Poster - Mr. Smith Goes to Washington_14

Good governance is a noble idea, but governing boards–trustees, regents, visitors–have until recently been generally regarded as entities residing outside the administrative org chart. Trustees–perhaps because they are generally not chosen from academic ranks–are regarded by faculty members as curious creatures with uncertain motives and powers. To the extent that they are regarded at all, they are given wide berth. I say “until recently” because there seems to be a growing movement to pit university administrators against their governing boards. Fanned by sensational stories about board intrigues, high-profile dismissals of college presidents, and clashes with powerful external interests, governing boards have all of a sudden become visible and controversial.

This is a happening at a time when standing outside the administrative org chart might be one of the few places to see what is really happening to an institution. The number of failed or unsustainable Institutions is rising, new technology is disrupting established business models, and the social contract with higher education is under pressure.  The American public believes that governing boards need to play a larger role, but boards–whose members are often boosters and donors–may not have the necessary skills to do that. It is a new era. Like Mr. Smith, governing boards that want to assert their power will make many people uncomfortable.  I think that discomfort is largely due to uncertainty about how governing boards want to operate in this new era. Old understandings about university governance have been crumbling, and CUNY Board Chair Benno Schmidt decided it was time to chart a new path forward.

Schmidt–a former president at Yale–and his Governance for a New Era Project has just issued a blueprint for governing boards. In the interests of full disclosure: I was a member of Benno’s project, along with sitting presidents, trustees, and other faculty members.

Our comments about the oversight responsibilities of trustees are not intended to diminish the responsibilities or powers of top institutional or academic leaders. The role of the chief executive officer is naturally crucial to the successful advancement of higher education institutions. And trustees must be able to rely on the president or chancellor in the development of policy and the operation of the institution. It is essential that chief executive officers be perceived as having trustees’ trust and confidence and that the flow of information be facilitated by the administration. Except in rare situations of crisis or in the selection of top administrators, trustees, who have final fiduciary authority, act through campus leaders who have day-to-day responsibilities for institutional management.

The signers of this document have come together to craft a bold new approach to governance— governance for a new era—recognizing that it is urgently needed if American higher education is to maintain the diversity and excellence that have for so long made it the envy of the world. We are a bipartisan group of diverse and independent leaders beholden to no organization in our participation in this governance project. Each of us might express these values in different ways, and we recognize and expect each institution to modify and adapt these principles to its own mission and culture. But the values we outline are ones that we all share and ones that we believe all trustees and all leaders in higher education must aggressively pursue, today and long into the future.

It is impossible for me to conceive of a path forward for American higher education that does not involve every component of an academic community jointly pursuing what the university’s mission. I hope the Schmidt report is read and discussed by faculty, administrators, and alumni.


In Spring 2014, the Association of College Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) commissioned GfK Custom Research to gauge the public’s perception of higher education and the role of trustees in shaping the direction of their institutions. It should not come as a surprise that the American public has become disillusioned with the direction that colleges and universities are taking, but the college governance survey is breathtaking in scope and offers a very interesting window on where the public thinks accountability lies.

Americans are worried about the state of higher education, and they believe boards need to take more responsibility. Nearly three out of four respondents believe boards should not allow their institutions to surrender to pressure to withdraw speaking invitations to controversial speakers. 89% of respondents believe college is becoming out of reach for the middle class. Nearly three quarters do not believe that students get their money’s worth. And an astounding 91% said it is the board’s responsibility to “take the lead in reforming higher education to lower costs and improve quality.”

Among the findings:

  • 62% of Americans believe higher education leaders are doing a fair or poor job to ensure higher education is worth the time and money. 44% believe that higher education leaders are doing a fair to poor job to ensure that students graduate with the skills and knowledge they need for citizenship and career.
  • Six in 10 say colleges and universities “are increasingly becoming places of intolerance and political correctness.” The public is split 49% to 50% on whether higher education leaders—including boards of trustees—are doing a good job to ensure students are exposed to a multiplicity of perspectives from across the political spectrum.
  • 81% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that all students should “take basic classes in core subjects such as writing, literature, math, science, economics, U.S. history, and foreign language.”
  • Fully 71% of respondents believe the tenure system “contributes significantly to higher costs and lower education quality in American colleges and universities.”
  • Nearly three out of four respondents believe that boards should not allow their institutions to surrender to pressure to withdraw speaking invitations to controversial speakers.
  • 89% of respondents believe college is becoming out of reach for the middle class. Nearly three quarters do not believe that students get their money’s worth.

It is popular within some Ivy Halls to downplay the importance of independent governing boards in academia, but according to the GfK poll, the vast majority of American think that trustees play a critical role in shaping the direction of their institutions:

And whom do the American people want to take the lead in reforming higher education? Boards of trustees. An astounding 91% said it is the board’s responsibility to “take the lead in reforming higher education to lower costs and improve quality.”

NYT Rear Axel 1912

I returned from eight months in Qatar in May and spent the next few weeks wrapping up the manuscript for my new book Heroes and Martyrs: How A Small Band of Innovators will Remake Higher Education. Doha made an interesting hilltop for observing and writing about American higher ed. In many ways the wealthy Persian Gulf nations have not changed much over the last hundred years.  Their massive investments in the knowledge economy may still pay off, but it will be a steep climb for societies that value membership in privileged tribal groups over actual achievement.

Meanwhile, the pace of change here is accelerating. Zealots love the idea of rapid innovation, but there are real and imagined roadblocks–and a lot of people who are trying to disentangle the two. It would be a shame to declare today that technology-enhanced education is doomed because of a barrier that may be irrelevant tomorrow. Or worse yet, because success might be bad for professors.  In short, it seems to me pretty early in the innovation cycle to be declaring–as University of California President Janet Napolitano did last week–that a roadblock is insurmountable.  She was talking about MOOC’s, but her critique was a repackaging of objections to educational technology that have been repeated so many times that casual observers might confuse them with established fact.  Maybe it’s just a result of living in the Middle East, but I hear in domestic  arguments about the future of higher ed more than a little tribal talk about what is good for professional academicians.

I was keeping this 1912 New York Times article as a reminder of how far off base preliminary assessments of what’s feasible can be–especially when underlying technologies are being transformed. Ford’s use of lightweight Vanadium steel for axles gave it an insurmountable advantage until drive train technology made  modern suspension systems possible. It’s a morality play. Higher education is in the the early days of a technology-enabled revolution. So early that no one should be trying to tie breakdowns (yes, there are breakdowns) to intractable root causes. I tried a different approach in my new book.

TechBurst Competition 2011

Share what you know…


: ( noun ‘tek’berst ) a short, sharable video that explains a single topic or concept in a particularly entertaining and compelling way. The best TechBursts are viewed thousands of times.

TechBurst Competition 2011

:help to populate the TechBurst library and to recognize the most creative Yellow Jacket mentors. If you worked hard to understand a difficult concept and have a novel way of explaining it to your classmates, share what you know in the 2011 TechBurst Competition. Participants will produce their own videos and leave them behind for future Yellow Jackets. The best videos will be viral Internet hits. Winners will receive $5,000 in cash prizes and gifts.

The Rules of TechBursts

:there are only four rules of TechBursts

  1. They are short (no more than 10 minutes)
  2. They are creative (nobody will watch boring TechBursts)
  3. They are self-contained (your classmates will put them together in unpredictable ways)
  4. They are meant to be shared (you are leaving a legacy to make life a little better for those who follow

Where to Find Examples of TechBursts

:there are no TechBursts today. Soon there will be hundreds of them, and yours will be the examples that other students use. For examples of bursts that people in other parts of the world are creating, try visiting Kahn Academy ( or The RSA (

How to Create TechBursts

:you will probably invent your own approach to creating TechBursts. Technology is important, but you can get started with simple tools that are freely available on the web (see


:current Georgia Tech undergraduate or graduate students can enter individually or in teams. A student can be a part of as many individual or team submissions as he or she wants.

Expressing Interest, Intent to Compete & Registration

:individual students and student teams must complete one TechBurst Topic Registration Form per submission. These forms can be completed between October 1 and October 30, 2011.

Register here

How the Competition Works

:semi-finalists will be selected on the basis of creativity and clarity. Semifinalists will submit rough videos to a panel of judges who will select a group of finalists. Finalist videos will be uploaded to a TechBurst YouTube channel for the world to see. Winning videos will be determined by combining crowd sourced reviews and ratings with the reviews of an expert panel. Winners will be announced at the 2012 C21U Presidential Forum.

Production Assistance

:individuals and teams are free to use any technology at their disposal to produce their TechBurst video. In fact, the more creative, the better. Finalists will have access to the Georgia Tech’s Distance Learning and Professional Education studios and facilities. If you think you will need access to production assistance please indicate on the registration form. The Georgia Tech Library also has facilities that are open to all students that may be helpful.


  • $2,500 – First Place
  • $1,000 – Second Place
  • $500   – Third Place
  • $1,000 – People’s Choice Award for Innovation
  • * prizes divided up equally to members of ad hoc teams