A Diplomat Between Powerful Leaders

T.J. Kirkpatrick, Redux for The Chronicle

Artis Hampshire-Cowan, a former vice president and secretary at Howard U., went on to serve a stint as acting president of the university.
September 17, 2017

Six times a year, 10 days ahead of each meeting of the University of California system’s Board of Regents, a notice goes out to the public. In that document is a carefully prepared agenda, complete with extensive background write-ups and relevant attachments — compliance reports, audits, budget documents.

Anne Shaw, secretary and chief of staff to the board, is responsible for these meticulous preparations. But Ms. Shaw, like many university board secretaries, fills far more roles than just that of fastidious note taker and organizer. Board secretaries are diplomats — strategic advisers who have the ear of the president and the responsibility of liaising with the governing board.

At the University of California, as at other universities, the members of the governing board lead busy lives, so the onus falls heavily on Ms. Shaw to give them the information they need to make big decisions about the hundreds of thousands of students they are ultimately responsible for.

Barely a day goes by where Ms. Shaw isn’t contacted by one of the 26 regents with a specific question. ("You might be surprised," she says, of the questions she has gotten.)

Ms. Shaw and her staff of about eight essentially exist as the bridge between the two most powerful entities in a university: the chief executive and the trustees. Much of the work of the president’s office will eventually come to the governing board for approval: new degrees and programs, approval of tuitions and fees, budgets, all end up on board agendas.

Ms. Shaw is a conscientious record keeper, archiving information from public commenters at board meetings — for example, their opinions on the system’s immunization and vaccine policy. Following up after a meeting, Ms. Shaw and her staff will take down "reminders" about questions regents had that couldn’t be answered at the time. She and her staff will then work to compile and present that information to the inquiring regent.

Presidents rely heavily on their board secretaries, said Stephen Trachtenberg, president emeritus of George Washington University. They can’t communicate with board members all the time, and "you don’t want unsatisfied board members who aren’t getting the information they want, or aren’t getting their telephone calls returned when they ring up the office." The board secretary becomes an important interface.

Once, when the university was planning to purchase a piece of real estate in Washington, there was disagreement about whether the high price of the investment was worth it. A board meeting was coming up in a week, and it was tricky explaining what George Washington was planning to do with the property once it had acquired it. So Mr. Trachtenberg turned the communications job over to Helene Interlandi, the secretary of the university at the time. She was on the phone with trustees all over the country, answering what Mr. Trachtenberg described as difficult, complex, and sometimes contentious questions. But by the time they came to Washington for the board meeting the following week, they were sufficiently satisfied with the project to approve the purchase.

On any given day, in addition to fielding regents’ questions, Ms. Shaw also handles letters and phone calls from members of the public. Just as someone might write to their lawmaker with concerns, the public will contact the regents, and Ms. Shaw’s office is their point of contact.

If there’s a fast-approaching tuition-increase vote, for example, the office will receive a flurry of letters. Recently, Ms. Shaw said, she has seen quite a few about the management of a grove of trees near the chancellor’s house at the system’s San Francisco campus.

But besides the seasonal routine of gearing up for a meeting, "there’s really no typical day," Ms. Shaw said.

Above Political Turmoil

There’s also no such thing as a typical career path for board secretaries. Artis Hampshire-Cowan, a former vice president and secretary at Howard University, went on to serve a stint as acting president of the university.

Board secretaries serve as advisers to key players like the president and the regents, affording the secretaries substantial influence even as they receive limited official authority or credit. In a way, board secretaries act as concierges, collecting information and connecting people of interest, Ms. Hampshire-Cowan said. Thus, they have deep knowledge of every aspect of the institution they serve, the culture, the academics, the twists and turns of the university’s history.

Their tenures can be long — typically unplagued by the political turmoil of more prominent officials. Their loyalty to the mission of university should come before their relationship to either side, whether it’s the president or the board, Ms. Hampshire-Cowan said.

If the president and the board disagree about a policy, or how fast a change should happen, board secretaries are caught in the middle. It can be their job to smooth that over as best as possible, helping the board chair to better understand the culture of higher education — for example, the implications of making major programmatic cuts for professors on a campus. "You’re really a diplomat, helping each one see the perspective of the other," Ms. Hampshire-Cowan said.

Her depth of institutional knowledge (she’d been at the university since 1992) set her up as an obvious choice for acting president: a figure trusted enough to tide the university over for two months in 2008 until the new permanent president was ushered in. She now works for the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

Many institutions are moving away from the word "secretary" to "professional," said Char Reed, university secretary at Kent State University, because the role has evolved greatly from a secretary performing simply a clerical, support-type function to someone who significantly informs the higher-education administration space.

Board secretaries specialize in transitions, presidential or otherwise. Every two years the University of California Board of Regents ushers in a new board chair, who serves a one-year term and is often re-elected for a second. Ms. Shaw has been on the board’s staff since 1983, long enough to be able to bring new chairs up to speed in her sleep.

For any board professional, Ms. Reed says, one of the critical responsibilities is working with a board through a presidential transition. Having witnessed as many as three or four presidential transitions, board secretaries bring the continuity and the context to assist searches for new presidents, she said. When a new president comes in, it is up to the board secretary to ensure that the president and board are aligned in vision and mission.

The way a board secretary fits into the campus often depends on the structure of the board: In the case of the UC Board of Regents, a systemwide board, Ms. Shaw is working with a members scattered across the state.

At a regional institution like the University of Hartford, in Connecticut, where Mr. Trachtenberg used to serve as president, board members were more local. "You went to a supermarket, you’d see a board member taking his groceries out right in front of you," he says. It was a much more intimate relationship than at George Washington, where board members live all over the nation, or even internationally.

The reporting structure is different for each board secretary as well. Ms. Reed, who wrote a book on the role, conducted a survey of board secretaries a few years ago and found that about 40 percent of them were subject to a dual-reporting structure, answering to both the president and the board.

The "cardinal rule" in dealing with trustees, Ms. Reed says, is "striving for no surprises." That’s a big task today, with a new immediacy of communication through social media. It’s a hard job to keep board members informed and ensure that they are not surprised by controversy. "There are a lot of issues on the horizon for higher education that quickly become very visible," she said. Regular communication is required, often weekly, to keep trustees informed.

"It is a job kind of under the radar and behind the scenes," Ms. Reed said. It’s a hard job to describe, she added, but it’s rewarding: "I know many people who do this job. They really bleed the school colors, and their dedication to the institution is impressive."