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What’s Up With Boards These Days?

July 2, 2012

What happened at the University of Virginia is probably going to happen again somewhere else.

It likely won’t take the same form – the removal and reinstatement of a university president. But somewhere, sometime, probably sooner rather than later, the governing board of a public university, claiming to be acting to move the university forward and addressing 21st-century challenges, is going to make a move that upsets faculty members and other traditional university stakeholders.

It’s nothing new to higher education. In fact, the effort by a handful of Board of Visitors’ members to remove President Teresa Sullivan – motivated by concern that the president wasn't moving fast enough to change the university -- isn’t even the first of its kind this year. In Texas, faculty at the University of Texas and Texas A&M systems’ flagship institutions have been consistently butting heads with the institutions’ governing boards. In May, rumors swirled that the University of Texas board was ready to remove UT-Austin President William Powers Jr. because some regents believed he wasn’t acting quickly enough on issues of affordability. That rumor generated significant pushback.

But the rate at which these types of conflicts are popping up is increasing, higher education researchers and administrators say, because governing boards, particularly at public universities, are different than they used to be.

They’re made up of different types of people than in the past, who are appointed for different reasons and come with different perspectives. Boards, and the lawmakers who appoint them, face increased pressure and a wider variety of challenges, including questions about finances, educational quality, and productivity. Trustees, along with the general public, are more informed about and interested in a variety of higher education issues. As a result, bodies that were once viewed by many within higher education as a buffer from outside political pressure are quickly becoming the ones applying the pressure.

“Boards are recognizing that the stakes of higher education have risen,” said Rick Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. “The challenges are more difficult, the public trust is more uncertain, and as a bridge between the institution and the public, they’re now responsible for an increased level of accountability.”

That shift has already caused tension on numerous campuses, and will likely continue to cause tension as universities move to address major challenges confronting the sector. Boards will become more involved in matters – particularly academics –they traditionally refrained from entering. Faculty, as in the case of Virginia, will push back as they feel that boards overstep. And that push and pull will reshape governance and administrative roles.

New Questions

It became clear in Virginia that the board’s reason for asking for Sullivan’s resignation – to the extent members gave one – was that members worried about the institution’s ability to deal with challenges such as decreased funding, the role of technology in the classroom, and increased accountability. Board members felt Sullivan was not capable of dealing with those issues under the expedient timeline they saw as necessary.

In her June 10 remarks announcing Sullivan’s resignation to the university’s vice presidents and deans, Helen E. Dragas, the board’s rector, or chair, said the university needed “bold and proactive leadership on tackling the difficult issues that we face.” At the board’s meeting on June 21, Dragas laid out a set of 10 issues that the board felt needed to be addressed in a timely manner.

Boards have historically worked with campus administrators and faculty to set broad institutional direction, or the “where are we going” questions, said Kent John Chabotar, president of Guilford College. But they have left the details about how the institution is going to get there to senior administrators.

What Virginia and other recent examples show, administrators and researchers say, is that trustees are interested in getting down into the weeds of specific university policies. “In their view they’re being more helpful,” said Chabotar, who teaches at both a seminar for new trustees put on by AGB and a seminar for new presidents put on by Harvard University. “To the administrators, it can sometimes feel intrusive.”

Examples abound. In Iowa, the statewide board of trustees is pushing to restrict the use of tuition revenue for financial aid dollars, a proposal that has also popped up in North Carolina. In Texas, the state’s governing boards have looked at very specific areas to reduce administrative costs and reform the way faculty are evaluated. Statewide boards have also locked horns in recent years with presidents in Oregon and Wisconsin over the independence of flagship institutions. The president of the Louisiana State University system butted heads with board members about the university’s budget and governance structure, leading to his departure.

 Meet the New Boss

The shift in board roles is partially attributable to one of the biggest shifts to affect higher education over the past two decades: the emergence of college and university education as a significant political issue. College completion, access, and affordability are already major campaign issues in state and national races. They are likely to be major issues in the 2012 presidential race.

Republican lawmakers are typically the ones that faculty members associate with appointing trustees who “interfere” with how the university is typically run. They point to Texas, Louisiana, and Iowa, all of which have Republican governors. But that’s not solely the case. Dragas, who was at the center of the Virginia incident, was appointed by a Democratic governor.

All political sides have reasons to try and influence governing boards these days. Conservative governors might appoint board members interested in controlling spending. Liberal politicians might be focused on access. Both liberal and conservative governors might want to appoint trustees who will stop tuition hikes. All three of those things might run up against institutional concerns about quality. Powers, at UT-Austin, got into trouble when he challenged the board's decision not to raise tuition, even though his proposed hike had campus support, was within guidelines laid out by the board, and funneled much of the money back to financial aid.

With states facing revenue shortfalls and increasing pension and health care costs, and a reluctance among the public for tax increases, lawmakers also hope to find efficiencies in higher education systems to relieve budget pressure.

This gubernatorial concern about board appointments is a significant departure from an era when there was more deference to institutions about who they wanted on boards, said Richard Chait, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education who studies university governance. Given the choice, universities historically looked to community members and alumni who would go to bat for them in the state legislature and defer to campus administrators on many issues. “You would have seen more loyal, ardent alumni, irrespective of net worth,” he said.

But even where lawmakers still defer institutional interests, Chait said, there has been a change. Universities have sought out a different breed of trustee in recent years. Specifically, Chait said, universities are interested in wealthy individuals or individuals with access to money. This is true at both public and private institutions. But getting that money often means trading away some deference.

One of the major complaints that came from faculty during the U.Va. debate was about the composition of the university’s board, which they claimed overrepresented the business community. The board, at the start of the controversy, included 12 corporate executives, three lawyers, and two doctors (one of whom did not have a vote). None had a Ph.D.

U.Va. has slightly higher business representation than the average, but it is not significantly outside the norm. Businesspeople have historically made up the plurality of boards. In a 2010 survey looking at the composition of public university governing boards, AGB found that 49.4 percent of trustees were either working in business fields or retired from them, 24.1 percent were in professional service (accounting, law, medicine, etc.) or retired from them, 15.5 percent in education, 1.7 percent in agriculture or ranching, and 9.3 percent in other professions.

Chait and others said much of the recent pressure is “less attributable to a changed composition of boards and more to the changed larger global environment in which these trustees operate.”

In 2008, the business world, where many trustees come from, underwent a major upheaval that forced many people to reexamine their notions of stability. “All of us draw inferences from the experiences we know best,” Chait said. “When you come from a world, as many trustees do, where one day banks were imperiled, mortgage companies were bankrupted, where best buy can be a winner one day and wake up the next and be obsolete, and then you hear this message, fomented by some people inside the academy like Clay Christensen [author of The Innovative University], who have a view that this is an unprecedented time that requires exceptional action, that’s a message that makes sense in that world.”

Developments like significant decreases in state funding, the emergence of top-tier universities as players in online education, and major questions about whether students are learning anything in college can scare trustees, Chabotar and others said.

Chabotar said he sees a change in the type of people who come through the new trustee program put on by the Association of Governing Boards. “They’re thinking, ‘If I’m ultimately responsible, along with my colleagues, I just can’t leave it to the president to do all the thinking,’ “ he said. “Board members are worried, and when you’re worried you tend to be a little more detail-oriented.”

And because trustees are paying more attention to details than in the past, Chait said, they want details to make sense to them. “There is more pressure on institutions to behave in ways that trustees find familiar, and in trustees’ judgment better,” he said. “As a result, institutions become more business-like, more impatient.” So universities end up with more strategic plans, business plans, and tracking of metrics, and less shared governance.

Groups such as the American Council of Trustees and Alumni have pushed for several years to get trustees more engaged in areas where they traditionally deferred to faculty and administrators. “In many instances, governing boards assume that academics is an area that is off-limits, that academic matters are solely the province of the faculty, and that for the board to intervene in this sacrosanct area is somehow a violation of ‘academic freedom,’ “ wrote Robert C. Dickeson, former president of the University of Northern Colorado and co-founder of the Lumina Foundation for Education, in a publication for ACTA. “These assumptions are simply false, and continuing to foster them only delays the board’s critical and necessary analysis of the most important aspect of its institution’s operation.”

Their message seems to be taking root on several governing boards. ACTA regularly points to boards in Missouri and Minnesota as institutions that have adopted some of their reforms. Dragas's statements during the U.Va. controversy reflected similar sentiments.

Balancing Act

What the Virginia case shows is that, despite a new outlook and objective, trustees are still going to run into traditional university stakeholders when trying to make change.

At flagship research institutions like U.Va., the University of Oregon, and the University of Texas at Austin, where much of the faculty is still tenured, efforts to exclude faculty from decision-making have not ended well for boards. Since faculty members are generally responsible for implementing most changes at universities, such as curriculum redesign, their reluctance to go along with a policy change can leave that policy dead on arrival.

Trustees learning the limits of their authority to effect change will be a constant source of tension over the next few years, observers say.

“Boards are appropriately recognizing stakes and challenges, which is a good thing. But that also requires boards to understand what their authority is, and the limits of their authority,” Legon said.  “They have to apply the appropriate degree of accountability and the highest degree of respect and support for presidential leadership. It doesn’t deny the board the right or responsibility to ask tough questions, but expectations have to be clearly understood and mutually agreed upon.”

In all of that push and pull, however, administrators can sometimes get squeezed, as was the case in Virginia, Louisiana State, and potentially in Texas. A president who tries to mediate between faculty and board viewpoints is in a tough spot.

Chabotar generally tells new board members at his AGB seminar that they need to be patient when entering a board for the first time, and to understand the role of the president and faculty, and the timetable that colleges and universities are accustomed to working under. Chabotar said boards' major responsibility is hiring, evaluating, and firing the president. While there’s room for collaboration in strategic planning and vision-setting, trustees should generally be hiring good presidents and acting on his or her recommendations.  

John Thelin, a higher education historian at the University of Kentucky, and faculty senate chairs at several public research institutions, said the best thing boards can do is engage in dialogue with the university’s stakeholders, including faculty, on major issues before making decisions. Both camps might learn from each other, they said.

“Action without informed discussion is a dangerous recipe,” Thelin said.

 

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