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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.

Old-barometers

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.”

vigilantes360

It dawned on me during the recent saloon brawl at the University of Texas over exactly when and on whose terms President William Powers would leave office that the nation’s top research universities could succumb to the rule of self-interested and unaccountable mobs. Texas joins a growing list of public universities where governing boards have tried to remove presidents—one of the few duties that virtually every state assigns to boards—only to find themselves demonized as cabals. It can’t be a cabal if you are the public authority designated to make those decisions. What began in 2012 as a media spectacle–triggered by the short-lived firing of University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan and fueled by Twitter and Facebook campaigns worthy of Tahrir Square—has become trendy as the number of legitimate governance decisions undone by academic vigilantism has tacked alarmingly upward.

The Texas case is notable because there is pressure coming from two directions. Heavy-handed political influence from conservative allies of Governor Rick Perry, who are unconvinced of the need for a research mission at UT-Austin and want the university’s Board of Regents to force the flagship university to abandon—or at least starve—it, has so damaged the board that one of them is under investigation for possible impeachment. On the other side, faculty and student groups who want Powers to stay have taken to the media to build public support for their case. Many of them were attending a symposium about online education when a deal that would allow Powers to remain in office was announced. The ensuing celebration was boisterous and probably helped the cause of those who are demanding the impeachment of Perry’s allies.

The dust-up with the Texas Board of Regents is only the most recent example of how difficult university governance has become. Even unremarkable commencement ceremonies came under assault earlier this year as a dozen high-profile speakers were disinvited by university administrators who bowed to pressure groups. What could have riled the unruly mobs? Among those who threatened the sensibilities of the Class of 2014 were IMF Director Christine Lagarde and a critic of radical Islam who had survived mutilation in fundamentalist Muslim East Africa. All were excoriated in public. Faculty groups, student newspapers, bloggers, and anti-defamers rose up in protest that views so divergent from their own should be expressed under a banner proclaiming truth or veritas, or something like that.

So much for academic diversity and the fearless band of heroes and martyrs that, Daniel Coit Gilman, the first president of Johns Hopkins—the first American research university—promised would “prosecute learning” regardless of consequences. It is probably not what John Adams had in mind in 1780 when he wrote in the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts of the moral duty of society to cherish the interests of “seminaries of learning.” It does not cherish their interests to pay attention to the digital-age equivalent of epithets scrawled on subway walls. But that is what, increasingly, masquerades as academic governance. Unchecked, it is a trend that imperils ours, the best universities in the world.

Religious institutions aside, there are really only two ways to run a university. In Europe, universities are state-run affairs. Professors are civil servants, and Ministries of Education make all of the important decisions. University presidents and other administrators are chosen in faculty elections, but they are in truth labor leaders who are beholden to the narrow interests of professors, not to students or even to society. The sorry state of European research universities (despite a five hundred year head start, only eleven of the top fifty research universities in the world are European; thirty-one are North American) is a testament to the failure of that model.

American universities (especially public universities) were conceived differently with appointed trustees or regents who are accountable to society. In the U.S. system, boards have ultimate legal authority to choose top administrators, approve faculty appointments and guarantee academic freedom. Presidents are then given considerable autonomy in the day-to-day running of their institutions. That autonomy is shared with faculty members who are expected to make expert decisions about academic matters in a system of governance outlined in a 1915 declaration of academic freedom that marked the founding of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). Autonomy is so ingrained that shared governance is sometimes willfully–almost comically–misconstrued to mean that administrators work for the faculty and that governing boards are at best irrelevant to a university’s mission.

In normal times it probably does not matter much, but these are not normal times. Forty million Americans owe 1.2 trillion dollars in student loans. One in seven borrowers defaults within two years of leaving college. Tuitions are rising at twice the rate of inflation while family incomes are flat. Americans have lost confidence that affordable, excellent college education is within their reach. Under pressure from both the left and the right, political correctness has become a bludgeon used to beat back the free exchange of divergent views on campus. Change is needed, and there are transformational ideas that can help universities get back on track. But, as former University of Michigan President James Duderstadt has pointed out, change will be slowest at the institutions where shared governance is strongest. The mobs could care less.

Who has the interest of society uppermost? Presidents are accountable, but most have careers to advance. They have powerful incentives to behave like stewards of the status quo. Not faculty. Many are deluded about the need for someone to be in charge at all. Not students themselves. They have even narrower interests and lack perspective. The AAUP’s 1915 declaration acknowledges that governing boards are responsible for society’s interests. Not all boards are good at that, and the bad ones should be replaced. It is not clear what led to the Texas Regents’ decision to fire William Powers. Conflicts with trustees can simmer for years before boiling over and leading to a president’s ouster. The publicly stated rationale for a firing is not always the real one, but Governor Perry’s fascination with a shortsighted agenda promoted by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation certainly played a role. As bad as those ideas would be for a great university, it is hard to argue that the long-term interests of institutions like the University of Texas are served by polling unaccountable mobs.

College presidencies are derailed all the time. There were dozens of firings last year. Hundreds of people who represent unpopular points of view made commencement addresses. So why such a ruckus over a Texas firing or Christine Lagarde’s commencement invitation from Smith College? Mobs have become well-heeled Internet marketing experts. It is no accident that supporters of William Powers were in contact with Teresa Sullivan’s supporters at The University of Virginia, where the art of demonizing and isolating board members was perfected. It is only a matter of time before roving bands of torch-waving villagers realize that by storming the gates they can impose their interests and the well-armed mobs start roaming the Halls of Ivy.

The result will be the steep descent of the best American universities into a soup of international mediocrity when global leadership is needed. The contract between academia and society is strong in this country. It was renewed in President John Bascom’s 1879 “Wisconsin Idea” that spoke of the university’s duty to reach into every family, and Rafael Reif’s soaring 2013 MIT inaugural that warned of the dangers to society of driving an economic wedge between universities and the American public. It is diminished every time a mob is rewarded for undermining legitimate authority. Universities are a national treasure to be cherished, and strengthening the quality of their governing boards also strengthens the social contract. Mobs like to attack strong boards as corporatist, but there is nothing corporatist about acting to ensure that institutions are healthy and vibrant. There is no sport in using Twitter to amplify personal attacks on trustees and administrators. It is a celebration of mob rule.