In its 1966 declaration on professional ethics, the American Association of University Professors, the professoriate’s representation organization, states:
"Professors, guided by a deep conviction of the worth and dignity of the advancement of knowledge, recognize the special responsibilities placed upon them....They hold before them the best scholarly and ethical standards of their discipline.… They acknowledge significant academic or scholarly assistance from (their students)."
Notwithstanding such pronouncements, higher education recently has provided the public with a series of ethical solecisms, most spectacularly the University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill’s recidivistic plagiarism and duplicitous claim of Native American ancestry along with his denunciations of 9/11 victims. While plagiarism and fraud presumably remain exceptional, accusations and complaints of such wrong doing increasingly come to light.
Some examples include Demas v. Levitsky at Cornell, where a doctoral student filed a legal complaint against her adviser’s failure to acknowledge her contribution to a grant proposal; Professor C. William Kauffman’s complaint against the University of Michigan for submitting a grant proposal without acknowledging his authorship; and charges of plagiarism against by Louis W. Roberts, the now-retired classics chair at the State University of New York at Albany. Additional plagiarism complaints have been made against Eugene M. Tobin, former president of Hamilton College, and Richard L. Judd, former president of Central Connecticut State University.
In his book Academic Ethics, Neil Hamilton observes that most doctoral programs fail to educate students about academic ethics so that knowledge of it is eroding. Lack of emphasis on ethics in graduate programs leads to skepticism about the necessity of learning about ethics and about how to teach it. Moreover, nihilist philosophies that have gained currency within the academy itself such as Stanley Fish’s “antifoundationalism” contribute to the neglect of ethics education. . For these reasons academics generally do not seriously consider how ethics education might be creatively revived. In reaction to the Enron corporate scandal, for instance, some business schools have tacked an ethics course onto an otherwise ethically vacuous M.B.A. program. While a step in the right direction, a single course in a program otherwise uninformed by ethics will do little to change the program’s culture, and may even engender cynicism among students.
Similarly, until recently, ethics education had been lacking throughout the American educational system. In response, ethicists such as Kevin Ryan and Karen Bohlin have advocated a radical renewal of ethics education in elementary schools. They claim that comprehensive ethics education can improve ethical standards. In Building Character in Schools, Ryan and Bohlin compare an elementary school to a polis, or Greek city state, and urge that ethics be fostered everywhere in the educational polis.
Teachers, they say, need to set standards and serve as ethical models for young students in a variety of ways and throughout the school. They find that manipulation and cheating tend to increase where academic achievement is prized but broader ethical values are not. They maintain that many aspects of school life, from the student cafeteria to the faculty lounge, ought to provide opportunities, among other things, to demonstrate concern for others. They also propose the use of vision statements that identify core virtues along with the implementation of this vision through appropriate involvement by staff and students.
We would argue that, like elementary schools, universities have an obligation to ethically nurture undergraduate and graduate students. Although the earliest years of life are most important for the formation of ethical habits, universities can influence ethics as well. Like the Greek polis, universities become ethical when they become communities of virtue that foster and demonstrate ethical excellence. Lack of commitment to teaching, lack of concern for student outcomes, false advertising about job opportunities open to graduates, and diploma-mill teaching practices are examples of institutional practices that corrode rather than nourish ethics on campuses.
Competency-based education, broadly considered, is increasingly of interest in business schools. Under the competency-based approach (advocated, for example, by Rick Boyatzis of Case Western Reserve University, David Whetten of Brigham Young University, and Kim Cameron of the University of Michigan), students are exposed not only to theoretical concepts, but also to specific competencies that apply the theory. They are expected to learn how to apply in their lives the competencies learned in the classroom, for instance those relating to communication and motivating others. Important ethical competencies (or virtues) should be included and fostered alongside such competencies. Indeed, in applied programs such as business, each discipline and subject can readily be linked to ethical virtues. Any applied field, from traffic engineering to finance, can and should include ethical competencies as an integral part of each course.
For example, one of us currently teaches a course on managerial skills, one portion of which focuses on stress management. The stress management portion includes a discussion of personal mission setting, which is interpreted as a form of stress management. The lecture emphasizes how ethics can intersect with practical, real world decision making and how it can relate to competencies such as achievement orientation. In the context of this discussion, which is based on a perspective that originated with Aristotle, a tape is shown of Warren Buffett suggesting to M.B.A. students at the University of North Carolina that virtue is the most important element of personal success.
When giving this lecture, we have found that street smart undergraduate business students at Brooklyn College and graduates in the evening Langone program of the Stern School of Business of New York University respond well to Buffett’s testimony, perhaps better than they would to Aristotle’s timeless discussions in Nicomachean Ethics.
Many academics will probably resist integration of ethical competencies into their course curriculums, and in recent years it has become fashionable to blame economists for such resistance. For example, in his book Moral Dimension, Amitai Etzioni equates the neoclassical economic paradigm with disregard for ethics. Sumantra Ghoshal’s article “Bad Management Theories are Destroying Good Management Practices,” in Academy of Management Learning and Education Journal, blames ethical decay on the compensation and management practices that evolved from economic theory’s emphasis on incentives.
We disagree that economics has been all that influential. Instead, the problem is much more fundamental to the humanities and social sciences and has its root in philosophy. True, economics can exhibit nihilism. For example, the efficient markets hypothesis, that has influenced finance, holds that human knowledge is impotent in the face of efficient markets. This would imply that moral choice is impotent because all choice is so. But the efficient markets hypothesis is itself a reflection of a deeper and broader philosophical positivism that is now pandemic to the entire academy.
Over the past two centuries the assaults on the rational basis for morals have created an atmosphere that stymies interest in ethical education. In the 18th century, the philosopher David Hume wrote that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is,” so that morals are emotional and cannot be proven true. Today’s academic luminaries have thoroughly imbibed this “emotivist” perspective. For example, Stanley Fish holds that even though academics do exhibit morality by condemning “cheating, academic fraud and plagiarism,” there is no universal morality beyond this kind of “local practice.”
Whatever its outcome, the debate over the rational derivability of ethical laws from a set of clear and certain axioms that hold universally is of little significance in and of itself. It will not determine whether ethics is more or less important in our lives; nor will it provide a disproof of relativism -- since defenders of relativism can still choose not to accept the validity of the derivation.
Yet ethics must still be lived -- even though the knowledge, competency, skill or talent that is needed to lead a moral life, a life of virtue, may not be derived from any clear and certain axioms. There is no need for derivation of the need, for instance, for good interpersonal skills. Rather, civilization depends on competency, skill and talent as much as it depends on practical ethics. Ethical virtue does not require, nor is it sustained by, logical derivation; it becomes most manifest, perhaps, through its absence, as revealed in the anomie and social decline that ensue from its abandonment. Philosophy is beside the point.
Based on much evidence of such a breakdown, ethics education experts such as Thomas Lickona of the SUNY's College at Cortland have concluded that to learn to act ethically, human beings need to be exposed to living models of ethical emotion, intention and habit. Far removed from such living models, college students today are incessantly exposed to varying degrees of nihilism: anti-ethical or disembodied, hyper-rational positions that Professor Fish calls “poststructuralist” and “antifoundationalist.” In contrast, there is scant emphasis in universities on ethical virtue as a pre-requisite for participation in a civilized world. Academics tend to ignore this ethical pre-requisite, preferring to pretend that doing so has no social repercussions.
They are disingenuous – and wrong.
It is at the least counterintuitive to deny that the growing influence of nihilism within the academy is deeply, and causally, connected to increasing ethical breaches by academics (such as the cases of plagiarism and fraud that we cited earlier). Abstract theorizing about ethics has most assuredly affected academics’ professional behavior.
The academy’s influence on behavior extends, of course, far beyond its walls, for students carry the habits they have learned into society at large. The Enron scandal, for instance, had more roots in the academy than many academics have realized or would care to acknowledge. Kenneth Lay, Enron’s former chairman, holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Houston.Jeff Skilling, Enron’s former CEO, is a Harvard M.B.A. who had been a partner at the McKinsey consulting firm, one of the chief employers of top-tier M.B.A. graduates. According to Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker, Enron had followed McKinsey’s lead, habitually hiring the brightest M.B.A. graduates from leading business schools, most often from the Wharton School. Compared to most other firms, it had more aggressively placed these graduates in important decision-making posts. Thus, the crimes committed at Enron cannot be divorced from decision-making by the best and brightest of the newly minted M.B.A. graduates of the 1990s.
As we have seen, the 1966 AAUP statement implies the crucial importance of an ethical foundation to academic life. Yet ethics no longer occupies a central place in campus life, and universities are not always run ethically. With news of academic misdeeds (not to mention more spectacular academic scandals, such as the Churchill affair) continuing to unfold, the public rightly grows distrustful of universities.
It is time for the academy to heed the AAUP’s 1915 declaration, which warned that if the professoriate “should prove itself unwilling to purge its ranks of … the unworthy… it is certain that the task will be performed by others.”
Must universities learn the practical value of ethical virtue by having it imposed from without? Or is ethical revival possible from within?
Candace de Russy and Mitchell Langbert
Candace de Russy is a trustee of the State University of New York and a Hudson Institute Adjunct Fellow. Mitchell Langbert is associate professor of business at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York.
The higher education community believes it scored a great victory on June 23 when a coalition of twenty-something organizations, including the American Association of University Professors, issued a statement supporting academic freedom. Many of their critics have fallen for it and a number of Congressmen have even declared victory. Any praise for the statement, however, must be tempered by an understanding that the people who brought us Ward Churchill won’t offer much more than lip service -- unless we keep our powder dry.
The statement was promulgated by the American Council on Education and reiterates the importance of the free exchange of ideas, grading free of political bias, grievance procedures for students and faculty who are treated unfairly, and intellectual standards. The declaration acknowledges that “intellectual pluralism” and “academic freedom” are principles widely shared within the academic community. Yet there is nary a nod to the hundreds of widely-publicized cases of political pressure in the classroom that prompted the controversy in the first place.
For years, the higher education establishment has denied that there is a problem and engaged in a series of unpersuasive rationalizations to avoid facing the obvious facts. Roger Bowen of the American Association of University Professors has called studies about faculty political imbalance "wrongheaded" and claimed political affiliations of professors are of little consequence in the classroom. John Millsaps at the University of Georgia agreed: "we have no evidence to suggest that students are being intimidated by professors as regards students’ freedom to express their opinions and beliefs." And Lionel Lewis in a recent issue of Academe went so far as to argue that political one-sidedness doesn’t matter because college has no impact anyway. Nowhere did they argue that students will get a better education if they are exposed to a variety of viewpoints and learn to think for themselves.
Numerous surveys, reports, and case studies documenting the politically monolithic character of the faculty have mounted. A recent student survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni shows that many students believe they will be penalized if they have a point of view that differs from their professors.
Faced with this mounting evidence – and a growing number of state legislators who have begun holding hearings and passing resolutions -- the higher education establishment figured it would be best to have a quick conversion, endorse intellectual “pluralism,” and then go back to business as usual. The strategy is obvious: give lip service, get it out of the papers, do nothing.
Those claiming victory are right in that the first step to recovery is to admit that you have a problem. However, the ACE statement does not admit that there is anything more than a PR problem: “these issues have become public controversies.” It does not address whether there is a lack of intellectual diversity or whether there are any victims of political intolerance at all.
Second, it does not define intellectual pluralism and makes the shocking suggestion that First Amendment freedoms mean different things to different people. These are “complex topics with multiple dimensions,” it says, and it is “impossible to create a single definition or set of standards” and, well, it is simply too much for the unwashed public. Definitions will have to be left to individual campuses, where, presumably, people are smarter.
Third, it does not address any of the specific issues raised by critics: what about unbalanced panel discussions on campus, the hundreds of speech codes prevalent across the country, student newspaper theft, speakers being disinvited or shouted down, the uncivil and intolerant behavior of administrators on campus after campus aimed specifically at students with political views who differ? Not a word on any of these topics.
Fourth, the only section calling for action is very cleverly written. It says, first, that "[n]either students nor faculty should be disadvantaged or evaluated on the basis of their political opinions." The next sentence calls for "clear" grievance procedures. And action? Not quite. Every college already has clear grievance procedures for students and faculty members. But didn't the statement say that these should be revised to include protections against political bias? If they had wanted to, they surely could have. No, they stated a general principle, but did not call for revising any grievance procedures. An action that is no action.
Fifth, if you read the fine print, the statement did not even endorse its own principles, claiming only that they "deserve to be stated affirmatively as a basis for discussion … on campuses and elsewhere." No action here either.
If they did not admit a problem, and did not define the goal of intellectual pluralism, and did not propose or even hint at specific ways to achieve intellectual pluralism, and really only proposed some discussion topics, what did they say? Leave the problem to us -- "the community of scholars.” Isn't the rhetoric great? The only clear intent of the statement is to tell the public to leave the problem to the institutions. Yes, the people who brought you Ward Churchill, who in fact include Ward Churchill, will solve the problem.
The responsibility for correcting the current situation should, indeed, fall first and foremost to colleges and universities themselves. However, it is the universities that have created the problem, have perpetuated it, continue to minimize it, and have failed to take concrete steps to solve. Indeed, the only apparent response by the higher ed community to the statement has been protests by the AFT, NEA, and various members of the AAUP.
This statement – so far – is just lip service to intellectual diversity. The reality remains that faculties are politically imbalanced, many course readings and campus speaking events are one-sided, and there is a basic hostility to ideas outside of campus orthodoxies.
It’s time for the institutions to take concrete steps to live up to their words.
Anne D. Neal
Anne D. Neal is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a national nonprofit group of alumni and trustees.
It's a familiar Washington story: an entrenched leader faces accusations of misappropriation of funds; charges and countercharges fly. This isn’t a partisan Capital feud, but the tale of American University President Ben Ladner and the university’s Board of Trustees.
The controversy erupted with an anonymous letter to The Washington Post charging that President Ladner misused university funds to hire a personal chef and executive assistant for the first lady, imbibe hundred-dollar bottles of wine to court donors and buy holiday gifts for the kids, among other extravagances.
Although I have been in education 25 years and also am a college president, I know neither Ladner nor members of his board. Rather, as with most of us in academe, I have observed the unfolding scandal through news reports and the various Web-writers blasting various players in this tragedy.
What a shame to see American mired in such scandal. The university has worked very hard to improve its standing in the past decade, for which the board and chief executive are to be complimented, along with the faculty, staff and graduates.
And we should also recall that AU’s troubles aren’t the first of their kind to arise in higher education. A decade earlier, Adelphi University was assailed as a monument to bad management when the president of the Long Island institution filled the board with cronies who awarded him a fat salary package and paid for a $1.2 million Manhattan apartment for his use. This was at the time that Adelphi’s marketing campaign "Harvard: the Adelphi of Massachusetts," evoked titters from administrators at other universities and as the institution’s enrollment, financial stability and faculty morale were plummeting. The situation deteriorated to such a point that the New York Board of Regents interceded and removed all but one of the board members. Subsequently, a new president was hired.
A few years later, the board and administration of Boston University were directed by the Massachusetts attorney general to change its governance structure and board composition following the revelation that a large percentage of the trustees were also contractors and vendors for the school. In addition, BU lost many millions of dollars investing in a company in which the president had a particular interest. I’m sure many of my colleagues recall how that same president had served on -- and was removed from -- Adelphi’s board.
I know of other small institutions riddled with similar conflicts: The chairman of one school’s board also served as its legal counsel (for a substantial hourly fee), as chairman of the executive compensation committee and as executor of the president’s estate. Talk about conflict of interest!
All these examples illustrate the importance of good governance in higher education. The situation at AU, in particular, demonstrates how the lack of role clarification for both boards and their presidents is a prescription for disaster. Trustees, increasingly volunteer leaders from business and industry, should know that they have both a legal and fiduciary responsibility for the organization. The president manages on a daily basis, subject to the authority granted him by the board; he should bear in mind that it is not part of a divine right of kings, but rather is delegated. While the partnership between trustees and presidents is clear and the expectation of civility and respect implicit, good trustees and good presidents understand the lines of authority and see that those borders are not crossed.
Yet, many of us leading institutions of higher education know isn’t easy to observe that line of separation: Trustees are held accountable to a high standard. Yet they are volunteers (at least most of them) and often have to rely on the administration, primarily the chief executive officer, for information and data upon which to make important decisions. This line becomes further blurred by the fact that trustees and presidents move in similar social circles and can end up becoming friends. Combine those conditions with the fact that many trustees come from business, where lavish executive pay packages and rich perks are customary; it is only natural that they would want the chief executive of "their" university, particularly if she or he is a personal friend, to enjoy the lifestyle of a CEO.
But, I would argue that while universities have many of the attributes of “for-profit” enterprises, they are different fundamentally.
Universities do not measure their success on returns to shareholders, but rather on value for stakeholders -- parents paying high tuition, faculty and staff members who do the heavy lifting of the institution, and, students -- the ultimate "customers." Presidents of universities are not engaged in making widgets, creating new technology or producing consumable products or services. We are engaged in something even more special -- the creation of knowledge, the transmission of that knowledge and (hopefully) the creation of educated, aware and engaged members of civil society.
For that there should be just compensation, but it is one of several factors that need to be considered in hiring and retaining a good chief executive. Those individuals who pursue higher education careers merely for the financial compensation are missing the more meaningful reward.
Besides maintaining a social distance from his trustees, a college president can avail himself of other common-sense remedies to avoid future cases like American University. The most obvious of these are standards issued by the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities. Those guidelines are clear, rigorous and constitute “best practices” in board governance that ensure that trustees and presidents uphold the highest possible ethical standards. For example, compensation should be reviewed and approved by all members of the board, not just one or two members. In the case of American, news reports hold that the President’s controversial spending arose from provisions of a second contract that some trustees had never seen -- clearly not a desirable management model for any enterprise.
It is critical that all the board and its president share an absolute understanding about the presidential contract and the expectations, rights and responsibilities for the president and the presidential spouse. In the case of American University, the compensation for the president is simply out of line with the average compensation and terms for college presidents: the National Association of College and University Business Officers offers ample benchmark data that can serve as a reality check.
A president’s contract should be reviewed annually -- and not just by the chairman of the board or other “insiders” but by a group of trustees. An experienced chief financial officer (in many of the cases I’ve cited, where was he or she?) should be hired and be a fiscal gatekeeper, without fear of retaliation. And an annual independent audit should be conducted.
For example, at my institution, when the auditors present their report, the chief financial officer leaves the meeting so the board can critique his work. Then, I also leave the room so the trustees and auditors can freely discuss executive fiscal responsibility in confidence.
Congress passed Sarbanes-Oxley to restrict certain business practices to avert even the appearance of conflict of interest. Higher education, which is becoming costlier and increasingly harder for middle-class families to afford, must maintain standards that are just as strict, if not even more so.
Whether President Ladner misused his office for personal gain remains to be seen. But as an educator, one thing I do know about the AU case: The faculty, staff, alumni and ultimately the students of American University are those suffering the most from this unfortunate and avoidable controversy.
Roy J. Nirschel
Roy J. Nirschel is president of Roger Williams University.
Tenure conversations, those hardy perennials, spring up among public university trustees on somewhat predictable cycles, provoking a ritual engagement well known to veteran academic administrators.
The cycle often begins when a new trustee looks carefully at the bundle of tenure recommendations that come from the campus, or multiple campuses of university systems, each year. These carefully crafted recommendations look remarkably similar. The recommendations praise all candidates for their excellence in teaching, research and service; all candidate files have glowing excerpts from letters solicited from outside reviewers; and the recommendations always outline the candidates’ publications, teaching accomplishments and service achievements.
In addition, in most public university settings, this summary includes other information on the process, including the vote totals for and against each candidate at the department, college and university levels. Although on some occasions there may be a split vote, most tenure recommendations come forward with very large majorities in favor at all levels.
Trustees do not quite know what to make of these summaries. Should they try to understand the careers of the people proposed for tenure? Should they worry that all the recommendations say almost exactly the same things in the same ways, implying perhaps a routine approval process rather than a rigorous review? What is their responsibility as trustees in approving these tenure recommendations, which usually imply 25 to 30 years of continuing institutional financial obligation? How can trustees have a useful opinion when they have not participated in the process and do not see the full dossiers? What would be the consequences of failing to approve a tenure recommendation endorsed by the president?
Uncomfortable with the rubber stamp character of these decisions, the new trustee will typically put the question of the entire tenure process up for discussion. While a few may actually challenge the concept of tenure, most trustees, whether they like it or not, recognize that a frontal attack on this core concept of the American academy is a futile exercise. Even so, they think, “Well, maybe we must have tenure, but if these campuses never turn anyone down, maybe we need to make the process more rigorous.” So they ask for data on how many candidates the campus rejects and on the percent of a department’s faculty that is already tenured. They ask how it is that everyone’s file they see has excellent ratings.
University administrators respond in similarly predictable ritual fashion. “We are very rigorous,” they say. “We wash out the weak cases before they get to the tenure decision, by advising those who perform below our standards that they should seek employment elsewhere.” In most universities, some form of annual review of all non-tenured faculty exists, and these reviews, we tell the trustees, ensure that only the best candidates for tenure survive. “This rigorous prior screening,” we say, “explains why we approve almost all those who come up for tenure.”
When the concerned trustee expresses some skepticism about this rationale for the high success of candidates for tenure and asks for data on the failure rate, the administration falls back to a comprehensive review of the process by which institutions acquire faculty. The screening, they say, begins with a national recruitment of only the best candidates. So the campus starts out with presumptive winners and has already rejected most of the potential losers.
Clever administrators calculate the failure rate for tenure by counting from the time of first hiring, especially if the campus uses the lecturer as an entry-level position sometimes converted to tenure track assistant professor. They demonstrate that of all those with Ph.D.’s or almost Ph.D.’s hired for teaching purposes, quite a few never make it to the tenure decision point.
The administration outlines the elaborate bureaucracy and review processes that allow only the best to survive the ordeal and provides reams of information on the process. Department-specific criteria (articles matter in some departments, books in others, for example) produce multiple versions of guidelines used throughout the institution. Examples of the documentation required by the college or school and the paperwork sent to the provost and then on to the president fill the package provided the trustees. With a final flourish, the campus hands over the elaborate campuswide description of promotion and tenure guidelines established by faculty committees and approved by presidents and often the board of trustees itself.
The determined trustee may ask for a policy discussion by the board, and the board usually agrees. A meeting takes place, and in systems, there can be many provosts and chancellors or presidents, as well as a battery of system officials, all who bring expertise, experience, data, and perspectives.
In the discussion, the trustee learns that the process is complicated and that the decisions reflect expert judgments. In a nice way, the assembled administrators gently inform the trustee that in general board members do not know enough to evaluate the full dossiers of the candidates because the subject matter is well beyond trustee expertise in most cases (as it is beyond the expertise of most administrators as well).
The administrators make clear that absent this tenure process conducted as it is, replicated with minor variations at almost all competing public institutions of higher education, no campus can compete for good faculty because good faculty will only come to a place that does tenure exactly the way the university does it. Finally, someone mumbles about lawsuits, union contracts and other nasty consequences of failing to sustain the status quo.
At the end of the meeting, everyone agrees that tenure is a complicated and essential thing. They agree that the institution must be conscientious and careful because the investment implied by a tenure decision is a major commitment. They agree that it is not good for a department to be filled entirely by tenured or non-tenured faculty, but they also allow that it is a bad idea to have rigid tenure quotas. The trustees leave the meeting recognizing that this is beyond their ability to control, frustrated that they cannot get a grip on the process, concerned that the institution may not be doing the right thing in a rigorous enough way, but completely without any mechanism to address the issue.
The administrators go home, having spent great amounts of time and killed many trees for the paperwork, and report to their faculty that they have once again held off the trustee philistines who would have destroyed, absent the strong stance of the administration, that most cherished characteristic of academic appointment, the permanent tenured professorship.
The hardy perennial has once again flowered and died, to lie dormant until the next season of trustee discontent.
After a constant conversation about college sports since early in the 20th century, the peculiar logic of hardcore fans and impassioned critics passes from the curious to the bizarre. We love sports because they teach teamwork and the value of struggle against adversity. We hate sports because they corrupt the pure ideals of academic life. We love sports because they bring glory and visibility to our college's name. We hate sports because their visibility celebrates the false value of winning at any cost.
These counterpoint rituals of praise and condemnation swirl around the games themselves and seem to thrive on the controversy, ignore the details, and repeat themselves with minor variations every year. While sports people speak of the positive rituals, they do so with the voices of tired preachers, offering an overused sermon one Sunday too often. The critics, as they grow ever more strident with their complaint, speak with the desperation of voices crying in the wilderness.
The ineffectiveness of the sports-in-college debate comes from confusion about the issues. The controversy assumes there is a fundamental open question about the place of intercollegiate sports in America’s colleges and universities. There is not. Intercollegiate sports are a required activity for mainstream colleges and universities in America. Sports programs form part of their core program and this has been so since the first decade of the 20th century as evidenced by the chronology of the big stadiums of the first 20 years. Harvard's Soldiers Field with its capacity of 57,000 in the 1920s and the Yale Bowl with its 80,000 attendance at the Yale-Army game of 1923 set a standard for elite commitment to football (" The Sports Imperative in America’s Research Universities"). Rants against the inclusion of competitive intercollegiate sports in university life, whatever their intellectual or moral worth, define the concept of irrelevant.
Similarly, high-minded concern about the culture of winning misses the point. The purpose of organized sport is to determine a winner. This is why we keep score. Once we recognize the inevitability of intercollegiate sports competition, we have also accepted the culture of winning. A well-intentioned effort to produce sports without winning borders on the absurd and defines the meaning of futile.
Still, something in college sports is understandable and manageable: the money. The issue of how much the sports program costs requires an accounting of revenue and expenses, a deceptively simple thing in theory. In the college sports world, it is often possible to get reasonably accurate data on income (because it is in the interest of the institution to demonstrate high levels of sports revenue). It is usually impossible, though, to get reasonably accurate approximations of the expenses (because it is rarely in the interest of the institution to report high expenses accurately). A table of what universities often fail to include when they report their income and expenses from college athletic programs appears in a discussion of aspects of this subject in The Sports Imperative mentioned above.
Institutions subsidize college sports programs by charging a wide range of athletics expenses to the general operating budget of the university, whether for debt, grounds, security, legal work, administrative staff, fringe benefits, insurance, or many other expenses large and small. When the campus subtracts the partial expenses from the full income, they can report a profitable or at least modestly in deficit program. This looks much better to the observing public than what a true accounting of costs might provide. Convenience accounting would be the right term for these practices.
Still, even if the published information minimizes the cost of the athletic program to the institution, administrators and their trustees (well at least the administrators) need to know the true cost so that they can manage the consequences of subsidizing athletics and recognize when the subsidy grows too large for the good of the college.
How can we weigh the significance of a subsidy to college sports? At a major land-grant flagship institution with a budget of $1.5 billion, a subsidy to the athletics department of $2 million may be a small matter, but to a small liberal arts college with a budget of $500 million, it may make a bigger difference. We can get a better perspective if we look at the opportunity cost of such deficits.
If we raise a $45 million athletic endowment we could generate a continuing subsidy (at a payout rate of 4.5 percent) of $2 million per year for athletics, and we would drive the opportunity cost close to zero because athletics donors, for the most part, do not give substantially to academics and the program would be self-supporting. However, if we cannot raise the $45 million from athletics donors, and we must use general revenue from the university’s budget to pay the $2 million deficit, the opportunity cost is high. Under such circumstances, we would have to take $2 million from teaching and research every year and devote it to intercollegiate athletics, a common practice that drives true academics to near incoherent rage and frustration.
Imagine, however, institutions in the bottom 75 percent of the Division I-A football revenue system or, worse, institutions with Division I-AA football programs, the deficit (calculated correctly and unpublished) can reach into the range of $8 million or $10 million. At $8 million, the endowment required to sustain such a deficit reaches about $178 million. This is well outside the athletic fund raising capacity of almost every academic institution in this group, especially for those in the public sector. The $8 million deficit every year has to come from the students, general revenue, and other sources that could just as easily buy books for the library, scholarships for the students, or faculty for the classroom. There lies the true opportunity cost.
The critics, sometimes easily misled, often aim at the wrong target. It is not the absolute size of the athletic program’s budget that should provoke outraged academic concern but the relative size of the subsidy. A subsidy that requires an investment equivalent to $178 million of endowment is a challenge even for an institution with a respectable $500 million endowment. For an institution with less private resources, it is simply a major annual drain on the academic budget.
At the same time, even if a mega program gets and spends $70 million on intercollegiate athletics, if its full accurate accounts show a balance or even a surplus, then the program is not too big and probably does not hurt the institution. A smaller program, one that takes in $20 million and spends $28 million, may not appear so offensively large, but the $8 million loss may be doing much greater damage to the institution’s academic prospects.
Money always matters, but we need to count all the money, know where it came from, and recognize what we purchased. Otherwise, we waste our time on immaterial, if amusing, debates about the role of intercollegiate sports in America.
My younger brother celebrated his first birthday at a campus protest. It was 1988, and my Mom, a Gallaudet University graduate, had been following the growing student movement to demand a deaf president at her alma mater. She couldn’t stand being 400 miles away, in Rochester, N.Y. So never mind that my youngest brother was still nursing. She took him with her, and joined the Deaf President Now movement.
I’m not sure when I first learned of the movement. But I can’t remember not knowing I. King Jordan -- the president whose appointment was the result of that movement -- as a symbol of what was possible for me. My mother told me stories, and I grew up with Gallaudet. There was no other university for me. I’m the fourth generation in my family to be born deaf, and the third to attend Gallaudet.
I’m a senior so I should have been spending this week celebrating (when not studying for my last round of finals). Instead I’ve been protesting, with hundreds of my fellow students, over the appointment of Jordan’s successor. It’s difficult to explain to the outside world just what we’re doing, and granted it’s difficult to understand. After all, the trustees picked a deaf woman, who has spent much of her career at Gallaudet. What’s all the fuss about?
To best understand what’s happening now, you need to know that the Gallaudet I grew up with is not the Gallaudet I am graduating from. Whereas going to Gallaudet and demanding a deaf president were once part of simply affirming our pride in ourselves and our right to basic human needs, students want more today. In fact, some deaf students don’t even want to attend Gallaudet or the deaf high schools most of us attended because a range of opportunities are now available elsewhere. Many of those opportunities exist because of civil rights laws for people with disabilities -- laws the Deaf President Now movement had a hand in getting enacted.
But that doesn’t mean Gallaudet’s historic role isn’t part of why people care so much. The university matters to the millions of deaf people around the world who have never visited it, who can only dream of enrolling in what is widely considered the “Deaf Mecca.” That’s no surprise when you consider that more than 80 percent of all deaf people in the world who have college degrees earned them at Gallaudet. Because of the hereditary link to some forms of deafness, many deaf people are like me, from deaf families, allowing us to share a passion that comes when so many of those you are closest to grew up with the same experience.
Jordan isn’t just a college president, but is a spokesman for deaf men and women around the world. The board that needed to be pressured into promoting him never assigned him that role, but it came about naturally because of the Deaf President Now movement. When he announced his retirement after 18 years, word shot around the globe in minutes. Everybody wanted a say in who is going to replace King, the man who lived up to his name.
There’s no doubt that with the departure of Jordan, Gallaudet will assume a new direction. In the 18 years since Deaf President Now, we’ve shown the world that deaf people are in fact capable of doing anything except hearing. That’s the Catch-22. DPN made it possible for deaf students to go to any college in the United States and be successful. Gallaudet has stayed symbolic, inspiring those who go to Princeton, but not always attracting those same students. We have always been the best deaf university in the world, because competition is so thin. But we’re not satisfied with that. We want the best and brightest students, the ones who now have educational opportunities that were never available before. And that’s why we need a president with all the right qualities, not just someone who shares our deafness.
When the board selected Jordan in 1988, students were thrilled that a deaf educator got the job. But the reality is that they didn’t know what kind of president he’d become. My mother took his psychology class in 1973, and could never fathom him becoming president some day. Fortunately, Jordan did just the kinds of things that presidents are expected to do (and that people previously assumed deaf people couldn’t do): He raised money, he oversaw huge endowment growth, he presided over the planning of new facilities, he dealt with campus controversies -- making both popular and unpopular decisions. In the end though, he was as good as advertised. Jordan’s tenure as president will always be marked by the history made with his appointment, but it also is marked by normalcy – by Jordan doing what presidents do.
And that’s what people are missing about the protests this week. They aren’t about us reliving Deaf President Now, trying to get our 15 minutes. The protests are about concerns we have that are just like those of other students at other campuses. On many campuses these days, students feel disconnected from trustees and from decision-making, and that -- in the end -- is what’s going on here. Jane Fernandes, whom the board selected as president, has served as provost for the last six years. There are no doubt better candidates for the position in our eyes. But what truly is upsetting is that students weren’t listened to at all. We were stunned by the decision -- and started the protests -- because an extensive system had been set up to seek our views, and we provided them. Then we were ignored. Sadly, the trustees’ willingness to only pay lip service to student opinions is not at all unique to our university.
Part of what is unique to Gallaudet is the role of its president well beyond its campus. When Lawrence Summers said some foolish things about women, he didn’t bring down the reputation of all colleges and universities. People said Harvard had a bad president, they didn’t stop paying attention to academe. One of the reasons we are concerned about Fernandes (who is not a bad person) is that she’s an administrator, not a leader. We don’t have the luxury of just going with someone who knows how to balance a budget -- we need more. We need someone who -- like Jordan -- knows everyone on campus and their families, and who can be eloquent with the media, politicians, and philanthropists. Someone who can navigate the tough issues we face – of how to attract students and define our institution’s mission in an ever changing world. In an era when people talk about “cures” for deafness, when deaf students can demand sign interpreters to go to any institution, when technology has created huge new opportunities for the deaf, Gallaudet is at a turning point.
And here too, what we want now is different from what Deaf President Now was pushing for. After 1988, we told ourselves that Gallaudet would never again see a hearing president, and only now are we able to affirm that sentiment. But with the advances of the last 18 years, deafness alone isn’t enough. We want the same kind of “good fit” that all colleges need in a president. And to say that we should be happy to have a deaf president is insulting. If Harvard makes a bad choice for president and students protest, you won’t see people saying, “Well they should just be happy that the president can hear.” Actually I’d like to see our provost considered for a presidency elsewhere, where her particular skill set would be a better fit. And I’d be proud of her for achieving such a high post in a hearing world.
Those still trying to make sense of our protests should understand that what is happening is part of a broader social movement. Gallaudet is a microcosm of colleges everywhere, where students are growing increasingly tired of being ignored. (Just witness students forcing change at the University of Miami over how their janitors are treated or at many institutions over investment in Sudan.) Keep in mind that this isn’t just Gallaudet. But the source of our passion?
It is Gallaudet.
Anthony Mowl graduates from Gallaudet University this month with a degree in English. He is the former editor in chief of The Buff and Blue, the student paper.
In the wake of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the 2002 federal law aimed at reforming the governance of public companies, corporate trustees have been on the hot seat to ensure greater transparency and accountability. While Sarbanes-Oxley does not apply to nonprofits yet, the U.S. Senate Finance Committee has been hard at work analyzing whether nonprofits merit more scrutiny and similar rules. The recent string of events at American University -- involving a president who needed a strong board to protect him from himself – has, for better or for worse, drawn attention to the challenges of higher education trusteeship. And Congress’s continuing interest underscores the pressing need for college and university boards to get their house in order – before someone does it for them.
But the existing culture of university trusteeship is one that promotes the status quo and discourages active and informed trustees. By custom and practice, trustees are not trained or encouraged to ask questions and do their job responsibly. Based on more than a decade of service as an elected regent of the University of Nebraska, and my involvement with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and the Institute for Effective Governance, I have found a number of reasons this is the case, and identified some antidotes to these unhealthy practices.
For starters, when I was elected regent I was amazed at the number of parties, dinners and social functions that board members attend. The benefit of these events from the university administrator’s perspective is very clear: a trustee who becomes friends with administrators is going to be more likely to cheerlead than to challenge policies and practices. As I delved into my work with my fellow regents, I was amazed at how willing regents were to let administrators make all the decisions. I soon realized that the “social side” of trustee life was only part of the problem.
The University of Nebraska has very good, decent people in its administration and on its Board of Regents. Yet the standard practice of public university administration, like so many other parts of our system of government, promotes agency interests first, often with results that fail to enhance the public interest. For example, the board voted 6 to 2 to spend over $3 million to build a storage facility for seldom-used books. These are not rare books, but standard texts available in libraries across the country. Now they will be stored in better conditions than the books in the University’s regular collection.
The board approved $3 million for a “hydraulically banked indoor running track system” so that the University of Nebraska at Lincoln’s sports center could boast a state-of-the-art, world-class indoor track. This at a time when the university was increasing tuition and student fees and lobbying the legislature for more money claiming we do not have enough to pay faculty.
The list goes on. Trustees who realize that their responsibility is to make decisions that serve the public (not always the university) would never approve these proposals. But the prevailing culture on university boards is one of routinely succumbing to administration demands. A significant part of the reason boards behave this way is that most university administrators contract with the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities to train new board members. AGB training follows a single model, which emphasizes following the administrators’ lead and not “micromanaging” -- in other words, not asking tough questions.
But if our universities are to be well managed, we need trustees who promote responsible policies and serve in a responsible manner -- which means asking tough, challenging questions, advancing public understanding of the trade-offs and costs of public programs, promoting responsible behaviors and often voting No for programs that do not meet cost-benefit standards.
Having criticized my fellow board members for voting irresponsibly, let me offer a brief case study in which the University of Nebraska Board of Regents took a very courageous and responsible stand in the face of extreme pressures. In 2000, the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) came under attack for conducting fetal tissue research using tissue from aborted babies. UNMC is prohibited from performing abortions, but it accepted tissue donations from a doctor who had been awarded “honorary faculty” status.
UNMC had not been doing fetal tissue research in secret; faculty had published more than 50 papers based on the research. But UNMC did deliberately keep the source of the tissue quiet -- and this proved to be a big mistake. When the news media picked up the issue, it was described as “secret research using tissue from aborted babies.”
Nebraska pro-life groups condemned the research as immoral. Several vowed to defeat any regent running for re-election who supported this research. Political watchers predicted that the Board of Regents would quickly cave. The board thoroughly studied and debated the topic, and made the responsible decision. We weighed the overall public costs and benefits, thought through the moral questions, and, against significant threats and pressures, voted 12 to 0 to approve continuing fetal tissue research at UNMC. Recognizing the sensitivities of certain citizens on the issue, the board also directed the Medical Center to try to develop an alternative supply of tissue. UNMC did eventually develop some alternative sources for some of the cells needed, but to this day, it continues to use fetal tissue from abortions for some of the cell types since no other source can be found.
We need elected officials and university trustees who will make the tough and sometimes unpleasant decisions that result in responsible policy. Making tough calls, saying No, voting against programs that are recommended by administrators or government officials who are your personal friends, is very hard for an elected or appointed governing board member to do. But it is the responsible course. The public interest is clearly served by weighing all the costs and benefits to the public, debating alternatives openly and honestly, and then choosing the best option. The administration will be advocating what is best for the university from its perspective -- at a public university, it is the trustee’s job to champion the public’s perspective.
What are we to do to enhance the performance and responsible decision making by college and university governing boards in an environment that is dominated by administrators controlling the information and a board culture that promotes cheerleading rather than responsible governance? Here are 10 proposals:
1. Board members must subject major spending and policy decisions to cost/benefit analysis. It is a simple and extremely useful analysis because it forces trustees to consider disadvantages and trade-offs. While simple to do, the fact is, cost-benefit discussions are rare at governing board meetings. Unfortunately, since administrators have the resources to do analysis and do not like trustees to “micromanage,” the normal practice for board members is no cost/benefit analysis, listen and nod as administrators speak, vote yes, and let the full-time officials explain the policies and decisions.
2. The board secretary should be hired and rewarded by and responsible only to the board. If the board wants to have serious staff work done and someone who can collect information and be responsive to the board, a staff person responsible only to the board is best. Board employees who work for the administration will understandably end up being less than supportive if there is a request for information the administration doesn’t like, or a serious disagreement in policy. Beware: A request to hire a board secretary is often viewed (incorrectly) as an insult and great threat to the president, and most likely will be opposed.
3. Responsible trustees should insist on real committees and meaningful committee meetings, sessions that truly tackle issues. Administrators often favor minimal board meetings and a maximum of socializing. Similarly, administrators do not like the board breaking down into committees where they can do even more analysis and work. Trustees must take charge of their board, organize into committees to get into budget and policies in far more detail than is possible in the full board meetings, and limit the amount of time lost to unimportant university “show” presentations and social events.
4. Boards should insist on having major “strategic issue” discussions at each meeting. Another way to avoid the tendency to respond to administrator-set agendas and engage in end-of-the-process yes/no votes is to set aside a big block of time at each meeting to discuss key strategic issues in order to set policy to direct the university. Dedicating the bulk of a full board meeting to tuition policy, recruiting, and other major economic issues has been very effective at the University of Nebraska.
5. Board members should insist on the right to “have the floor” so that they can delve into issues and get all their follow-up questions addressed. The standard practice at board meetings is to have trustees wait in a queue to ask a question, with no opportunity for follow-up discussion and real debate. This needs to end.
6. To promote better accountability, trustees should insist on and help develop good “outcome measures” and “key performance indicators” for the university. It would be great for students and taxpayers if public universities required all graduates to complete the GRE or some other relevant professional exam as a condition for graduation. We need this kind of national standard and outcome measure to enable us to judge how well we do in educating our students and compare the value added by our school relative to other schools. This data would allow evaluation of programs and professors -- great information for students and those working to improve the university.
7. After new programs are approved, accompanied by promises of great results, boards should at some later date compare the program’s actual results and outcomes against the initial promises and projections. I visited Missouri's top board and found that its members followed this practice. For example, they approved a Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics and, in a board review several years later, presented facts showing that annual student enrollments had fallend far short of those projected. The natural tendency is to hide bad results like this. But a board needs to ensure that problems are disclosed and dealt with, and reviews like this can help.
8. Every few years, the board and administration should convene a committee to review administrative costs and champion efforts to undertake cost cutting. Reducing administrative costs is a “continuous improvement” effort that will often involve personnel reductions and changes to longstanding practice. An active, responsible board can help provide the impetus to make these needed changes. In Colorado, one board working closely with the president was able to reduce the administrative layers and re-direct the savings to instruction. This is a story that should inspire us all.
9. Trustees must demand an issues/requests tracking system, so when information is requested or an action is agreed to by the board, the request actually gets done. This is often not the case -- especially if the board secretary is responsible to the administration, not the board.
10. Finally, I recommend that university boards join the Institute for Effective Governance. I have attended sessions conducted by the Association of Governing Boards (the only other organization for trustees besides ACTA, which founded the institute) and read their materials, and the overwhelming message of AGB is for trustees to cheerlead for the campus administration. It has been my experience that AGB too often adopts the proposition that any disagreement with the administration is micromanaging or intolerable failure to support the president. If there were any doubt, recent problems at American University, where the board essentially gave a blank check to the president, should surely settle the matter: American University has been a member of the AGB for decades. The best way to adopt better practices is to visit other university boards, attend their meetings and talk with them about differences in practice. The Institute for Effective Governance (a group of trustees, not administrators) is a great source of best board practices and the most helpful resource I know for boards of trustees.
While I have great admiration for Nebraska’s current and past presidents, and have supported them on the vast majority of issues, I would never trust anyone with the freedom and blank check that trustees almost universally give to their top administrator. Nationwide, university boards simply do not scrutinize the budget the way city councils, county boards and legislatures do. We have great people on university governing boards, but the system is stacked against change and efforts to cut back spending or say no to new policies that continually lift the burden of responsibility from individuals.
To be a responsible board member, one must ask hard questions, do research, and frequently question and oppose college administrators who, understandably, often focus on the narrower interests of the college or university rather than the broader public interest.
In serving as a trustee, if you are not periodically voting “no” at meetings, or preventing some good-for-the-school-but-bad-for-the-public proposals from making it to the board for a vote, then you are not doing the job properly. If you have become such good friends with the school administrators that you find it too uncomfortable to oppose them on a vote, then you are not serving the public interest. If you are spending more time attending the athletic events, parties, and dinners with administrators rather than researching and questioning, then you are not serving as a responsible trustee.
Drew Miller is a member of the University of Nebraska Board of Regents, member of two public company boards of directors, and adviser to the Institute for Effective Governance. He is the president of Heartland Management Consulting Group and a colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve.