institution. So, it’s a relationship that bears strong, strong, and clear, and ongoing care and feeding.

Jarrett Smith:
Karen, what’s your take?

Karen Foust:
Well, I would agree with everything Joel said. I think that when you’re first at an institution, getting to know the trustees is always an interesting time. It’s important to do that. I’ve found that meeting with colleagues, my colleagues on the cabinet, getting their understanding about who’s on the board, and how they interact with them, has always been helpful. You need to have a good working relationship with them. You also, as a vice president, you’ll know your role, because you’re also there to be supportive of the president. So, that’s important, as well, as well as your colleagues that are there with you. All in all, it’s a very critical role that we work with.

Joel Bauman:
I would add, a couple of institutions I was at were state, public institutions. Most of the career is in private, enrollment-driven non-profit institutions. While similar, there are differences in the approach. There are nuances that a public, state-run institution trustee, or a board of directors, has that follow legislative mandates, that follow certain rules. When I was in Florida, the Sunshine Rules, what you can say, what you can take notes, and what was required to be reported on had differences. So, there are some … I think it’s really important, like Karen said, you have to take the time to learn about their backgrounds, and their instructions, and their not just interests, but requirements of them as board members, as you try to align your work, and your presentations, and your support of the president and the cabinet in each of these settings.

So, it’s really important to do the homework upfront, and read as much of the enabling legislation, the bylaws, the catalogs, whatever it takes, that inform the trustees about what their roles and responsibilities are, so you can align at least with those basic facts.

Karen Foust:
It’s even as simple as just, before you even begin, really getting to know what their names are, and where they’re from. Just so you have some familiarity with them. They’ll remember that you knew their name and those kinds of things. That’s important, as well.

Jarrett Smith:
Laura, I think you were going to tee up a question.

Laura Martin Fedich:
Yeah. Thanks, Jarrett. I’m just really curious because this can be an intimidating group. The first time I was ever in front of a board of trustees, I was extremely intimidated because they tend to be very accomplished people, and they’re all staring at me, looking at me, as the expert. I’m thinking, “Holy moly. I am nothing compared to you people.” So, how do you go about forming the relationship? I hear what you’re both saying about doing the research, learning about them. I think that’s really important. Are there other ways? Especially with a group that maybe you’re not going to interact with but a few times a year.

Joel Bauman:
I completely agree with you, Laura. First experience in front of a board, intimidating as all get out, especially if you read their backgrounds and what they’ve done for the institution. I do think there are those … You have to have the right group, and you have to understand just basic human dynamics and relationships. So, some are coming in, and regardless of background, and qualifications, and how successful they are, they’re there because they want to help. They recognize their role as mentors. They recognize their role as advisors. Those will come up, and they will identify themselves, and if they’ve got experience on the board, it’s a real treasure.

There are others who are there to interrogate you, and the university, and the officers, because in their background and experience, they’ve come up through the fiduciary ranks, through the oversight ranks. So, I think it’s important to understand different trustees come at it with a different mindset. If you get one of the interrogator trustee types, it’s learning by experience. The early experiences of being interrogated, it’s like a Senate hearing, like you see on TV. Right? You’re sitting there, and they’re at the table, and they’ve got the microphones, and they’re asking you these questions. Really, what you want to say is, “I don’t know,” but you do have to come prepared, do your homework, understand that there’s going to be almost a script of questions that they’re going to ask. It’s very rare that they want off-the-cuff, on-the-record, stream of consciousness in a formal meeting.

Joel Bauman:
Talk to the president. Talk to your cabinet colleagues. I’ve realized that, really, before going to a meeting, and having to experience that, and not know, meet with the board chair ahead of time. Meet with key members of the committee you’re on ahead of time, and get a sense of them, from them, what they’re interests are, what they know already, and what kind of questions they’re coming in with to the meeting. Sometimes by casual conversation, you could answer those. So, it won’t come up in the meeting. But at least you have a sense to prepare. My favorite experience of getting to know, good retreats. If there’s a trustee retreat, as opposed to a meeting, those are always helpful on the personal side. I remember saying names, families, interests, casual conversation.

The dinners and/or lunches, also a great opportunity to just really let your hair down. You don’t have to be as guarded as maybe during the meeting. Be careful about where certain things could go. You have to always have this social awareness. But I remember one of my favorite experiences was at a trustee retreat dinner meeting in Park City, Utah. It was actually a sushi restaurant that we all decided to pick out of three. I ended up sitting between a member, a trustee, that had been highly placed at HP during their big transitions, and somebody who was directly responsible for the marketing shift at Godiva Chocolates, about putting them in retail stores all over Manhattan and all over the country.

To hear those two converse, and then to ask me my opinion about it, and then to try to relate it to what we were doing at the university, was absolutely … I felt like I was in a mini-MBA class, really, a mini-strategy class, with Harvard Business Review, that you read about. Actually, I think the Godiva thing was in one of those books. I think it’s just trying to become socially aware, and ask the right questions, and be interested in their backgrounds.

Karen Foust:
I would add, over the years, we’ve always had executive committee meetings prior to the full board meeting. Those were all usually by conference call. The cabinet was gathered in one room and, obviously, the trustees who served on the executive committee were in their home bases. That was a good way to really understand what some of their questions were going to be, coming up then in the full board meeting. That was a preview of what was going to happen in that full board meeting. So, to take good notes, and make sure you mark down what kinds of things you, yourself, will need to respond to, I always found that to be good prep for any and all meetings.

Laura Martin Fedich:
So, Karen, you’re talking about pre-board weekend, or pre-board meeting.

Karen Foust:
Right.

Laura Martin Fedich:
All the trustees are getting, for lack of a better term, or maybe this is the right term, a board book.

Karen Foust:
Right.

Laura Martin Fedich:
With all the reports, ahead of time.

Karen Foust:
Yes.

Laura Martin Fedich:
If anything’s going to be voted on.

Karen Foust:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Laura Martin Fedich:
So, there really shouldn’t be … I mean, is it true or fair to say there really shouldn’t be any surprises at a board meeting?

Karen Foust:
There really shouldn’t be.

Laura Martin Fedich:
If you’re doing your job. Okay.

Karen Foust:
Right. There really shouldn’t be. Part of that is the working relationship the president has with the board chair, because they don’t want things to pop up. Nonetheless, it’s a good way to practice before the board meeting, to have those executive meetings.

Jarrett Smith:
Now, for a short break. Hey, everyone. Jarrett here. You know the past year has brought so many challenges for the higher education enrollment community. If you’re like many enrollment leaders, you’re looking forward to being on the other side of census, so you can finally step back and think about your strategy for the upcoming year. That’s why [Jeff Collay 00:14:53] and I will be hosting Post-Up, a free, four-part webinar series for enrollment leaders, starting September 29th. From search, to yield, to campus visits, Jeff and I will engage with Echo Delta’s enrollment experts to help you come back even stronger and smarter than before. Visit echodelta.co/postup to register. That’s echodelta.co/postup, all one word. I hope you’ll join us. Now, back to the show.

I’m curious about some other ways that you all have worked with boards. I mean, I think one of the challenges in the group, in working with trustees, is that you’re coming at it from a very nuanced enrollment management perspective, and it’s its own little world. It’s a very deep body of knowledge. It’s complex. There’s a lot to consider there. Even if that trustee member is incredibly accomplished in their own domain, it is unlikely to be enrollment management. So, I’m curious, your best tips for how do you convey the nuances, the important points, of your job and your approach to enrollment management, without overwhelming them, without boring them with unhelpful details, or losing the plot?

Karen Foust:
Well, it’s important for us to remember we’re always educators, and not that we’re there to lecture the trustees … That’s not the point. But the point is you’re right. They don’t have the background that we do. So, we have to find ways to share that. Sometimes that was through a board report, by providing some sort of professional article that would be helpful for them to read and understand more about what’s going on in the enrollment area. Other times it was to provide trends in enrollment at other schools, on how those compared to your own school. Just a variety of ways. You’ll occasionally bring in somebody from the outside that can help validate some of the information, because they will listen to that person, a lot of times more than they might even you. Nonetheless, somebody that really can say, “Yes. Joel knows exactly what he’s talking about when he says this, that, or the other.” That’s not the sole purpose of having them come, but nonetheless, it does help.

Jarrett Smith:
Joel, would you add anything to that?

Joel Bauman:
Yeah. I have had the experience of, in my youthful exuberance … It’s the Enron thing about trying to be the smartest guy in the room. Because that’s what they’re paying you for, to know your business. Really not a good idea, because these folks are really smart. While they may not know your business, they want to be able to offer advice, and they want to ask really good questions, and they want you to walk through your thinking, not necessarily be a wand. Absolutely, Karen’s right. You need to show a mastery of your business. But my experience over the years is really allow time for their conversation to each other to sometimes break up a meeting, to what’s called, “Hey, just the ‘operational report,'” what you need to see to satisfy your fiduciary responsibilities, or that interest. But really, let’s talk strategy. Ask the hard questions.

At some point, with particularly enrollment committee, and sometimes the full board, we would have the statistics meeting, the reporting fiduciary meeting, snapshot meeting in between the official meeting, and then we started to record them, because they were through Zoom. That was a huge bonus for those trustees. You’d be surprised. “I couldn’t make the meeting, but I looked at the recording. Thank you for doing that, so I could feel caught up.” Bringing in experts, consultants and/or vendors that you work with, to give more weight to the state of the art out there. I’ve also invited trustees to do a life in the day. “Well, actually, why don’t you come in and sit in the admissions office. Let’s review an admissions file.”

Joel Bauman:
One of the more interesting, eye-opening experiences, especially for those that didn’t have recent college-aged kids, we collected samples for competition purposes, of financial aid awards. Admissions packets and financial aid award packets of competing schools, and just laid them out for them, and walked them through what they look like, and what a family experiences, and then showed them our own. That was really an eye-opening experience for them, because it wasn’t theoretical. It wasn’t just, “We’re a great school. Why aren’t they just picking us?” But they saw the reality on the ground of what individual families are doing. They can hang with you, everything from strategic planning at the highest level of the institution and fiduciary responsibilities, all the way down to having them help you, if they’re interested, read an admissions file and give their opinion.

I have found ask them, survey them. They’ll give you their ideas, and then some of them will do this, and some of them will do that. Just like our work in relationship building, build the relationship and offer them … Meet them where they are, as opposed to think of them all as one big monolithic fiduciary trustee.

Karen Foust:
Something simple that I did over the years was when board members referred a student to the institution, then that student’s name appeared on what I ended up calling a VIP list. Simply for the fact that then I could make sure that I shared that with the president, and that individual knew that board member had made a recommendation, and what that relationship was, and the outcome of that student, what had moved along with that student. So, that was always something critical. Then occasionally, I had an opportunity to share some information with the trustee, as well, who’d made the recommendation.

Laura Martin Fedich:
Can I go back to something you alluded to? You were talking about presenting information to the trustees, and they get the board book in advance. I’m assuming a lot of what you present to them is data. Then you do a narrative on the data. What if the news isn’t all good? Especially, we know that enrollment has seen a tough year in 2020, and 2021 certainly isn’t a cakewalk. How do you go about that? How do you present news that isn’t great?

Karen Foust:
Well, when Jarrett asked the question earlier about surprises that might come up in a board meeting, that is one that you don’t want to come up as a surprise. So, you work with your president and your colleagues to make sure that the right kind of information is disseminated to the trustees on a regular basis. That includes things that don’t always have good news in them. That way, when they actually come to the meeting, they’ve had a heads up, or have some background about what might be going on. We thought going into May 1, it looked great, and then all of a sudden, it just totally fell off, that type of thing. Not that you necessarily use those words, but you get the idea. That would have been disappointing news. So, they needed to be prepared upfront for something like that.

Joel Bauman:
My observation on that, and I think as enrollment management, particularly on the strategic level, at the higher levels of more complex institutions, it’s about anticipatory enrollment management. I wish I could take credit for that term, but I think [Rochelle Hernandez 00:23:21], who is now at University of Texas-Austin, introduced me to that sense, which is much like Florida’s, my more recent experience, much like the cone of probabilities of a hurricane, it could land here, or it could land there. You talk about probabilities and not certainties. So, anticipatory, particularly around what Karen’s talking about. Right?

It’s May. We’ll go freshman admissions. Enrollment deposits look like this. Trustees told me when I first started at one of my institutions, “This is great news, since we don’t care, because we know by the time we come back in October and look at the budget, it’s completely different.” I said, “Oh, well, let me explain what the trend is, and what to anticipate.” If the news is not good, because there are leading indicators, I think they always get frustrated with lagging indicators. Right? So, I think you need to start to produce leading indicators and say, “This is showing us this potential. Here’s the probabilities to anticipate. Here’s what could happen.”

I try to inject some humor. I got known for the, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news.” Right? There’s that. “Which would you like first?” But the anticipatory side is really important, to set their expectations, that it could go this way or that way. You have to take ownership. I feel like early on, I joke about … I don’t know if you know mountain climbing. There’s a little chalk bag. You go into your chalk bag and you dip your fingers. So, I used to joke about this, a little toolkit that every enrollment manager has, and it’s like, “Oh, demographics.” You dig around a little more and it’s like, “Oh, competition.” You dig around a little more. “The economy.” You pick one. Right? “Oh, here’s the excuse, or here’s what helped. Great team. Recruitment. New programs.”

There’s always this toolkit. All those could be true. You always have to have ownership of the results. You always have to start with, “I think we could have done better because.” You can’t be afraid of opening up, looking under the hood, and if there’s a legit opportunity, you have to own it. You have to offer a solution. “We knew this. We observed this. We found this out. Here’s what we’re going to do about it.” That’s part of the expertise. They don’t think you’re perfect. They don’t think you’re not going to make mistakes. If you come in and you’re like, “Well, bonehead mistake number one was,” and then you’re like, “And here’s what we’re going to do about it.” I feel like, Laura, as you’re saying, as experts and professionals in their own lives, they can respect that. They may not like it, but if you know what the solution might be, and then come back and explain whether that adjustment worked or not, I think they accept your professionalism at that point.

Jarrett Smith:
Joel, I want to circle back to something. In the past, I’ve heard you talk about when you’re new at a school, the importance of understanding the types of reports the board was receiving, and the definitions they were using, and then how you’re reporting, which may be a little bit different, meshes with that. Could you set that up a little bit? I think you called out some important things to be aware of about that.

Joel Bauman:
Yeah. Thanks for reminding me. That would go under the bonehead category, mistake number one, new to reporting to trustees. What I have learned, and what I think now works really well, is finish out … If you’re new to an institution, you’re taking over, and possibly, if there’s a new trustee on the committee, this might work, as well, finish out, in their first meeting, what the historic trajectory, what the historic presentation mode, what they’re used to seeing. Then leave time at the end for, “Does this work for you?” Literally, survey them for their interests. This last go round, I found out that they actually hated the format of being reported to, each unit coming in, reporting their expert level, and then leaving, and then having 50 pages of reporting.

What they wanted to do was ask questions. So, we surveyed them, and then we found out three of them want the snapshots, want the reports, need to go into every nitty gritty detail, because they’re also on the audit committee. So, that’s their role. Four of them are former marketing experts. They’re like, “Let’s talk ideas.” Then three of them are from other areas of business and do want to support, and advise, and talk strategy. So, we shifted how we have the meetings. Again, snapshot, fiduciary level information, with the definitions, with the new approaches, with the kinds of reports in between. The reason I learned to do it that way was one of my first meetings at the board, I just rolled in. Again, “I’m the smartest one in the room. I’m new. I’ve got to point out where the data points are.”

I said something like, “We only deny two percent of our applicant pool.” Now, I didn’t go and say, “But you determine an admit rate in a different …” When I said, “We deny two percent of the pool,” the one trustee, who had been on the board many, many, many years, in response to reporting selectivity, and SAT score averages, and really hung up on those fiduciary details to make sure we were reporting them correctly to US News and World Report, was … He said, “That would mean we have a 98% admit rate.” Well, we didn’t. We didn’t report that. In the middle of the meeting, I couldn’t say no, because I see what he said. I said two percent. That caused a little bit of a ruckus.

To Karen’s point, that was a surprise. That’s not a statistic anybody wanted to hear or thought about. So, it took months … It took months to put the toothpaste back in the tube on that one. Right? We had to explain, “Well, admit rates are this. We do deny, but you count them like this. The point was we need a bigger …” What I was trying to say is, “We need a bigger applicant pool. We need a bigger funnel. That’s the direction we’re going in as a strategy.” But I chose the wrong indicator to make that point. That was painful. I mean, that undermined … the exact opposite effect of what I was trying to do. It undermined the integrity. They thought I was fixing the number somehow, or trying to make a case against the previous administration. It just took a while to rebuild … I have a strong reputation of integrity and transparency in defining how we do these things.

That was my point. Right? We’re going to define admit rate this way. We’re going to define selectivity this way. We’re going to grow it in this fashion. I’ll report it the same way here, and the same way to faculty, and the same way to cabinet. But that was a bitter pill to swallow, by giving the wrong statistic.

Karen Foust:
One of the ways that I’ve found helpful, as new trustees were coming on, the cabinet had put together essentially a training manual for them. That covered our different areas of responsibility. It also included a list of terminologies that we use in our profession. Financial aid is full of lots of acronyms. The FAFSA, this, that, or the other. So, to actually give them our definition of that, was a helpful piece. They would have that to refer back to. You explained what the admit rate was, and how you calculated it. Some simple things like that.

Jarrett Smith:
I’m glad you brought that up, because we started off earlier in this conversation talking about when you’re new. Right? Joel, you were talking about a situation, one particular pitfall that can happen when you’re new at an institution. Of course, you also have board members that are rolling off, new ones that are rolling on periodically. You, hopefully, have the opportunity to play a role in their onboarding. It may just be an hour when they’re new, when they swing by the office. I would be curious, when you are meeting with a new trustee, what’s your punch list? How do you think about that first one hour meeting, where they are maybe at your office, and it’s your time? How do you approach that?

I always start with trying to ask them what they know. What is their mythology about enrollment, admissions, financial aid? What do they know? Right? Some of them are educated. Some of them are from their own experience, their own going through college experience or their kid’s. It’s amazing what a mystique there is around our business, even to experts in the field, such a mystique. So, I start off with maybe telling some vignettes about what our admitted students are like, a few explanations about what it’s like to go through our financial aid and scholarshipping program, some recent graduates. Just to give a flavor of the human side of who our students are.

Normally, I’d start with the marketplace dynamics, an introduction to the demographics, and then lead to the funnel, and then describe some of the internal workings of how we do go about, from enrollment marketing, from the application process, all the way to enrollment retention and graduation. A little bit of trying to influence program curricular development. “Don’t tell the provost I said that.” How important it is to have the marketing in the particular academic program, to help with enrollment. I do like, to Karen’s point, a few of the definitions. I do like some of the AGB materials to hand off and then explain it’s either dated, or applies, or doesn’t apply quite exactly to our work.

I do try to give the framework of what a tremendous industry higher education really is. I take it from the story, the narrative, of the individual student, to the fact that it’s the seventh largest export of the United States, higher education. I think … I don’t know if this is still a true fact, so you’ll have to fact check me. Somewhere along the line, I said, “Worldwide, it’s a $500 billion, maybe $700 billion, industry.” All told, including the for-profits. So, all of a sudden, you’re like, “That’s a serious industry. It’s not just about visiting the high schools, which we can get to in a minute.” Right? So, I try to establish with them a sense of the complexities, the importance, from the individual student, impacting their life.

At the end of the day, the trustees really care about students. Right? And about the quality education, and sending them off to lives of significance and accomplishment. But then also the business side of things. I have a series of documents, and reports, and suggestions of books to read, [Lisa Lingo 00:35:28]’s book, those sorts of things to ground them, if they’re interested.

Jarrett Smith:
I came across an article. This dates back to 2015, but it’s in The Hechinger Report. It talks about how schools, as they’ve, over the years, come under more scrutiny for things like the rising cost of tuition, the value of the degrees that they confer, that along with that, trustees have also … There’s been a trend for them to take a more hands-on, down in the weeds, approach, compared to years prior. I’m curious. Karen, I throw this one out to you. Is that something that you’ve seen in your own experience? Does that resonate with you?

Karen Foust:
Well, I’ve certainly observed a little bit of that, but not, actually, a whole lot. Because of the way that the president would interact with the board, and he or she served as the primary person to make sure that they were aware of what was going on in the industry, and those kinds of things. So, I’ve never really been in a situation where we had a lot of interference from board members, or wanting to really drill down. Occasionally, you’d get somebody that was overzealous. It was, a lot of times, somebody that was newer to a board, that they thought, “Well, I better drill down on this.” It’s fine to drill down, but they only really need to go so far. I’ve not seen a lot of that. There’s been a lot in the news about it, that that has been a developing trend at some schools.

Jarrett Smith:
Joel, how does your own experience with that stack up?

Joel Bauman:
Yeah. It’s a combination of, again, the interests and backgrounds of trustees. I do think it’s become much more focused on both ethical and fiduciary, regulatory … I do believe it’s a higher regulatory, much more strict regulatory environment. I think it happened after the recession with all the financial firms and financial reporting. I think after the Title IX issues, and state, and some other institutions, I think Title IX has gotten … Especially if you’ve got D-1 athletics, there’s a lot more, I think, regulatory requirements. I do think that’s become a lot more difficult. Again, state schools versus private, non-profits. Obviously, a different level of regulatory compliance required in that sector.

Very similar, same story about that one experience. It’s related to not only your own internal dynamics, but a news story broke about a competitor school up the road that either was misreporting its application numbers and selectivity, or the SAT scores, and excluding some test scores. That report comes out. It’s in your neighborhood, and the natural questions. The Varsity Blues. I don’t know any admissions or enrollment professional that, once that story broke, there weren’t trustees in their office, looking through their applications. “Who do we know? Did you let somebody in? What about the rowers?” Et cetera, et cetera. You get a story like that, there’s heightened awareness.

I have sat in a room with the president, the chair of the board, the IR director, myself, and a trustee who wanted to see that we reported the SAT scores correctly. So, we spent four hours, page-by-page, name-by-name, tracking what was in the system, what was reported. He just needed to know that we did that. There’s a couple discrepancies here and there going back, what is it, three, five years? But it was fine. Right? It was actually as tight and with integrity as you can get. So, we were able to prove that. Boy, that was painful. I do think there’s a much more difficult regulatory environment these days, particularly in the state school sector. Anyone dealing with financial aid, anyone dealing with Title IX, and particularly D-1 these days, is under a microscope.

Laura Martin Fedich:
Wow. I just want to explain it for the audience. IR, if you’re not familiar, is institutional research. That’s why they were in the room with you. There’s some controlling of the narrative that you have to do in your roles. Would you say that’s true? How do you do that?

Karen Foust:
Well, I think you do it by making sure that everybody knows that you’re operating with integrity and doing the very best you can do. You demonstrate to them, the way Joel did, that, “We have three to five years worth of data here. We found a few discrepancies, or a few honest mistakes, but on the whole, we continue to calculate our SAT scores the same way every single year. Here’s how we did that.” So, I think you just state the facts and show them that you’ve been on top of it. It’s not to say something won’t slip through occasionally. There are times like that experience with you have your annual audit, and the auditors come in. They all of a sudden have some new accounting rules that they have to follow, and you’re not aware of those. Then you get dinged a little for something, especially in the financial aid world, that you didn’t even know. It was an honest mistake, but they do give you a warning about it. You learn from that. You learn what needs to be done differently for the future.

Joel Bauman:
In the tuition-driven institutions, you really have to have your ear to the ground, and be reading the tea leaves, and understanding the dynamics. I think that the narrative … You have to be prepared, you have to count on colleagues in the business. I’ve always been lucky to have colleagues, like Laura, like Karen, like people in the consortium, or friends that I’ve worked with over the years, to be able to pick up the phone or send an email and say, “I’ve got a trustee meeting.” Different institutions, so you can’t really compare, but they want you to know that at such-and-such school, here’s what they’re experiencing. “In our environment, we are …” Then you can explain, “We’re unique. We’re not unique. We’re right in there.”

I think really counting on colleagues to be able to have … and the industry material. Right? You have to read Inside Higher Ed. You have to read the blogs. You have to listen to podcasts from quality partners. You need to understand what’s in the business. They may also come across those. You should be able to answer questions that come from a place that has context. I know what you’re saying about controlling the narrative. It’s that overall context, the framing. I’m a big fan of framing. Whatever the issue is, or the presentation is, there’s a frame around it. There’s a narrative frame and context, I think, that you have to set first. If it’s incongruent to what they believe, or they’re hearing, or what you’ve talked about before, that’s when that surprise that Karen was talking about can happen. That dissonance that if you walk into it without aware that you’re about to change the narrative, or update the context, it’s going to cause some eyebrow furrowing.

Jarrett Smith:
Okay. So, while we’re talking about, I don’t know, tricky topics, it’s not unheard of that a trustee might go around the president. They have a particular agenda that they’re looking to push, and maybe they come to you, or they’re going to other members of the cabinet. How do you navigate a situation like that? How do you, I guess, for lack of a better word, respectively nudge them back into their lane, if that’s a thing that can be done? I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on that.

Karen Foust:
Well, I think we’ve both had experiences that way. Probably the one that I’ve shared most frequently was a very nice gentleman who thought that every time he rolled into town, that he needed to make sure he came by the enrollment office to find out what the numbers were, and how things were going, and then he would also make phone calls in between, and so on and so forth. As it turns out, this gentleman was somebody that I’d talked to the president about, of course, and it was a valued trustee, so you roll with some of it. But at the same time, you learn that there is a line in the sand that you can draw with it. I would not go into things with him that he wanted to know, that really had more information about students. Because of FERPA, I couldn’t share those things with him.

So, I drew the line there. I had the support of the president and the board chair on that. That was important for the board chair to know, as well. So, you occasionally will have somebody like that, who they mean well, but sometimes they take way more of your time than they really should.

Joel Bauman:
I think this is a case of you really want and hope to be working with an experienced president, an experienced board, cabinet, so that you all can know that happens when that happens. I’ve had some great colleagues on cabinet who were like, “Hey, so-and-so is asking about … they were wondering …” I’m like, “Okay.” That’s also really important to stay in conversation there, about that with the board, have with your colleagues. Do the walkthrough with your cabinet. Make sure you’re telling them what’s going to be in the report. This really excellent group of colleagues I worked with once, we shared our status reports, as opposed to the experience many of us have is, “Oh, that’s what they’re doing in that department,” because you’re at the board meeting. You’re reading their status reports. “Oh. Good. I wish I knew that.”

Joel Bauman:
You try to do that ahead of time. I’ve had presidents who thought that was their experience, and that’s the way they wanted to run things. If a trustee had questions, and if they said something in the meeting or outside the meeting, the board secretary and the board council would take the notes, and they would divvy up … If there was a question, they would divvy it up between the cabinet and say, “Get this answered. Funnel it through.” We’d all see what the questions were, and we’d respond. I had another president who worked for them that said, “Any requests for staff, cabinet, come through the president’s office.” Because his contention was where we are in the strategic plan, the work is so … There’s such volume of work that any request could throw us off the momentum we’ve got. So, at least that was the frame of talking.

It can go multiple ways. If you’re an experienced group, you’ll know that there’s a rogue member out there saying things, and interpreting things, with a possible agenda, or just misinterpreting. That makes it awkward for a lot of people, because it is a … The meeting itself is a very scripted, choreographed experience. Unless it’s a retreat, and you have a session that is free-thinking, again, those out-of-the-blue moments become awkward and difficult for trustees to process, and for presidents to manage, and for those of us who convey these demands.

Jarrett Smith:
One thing that seems to be very consistent between the two of you is, as you said earlier, Joel, relying on your colleagues, making it a team effort, and really supporting the team. If there are issues that you are bringing up in front of the board, nobody on the cabinet should be surprised about that. If a board member is maybe veering outside their lane a little bit, or aggressively pushing for an agenda, also go back to that same core team that you have and problem solve it together.

Karen Foust:
I think there are any number of times over the years where I’ve had colleagues say, “So-and-so asked a question about this topic in our committee meeting today.” That’s really helpful, because then I can address that question. It, obviously, would have been related to my area. Just to be good colleagues that way, and know when to share with your colleagues what’s going on in your meetings. I think that’s helpful, as well.

Joel Bauman:
We’re all, like Karen said, educators at heart. So, it’s important to educate. When your colleagues feel armed and well-prepared to talk about enrollment in their session, they come away … I mean, they walk away like, “Oh, I was able to answer that for that trustee.” Right? “I’m of service to that trustee, and I knew something about it.” Same thing with us in enrollment, whether we have, for example, retention under our umbrella, officially or unofficially. Right? You support, and you explain where we are with particular angles. If you’ve got graduate, you make sure you’re able to support your colleague and/or understand that there’s something else going on, and then come back and share that information. I think at the backend, there’s much preparation for the cabinet, the debrief, the hot wash, like Karen is talking about. What did you hear? What happened in your committee? How did it go? Where is the sense of the board?

Jarrett Smith:
Well, good deal. As we wrap up, you both have many years of great experience, and some hard lessons learned along the way, but also no doubt, quite a few successes due to the longevity of your careers. I’d be wondering if you had any words of wisdom for folks who are newer to the VP role, and anything you might want to share with them on this topic to help them make sure they get off to a good start? Karen, you want to tee that one up for you?

Karen Foust:
Sure. Well, we both talked throughout this, at times, about, essentially, the importance of networking. So, if you have developed a strong network of colleagues in the enrollment profession over a period of years, and now you’ve moved into a VP role, you’re going to know other people who have done the same. To be able to pick up the phone and talk to them, gather their ideas on how they even have their organization structured, or what kinds of reports they have to give out, whether it’s to the cabinet, to the faculty, to the board, those kinds of things, just get some general information from them that way. Then certainly work with your cabinet colleagues, as well, so that you have a deeper understanding.

I think it’s important to have those professional relationships, to not hesitate to pick up the phone, or send them an email, or even a text that says, “Hey, I’ve got this issue going on. Could I spend a half hour with you talking about it?” That type of thing. I think you’ll learn a lot that way, by engaging with other people. Obviously, there’s some professional opportunities, but there is no training manual for this whole thing. You just have to learn and take it step-by-step. It’s not all going to come to you overnight. There’s nothing magical that’s going to happen just because you’ve been named a VP. Rather, it’s going to take a lot of work to really get an understanding of what goes into the position and the role.

Joel Bauman:
I think that ability to commiserate with colleagues, and/or what they call that in New York, which is kvetch, to be able to call somebody and commiserate and toss around ideas is extremely important. I think Laura nailed it a while back when she said, “There is tremendous pressure, regardless of funding and regardless of where you are in the pecking order of schools.” Just varying degrees. There was an article, I think, in Inside Higher Ed a while back that chronicled the hottest seat on campus. Always is, always will be. So, there’s just tremendous pressure. You have to develop the hard skin. You have to develop, as you see with our colleagues, Karen and Laura are expert at the stoic response, mastering your emotions, mastering your business, knowing it well and knowing that you don’t know, and being able to handle that deftly.

I think if you’re going into this business, know that there’s great pressure, but also know that, like you see with our colleagues, no pressure, no diamonds. Right? So, pressure produces diamonds. I think if you come out the other end, I just think it’s one of the most underrated industries, higher ed is, out there, in its complexity and the ability to change people’s lives, and society for the better. Worth getting into, but it can be a tough road, but worth the journey.

Karen Foust:
Most definitely.

Jarrett Smith:
Well, thank you so much for your time today. Thank you for sharing all of the accumulated wisdom that you have, and this was a great episode with some just really fantastic information. Thank you both so much.

Karen Foust:
Thank you.

Joel Bauman:
Much appreciated it. I really appreciate the opportunity.

Jarrett Smith:
The Higher Ed Marketing Lab is produced by Echo Delta, a full-service enrollment marketing agency for colleges and universities of all sizes. To see some of the work we’ve done, and how we’ve helped schools just like yours, visit echodelta.co. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on Apple Podcasts. As always, if you have a comment, question, suggestion, or episode idea, feel free to drop us a line at podcast@echodelta.co.