The academic year 1990-91 was my third year at Wesleyan. I did not know it at the time, but it would end the first half of my presidency at the institution. I thought at the time that I would stay there for many years. I had only begun to work on some of the major issues of the place: its budgetary shortfall, its far-flung curriculum, and, above all, the painful question of its identity.
There was a great deal to do. Over the years Wesleyan had lost key faculty and these individuals, I knew, had provided much of the intellectual life-blood of the place. We had to replace them with scholars who would replenish and then increase the school’s educational capital. Everything I knew about colleges and universities had told me that you build institutional strength on the quality of the faculty; nothing can substitute for it. And I wanted to fulfill the pledge I had made to the campus that at least 4 of the 19 vacant professorial positions would be filled by people of color and 10 of them by women. This was not going to be easy to do.
As the year began, I proceeded to do what, on occasion, presidents must do. Concluding that Wesleyan did not have the administrative strength it needed to resolve the issues it faced, I asked for and accepted the resignations of several officers who had served the school for a long time. The chief academic officer had worked for Wesleyan in a meritorious way for years, exercising considerable diplomatic skill in countless situations with his faculty colleagues, both good and troublesome. He gracefully returned to the faculty and resumed his career as superb teacher and scholar. The dean of students who, years before, had been one of the first black students at Wesleyan had risen to administrative prominence contending again and again with difficult students, impossible students, and some very good students. But exasperated and fatigued by his job, his for 17 years, he left Wesleyan to take a position with the Ford Foundation. The third officer, who for years supervised in a distant and supercilious way both fund-raising and public relations, seemed wedded to the style of my predecessor and considered me an unfortunate interloper. After several failed attempts to get him to accept the fact that I really was the president, I told him that I would begin a search for his successor. He left the university in anger and resentment.
New college and university presidents find that changes they want to make in the administrative structure are not accomplished easily or quickly. That was my experience; it is the experience of every president. The administrative colleagues I had inherited had been at the institution for a long time. Each of them had allies, networks of memory and friendship, and a sense of rootedness. For me to make personnel changes was to challenge the weight of institutional history. While some observers might believe that a university president can behave like a CEO, striking with impunity down through the layers of personnel to achieve an instant result, everything the president does is subjected to the closest and most protracted possible reading.
Universities, not being corporations, are profligate with time. Hence nothing on a campus is viewed only once; every change, as well as every possibility of change, is scrutinized again and again. Moreover, the "hermeneutics of suspicion," as literary scholars term it, is visited upon all new things. And it does no good to consider the job I had to be equivalent to that of a "CEO." The business CEO is responsible only to a board of directors; the university or college president is responsible to a great number of parties, each of them holding its own system of values and its own proprietary relationship to the institution. Chief among these parties are the trustees and the faculty. Each of them has a hold on the president’s tenure, and a faculty who has lost confidence in a president possesses as much authority as the trustees who officially appoint presidents and accept their resignations.
But the personnel changes I made were more or less accepted by the campus and Wesleyan seemed ready to work with new people. But I did not appoint them all by myself. Everything important on a university campus is done collectively. For example, a search committee, made up almost entirely of faculty members, and chaired by a senior member of the faculty, was established to find the new chief academic officer. Because authority is oddly dispersed on the Wesleyan campus, as it is on every campus, this new officer would formally report to me, but his or her selection would largely be in the hands of the faculty group. The principle of "dual control" would be in force, a principle that recognizes two facts: 1. presidents are the receptacles in which power is nominally placed, but much of that power is informally in the hands of others; and 2. faculty members are not so much the employees of the institution as they are its intellectual engine and its most important asset. They are "capital" rather than "labor." The faculty rightly demands primary control over educational processes, and considers trustee or presidential involvement in those processes as unacceptable. All of which makes “control” of the institution an ambiguous matter. Sometimes it’s hard to know who is in charge of a college and university, and while the fiction of “presidential leadership” is often employed to mask this reality, the president -- every president -- learns after a while how much of his authority is, in fact, in the hands of others.
After a strenuous search, Wesleyan appointed Joanne Creighton [who has since become president of Mount Holyoke College] as the new chief academic officer. She had been successful as the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she also was a professor of English. She brought toughness of mind and an admirably imperturbable manner to Wesleyan. “Another day; another problem solved” seemed to be her motto. She looked at the academic budget, winced once or twice, and got to work. She did not make the mistake, easy for someone new to the job, of first looking for items to cut; instead, she framed the process as one establishing what had to be saved. After that, in time, but with certainty: the cuts.
Beginning with a sense of priorities, she looked at her work as objective exercises in academic planning. This formalized her labors and it depersonalized the process. For a while, the faculty reared back and pleaded self-rule, but she briskly informed the chairs of departments that, after all, she held certain important “cards,” they being the collection of faculty positions reverting to her office upon the death or retirement of colleagues. She would reallocate them on the basis of her judgment of which departments were making good sense of what they were doing, what they were teaching, and where they were going. She was aware of the narcissistic tendencies of the faculty and their preference to cast blame rather than take responsibility for the institution, but she reminded them that Wesleyan would be their professional home for the rest of their lives. They had better care for it.
At times the faculty accused her of playing favorites, and this was true in an admirable sense: she gave preference to academic departments that were well organized and productive. And week by week, month by month, she employed her every resource to chip away at the culture of entrenched fiefdoms. Together we created a new committee, the Institutional Priorities Advisory Committee, made up entirely of faculty members. We asked its members to use every fact available about the institution to establish what Wesleyan, at its best, could be. We would listen to their advice and then we, not they, would make the most of it. I wanted, and she wanted, the faculty to take what they already had -- namely, a sense of rights and privileges -- and to add to it a sense of responsibility and obligation. I willingly gave up my position as chair of the academic council, believing that a member of the faculty should take on the job -- as occurs at most colleges. Either it was an academic body or it was not. Although several faculty members first saw this as a ploy so ingenious that its malign administrative intent could not be discerned by even the closest inspection, everybody finally accepted it as only right and proper.
We were less successful in our efforts to make institutional sense of the process by which Wesleyan tenure awarded. We inherited a highly inefficient mechanism that presumed perfidy at every turn: within the department recommending a candidate, within the elected advisory committee that would spend hours mulling over the department’s action, within the office of the provost bringing the case forward to the full complement of tenured faculty members, and also within the president who would take the case forward (if I deemed it meritorious) to the trustees for final approval. Although the faculty claimed to be interested in “quality control,” the system confused the labor-intensive with the rigorous, adding to the mix the special ingredient of suspiciousness.
While Joanne and I only partially succeeded in making the system more rational and less wasteful of faculty time, we reconciled ourselves to the fact that the faculty should indeed figure prominently in that most crucial moment: the tenure decision, the means by which they would look after their own posterity. We could supervise the fairness of the system and mop up after the occasional derelictions of faculty duty, but we had no right to extract from the faculty the dignity of their own self-determination.
In time, and with the customary indulgence of other search committees, I found able successors to the remaining vacated positions. Although I was concerned about the institution’s budgetary deficit, the chief financial officer -- Bob Taylor -- was a man of thoroughgoing integrity and competence. He had struggled for years with the institution’s predisposition to live beyond its means. He had learned, as I was to learn, that no chief financial officer can alone balance the budget if the institution continually exerts a pressure to do things for which it does not have the money. I found at Wesleyan a collective desire -- rooted in faculty hopes and dreams and endorsed by administrative sympathies and trustee lenience -- to be a certain kind of institution, indeed a wonderful institution, but one that could not support itself. The chief financial officer could minimize here and there, look for savings, and exert discipline where possible. But Joanne Creighton and I had to exercise authority and judgment about how most of the money was found and used.
As the three of us -- Joanne, Bob, and I -- worked on these problems, I began to see that the three major issues at Wesleyan -- its identity, its financial condition, and its curriculum -- evolved into one problem: could the institution shape its curriculum to reduce costs and also project to itself and to the interested public an attractive and compelling self-portrait? That was the issue I faced and asked others to face.
In addition to this imposing task, I also dealt at regular intervals with the single most exotic component of a college or university: the trustees. Those times came when the full complement of 33 men and women (mostly the former) descended upon Middletown from New York, Boston, Washington, Houston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and other cities to accomplish their regularly scheduled work. They undertook their tasks through five or six standing committees but always left themselves plenty of time to see again the campus at which most of them had once been students, have drinks and dinner, and chat about Wesleyan as they believed it to be or as they wanted it to be. Their visits were occasions for the administration to present carefully designed “show and tell” exercises, to give the best possible meaning to any situations under review, and to demonstrate that Wesleyan was in good hands. They were also occasions for the trustees to comport themselves in a way that would reinforce their belief that they were exerting general control over the institution.
After I participated in these ceremonies several times, I reflected on the historical reasons for the existence of trustees and considered the kind of asset -- or deficit -- they were to the institution. Richard Hofstadter and Walter Metzger observe in their magisterial The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States that only this country and Canada have boards of private citizens governing their private universities and colleges. European universities are characteristically under their own control but have evolved under the additional impact of both state and church. On the other hand, schools like Wesleyan (and Harvard, Princeton, Haverford, Emory and countless others) founded by nonconformist Protestant churches are quite different from the medieval universities that, thanks to church sponsorship, were held at a distance from civic authorities. As Hofstadter and Metzger observe, “both the church principle of ecclesiastical independence and the guild principle of corporate self-government provided [European] universities and society at large with dominant models of autonomy.”
Such autonomy was not a part of the formula that created America’s private universities and, in being deprived of it, institutions like Wesleyan found that the lay government establishing them wound up exerting considerable control over them. One early consequence was the reduction of the faculty’s freedom to determine its own affairs. As Hofstadter and Metzger point out, lay government, with trustees holding fiduciary control of the institution and thus, at least legally, retaining the power to hire and fire faculty and administrators, has "hampered the development of organization, initiative, and self-confidence among American college professors, and it has contributed, along with many other forces in American life, to lowering their status in the community. Other professional groups have far greater power to determine the standards and conduct of their own professions. "
And thus the strange spectacle of the Wesleyan trustees, a spectacle common to all such American trustees. While regarding their sporadic duties with utmost seriousness and working without any monetary compensation, these well-meaning men and women brought to their duties no special knowledge of education, of either teaching or research, the twin functions of the institution. They brought instead affection and loyalty. Knowing Wesleyan had changed them in positive ways, they offered it their time, their respect, and, in some cases, their philanthropic support. Officially, they were “in charge.” That is what “fiduciary responsibility” meant. But none of them, in fact, knew the college well, nor could they, given the limited time they could spend on campus. The faculty, which did possess an intimate knowledge of the institution, nonetheless felt inferior to trustee power and prestige as it was periodically visited upon the campus. This peculiar situation, in which the local education experts on the Wesleyan campus -- the faculty -- were by tradition made to feel inferior to the distant entities setting policy for them, was at the root of their anemia, an anemia of morale.
The faculty and I recognized, by way of consolation, that the trustees saw in Wesleyan what it once had been in the past -- sometimes in the imaginary past -- not what it currently was. Their link was to a place that only partially continued to exist. We, on the other hand, were on the campus as it was and there we made our respective ways. There is an endearing pathos to this situation, but I soon concluded that trustee sentimentality, as poignant as it might be, is a poor guide for stewardship.
I had to keep in mind that the duty of trustees is, in fact, to “contribute.” I learned, however, that trustee contributions are a mixed blessing. At their best, they bring, as the euphonious clichés go, “time, talent, and tribute” or “work, wisdom, and wealth.” But only rarely did any Wesleyan trustee, even those with “talent” or “wisdom,” possess the kind of sophisticated knowledge about the academic workings of the institution to be any more than a kindly observer of it. And we in the administration behaved as if indeed we were being observed. Hence the careful design of our staged presentations to the trustees, the formal introduction of one or another precisely selected star faculty member or student to speak to them, the scrubbed and polished views of the budget. We did not seek to deceive, but to convey what we could to a body of people who knew far less about the institution than we did and whose connection to it was, in sum, charitable but quite imperfect.
During those meetings, often taken up by topics with which some trustees felt affinity, such as investment management or deferred maintenance, I would wish that I could take them to witness the genius and magic of the place. It did not exist where, in light of their business or legal experience, trustees felt most comfortable -- the management of money and the repair of buildings -- but in the classroom, that extraordinary arena where young minds could be challenged and enlightened through the touch of a teacher. Wesleyan had such teachers, many of them, and such teaching constituted the core of the school’s value. But, to the trustees, the classroom seemed inaccessible, a foreign territory made up of odd young people and slightly eccentric older men and women. For me, the tragicomedy of the trustee visits was that these decent men and women were unequipped to comprehend the essence of the institution they were pledged to guide and support.
Some, but hardly all, were financially generous. One in particular, the CEO of a large national company, had long since seen Wesleyan change from the place he knew as a student. He had become a Republican businessman in Texas but something arising from his largeness of spirit and his ability to recall with genuine love the quality of his youth prompted him to support, in a wide variety of ways, and usually anonymously, his alma mater. Student radicals, incensed by one thing or another the trustees had done (usually concerning their investment policies), customarily called him terrible names when he would visit the campus. He would smile gently and, after a while, call me to say that another handsome check was in the mail. Another wealthy trustee, wise and generous about young people, set up a splendid fund along the lines of the Rhodes Trust to support fully some 80 students from 10 countries in Asia who, carefully selected, would enrich the student body and would, in time, return to their native countries with a strong American education. Such trustees exemplified what a combination of “wealth” and “wisdom” could do. But in their generosity, and in their benign understanding that the institution they now supported had moved leagues away from the one they had known as students, these two trustees were exceptions. Others, including those few who seemed prompted only by parsimony and intrusiveness, behaved differently.
Perhaps the oddest trustee behavior arose from those who felt that Wesleyan should have a specific and unique “mission” and that I, as president, must sound a rallying-cry to let the world know what Wesleyan, as opposed to all other liberal arts colleges, stood for. One trustee, looking at me with eagerness and hope, asked what my “vision” of Wesleyan was. He wanted to relay this precious idea to others in his alumni class. At the time, all I wanted was to end the year peacefully, with no other buildings burned, and students taking their final exams in peace. I thought back to Richard Lyman’s defense of Stanford in a time of violence and fear. Lyman had a “vision” then of Stanford: it should survive. That seemed to me a paramount aim for Wesleyan at the time. To the trustee, I responded that I had tried to make my idea of the institution as clear as possible in my inaugural address. I then added, by way of digest of that address, that I saw Wesleyan as a place where the highest standards of teaching and learning, reinforced by research, would be upheld, a place that would have the means to take good young minds and make them more responsive, capacious, and informed. He looked at me, deeply disappointed. To him, my words must have seemed little puffs of presidential air. I was sorry that he had nothing to take back to his classmates, but Wesleyan’s survival was my main mission at the time.
On another occasion, a trustee volunteered the idea that, to achieve fiscal equilibrium at home and uniqueness among all our “competitors,” we should consider simply dropping a full range of curricular offerings. He suggested the social sciences -- economics, political science, sociology, and history. When I responded that without those things we could not call ourselves a liberal arts institution, he asked that I think about moving away from “timeworn tradition” to establish a genuinely special “brand.” This I knew was “thinking outside the box,” but, as a result, we would destroy the box.
Unworkable ideas like this, born of business practices, now and again occur to trustees and did not surprise me. Trustees speak of what they know and where they have been. This man was an aggressive and successful broker. He moved money and thought I could just as easily move the curriculum. Although he was extraordinary in the boldness of his misunderstanding, he was no more than typical in other ways. Trustees tend to fit the following general categories: they are male, in their 50s, white, and financially successful. They are mainly in law, business, and medicine. Few are musicians, artists, or writers. Almost none is a teacher. One of the most striking facts about them is that they are almost wholly unfamiliar with the basic literature about higher education. By and large, they do not know studies such as the popular book by Henry Rosovsky, The University: An Owner's Manual (whose title might seem tempting to them). One study of their reading habits concludes: “…the trustees’ lack of familiarity with the literature serves to underscore the peripheral nature of the trusteeship for most of the board members.” Yet most trustees are not peripheral in the affection they have for “their” institution. The contrast, then, between the emotional weight they bring to their roles and their shallow knowledge of higher education in general creates a considerable challenge to all presidents and their administrative colleagues. At Wesleyan, we faced that challenge three or four times a year.
In a gesture of solicitude, a trustee would now or again tell me that he thought the presidency “must be the toughest job in the world.” Usually this meant that in his business or profession, the lines of command authority were clearer and he could exercise power more directly than I could. I would respond with thanks, adding that the scholarly literature on the presidency supported his thinking. Many people who have looked at the job have concluded that it is, if not impossible, at least very difficult. Clark Kerr delivered the classic summation of the duties of a university president:
The university president in the United States is expected to be a friend to the students, a colleague of the faculty, a good fellow with the alumni, a sound administrator with the trustees, a good speaker with the public, an astute bargainer with the foundations and the federal agencies, a politician with the state legislature, a friend of industry, labor and agriculture, a persuasive diplomat with donors, a champion of education generally, a supporter of the professions (particularly law and medicine), a spokesman to the press, a scholar in his own right, a public servant at the state and national levels, a devotee of opera and football generally, a decent human being, a good husband and father, an active member of the church. Above all, he must enjoy traveling in airplanes, eating his meals in public, and attending public ceremonies.
With the exception of those duties the president of a public institution alone would have, Kerr’s droll description fit what I found myself doing.
I knew that people thought my job very difficult, but perhaps blinded by excessive self-regard or limited in imaginative intelligence, I thought it a good one, not an impossible one, and I enjoyed almost all of its aspects. In performing all those duties Kerr described, I was glad to be active, happy to be involved in many committees, and eager to learn more about how the place worked, what made different people tick (or not tick), and what held such a curious thing as a liberal-arts college together. I slept well, exercised a lot, went to work every day with a smile, and thought myself a lucky fellow to be at Wesleyan.
When gloomy days descended, as they now and again did, I consoled myself with little mental games. Thinking about the profusion of advice I continually received from every quarter of the campus, I would say to myself: “Being president must be the easiest job in the world; after all, everybody seems to know how to do it.” Or I would think about how the “leadership” of a campus is so amusingly different from leadership elsewhere. I would recall that George Shultz once said that the biggest difference between his life as a corporate leader and his career as dean of a business school was that, in business, he had to make sure that his orders were precise and exact, given that they would likely be followed. No such danger in academia. In sum, the very peculiarities of the job were its most appealing feature.
Much of the literature on presidential leadership concludes that the job is impossible, but it should also note the obvious: at any given time, about 3,500 men and women do the job. The situation is much like that of the airplane: there is no obvious reason why so large and heavy a piece of metal can fly through the sky, yet it does. Despite the impossibility of their work, thousands of presidents go to the office every day, successfully complete some tasks, and return home.
Robert Birnbaum, one of those scholars who claims that the job is unworkable, argues that the problem of presidential leadership is that the criteria for success and failure are elusive:
…there is no accepted criterion presidents can employ to judge the benefits of one course of action over another, and little assurance that they could implement their preferences even if they could specify them. Presidential authority is limited, complete understanding of the scope and complexity of the enterprise exceeds human cognitive capability, and unforeseen changes in demographic, political, and economic conditions often overwhelm campus plans.
But the “impossibility” of such places can serve as a healthy reminder of what they are not. A university or college is not a business, does not make a profit, cannot declare quarterly earnings, “wins” nothing, hopes to flourish forever, will never be bought out, cannot relocate, is both in and out of the world, studies everything including itself, considers itself a meritocracy while continually worshipping the idea of community, and has as its greatest asset an odd assemblage of self-directed intellectual entrepreneurs who work on the most complicated aspects of their respective disciplines. What a university does is expensive, time-consuming, inefficient, wayward, hard to understand, and yet prestigious. It also helps young people and, more and more each year, looks after them in all sorts of ways. It is exclusive in admissions and appointments, but generous in sharing the fruits of its labor. It stands on ancient ceremonies yet accelerates the workings of democracy. All in all, I thought, a good place to be, even if my job was “impossible.”
As the smoke settles over the Gallaudet University campus, there’s still a lot of steam rising. Now that the Board of Trustees has decided to conduct a new search for a president of that institution, there are still heated emotions and fuming misunderstandings that surround this event that captured the attention of the media and the nation. Given the sturm und drang of the past weeks, it’s possible to make a few observations.
First, and most amazingly to me, the internal events at a small educational institution for the deaf have become a major media event. When I was a small boy with two deaf parents growing up in the Bronx in the 1950’s, I never imagined that the issue of deafness and the problems at a deaf university would ever end up on the front page of The New York Times. But the fact is that deafness and disability in general have gone from a marginal and marginalized experience to one that is central to the fabric of this country. Whether we are arguing about Terri Schiavo’s right to live, the fate of prenatal genetic screening, or sign language at Gallaudet, we are still, in effect, saying that disability and deafness are front and center in our sense of what it means to be human. Whereas in the past to be disabled or deaf was to be abnormal or somewhat inhuman, now we are beginning to define our humanity in a dialogue with our disability.
So the events at Gallaudet were momentous not just because a little university had an internal disagreement but because the issues raised around identity resonated with the general public. One issue that surfaced early was that Jane Fernandes, the candidate chosen by the trustees to be president, was not a "native signer." What this means is that although Fernandes was born hearing impaired, she didn’t learn sign language until graduate school. Reportedly her signing isn’t fluid and natural -- she in effect speaks sign language with a heavy accent and in a way that most deaf users of ASL would feel was inadequate.
For non-deaf people, this issue was perhaps the hardest thing to understand. Why would anyone reject a president for not being "deaf enough" when the person was in fact unable to hear since birth? The difficulty might be easier to understand if you imagined deciding to elect a president of the United States who spoke with a heavy accent and whose command of English was less than perfect. Add to this the fact that one of the new definitions of being deaf isn’t that your ears don’t work -- it’s that you belong to a linguistic community the way that Hispanics or the French do. Your community has a literature, a culture, a history, and a language -- but the leader of your community doesn’t share fully this cultural palette. Wouldn’t you want someone who was fully of your identity?
This argument, made early on in the anti-Fernandes campaign, was quickly shot down within Gallaudet for a number of reasons -- although the press continued to mention it as a factor in the demonstrations. The logic behind the “not Deaf enough” argument was flawed because the “deaf community” or DEAFWORLD, as the ASL sign indicates, is broad enough to include a range of people from hard-of-hearing to profoundly deaf, from those whose parents insisted on oral education to those who attended exclusive schools for the deaf that only used ASL or other sign languages. There are deaf people who use real-time captioning and don’t know any sign language. And of course there are the children of deaf adults (CODA’s) who are native signers but may be hearing. Do we really want to say that some of these people aren’t "deaf enough?" Would we want to exclude various people of color because they weren’t "black enough?"
The argument at Gallaudet quickly moved on from this starting point to other issues around Fernandes. Here the argument stopped being a national issue and became a local one. Many on campus didn’t like the selection process, felt it wasn’t open enough to student and faculty input, and felt that some candidates of color were passed over. Other folks on campus felt Fernandes, who had been in the administration of Gallaudet for a long time, wasn’t a "people person" and had made some unpopular decisions. Now the issue becomes one of bottom-up student/faculty governance versus top-down administrative decision-making. The by-laws of Gallaudet specify that the job of picking the president is solely that of the Board of Trustees, but any institution can only work if the consent of the governed is factored in. What happened at Gallaudet was that there was a loss of confidence in the administration and in Fernandes. And, in turn, both the administration and Fernandes seemed singularly inept in being able to slow down the protests and bringing rational discourse and process to Gallaudet. Instead, they chose, until Sunday, to “stay the course.” Even The Washington Post wrote an editorial in which it advised the Trustees to hold fast.
But “stay the course,” as we’ve learned the hard way, isn’t a particularly good strategy, especially if the course is a disastrous one. There is something to be said for the groundswell democratic process that happens from time to time on campuses and elsewhere. When people take to the streets, when teach-ins and public discussions transform a body of people so that they are united against a particular policy or person, then a kind of muscular democracy is taking shape. Of course, there is always the danger that this kind of improvisational democracy can become mob rule. But the flip side of this is that decisions by the appointed few can become tyranny. Those of us who recall issues from the past like civil rights, the Vietnam War, apartheid, sweat shops, and the World Bank will also remember how effective and important campus protests were.
As it turns out, the trustees were able to read the visible signs of discontent on the part of the students and faculty at Gallaudet, voting to restart the selection process. The good that will come out of this is that this new selection process will have to be more open, sensitive to the issues, and mindful of issues around deaf culture, affirmative action, and democracy in general.
But Gallaudet itself will have to learn from these trying times. First and foremost, I’d advise, as someone interested in the subject but as a non-Gallaudet person, that the issue of "not deaf enough" isn’t going to go away, although it may have dropped out of the Fernandes discussion. New calls for Gallaudet to become an ASL-only campus (now courses are taught in a variety of ways, including orally) smack of a kind of new deaf elitism. While it is more than legitimate to expect students to learn ASL (as it would be for students attending the Lycée Français in the United States to learn French), there must be ways to insure that people whose ASL isn’t up to snuff don’t get snuffed out in the education process. After all, identity is a complex and fragile thing. When you try to make it ironclad and rigid, you end up enforcing the kind of identitarianism that created discriminatory behaviors in the first place. Imagine the case of a person whose parents chose cochlear implants for them at a very early age, but now wants to come to Gallaudet and explore what it means to be deaf. Would there be room for such a person in an ASL-only environment?
The second area to develop at Gallaudet is a more democratic process for decision-making. Most people don’t realize that Gallaudet is one of a small number of universities (the military academies and Howard University being among the others) that receive substantial operating support from the federal government. The reason for this status is complicated, but at base initially was for Gallaudet a kind of paternalism on the part of the nation toward deaf people. While this notion that the nation had to protect and educate deaf people turned out to have great benefits, the legacy of paternalism remains. Perhaps the by-laws of the university reflect this stance, and it would seem a logical and progressive goal to increase the democratic processes at Gallaudet so that the legacy of paternalism can be erased forever.
Finally, it would be only right and just for all sides to bury the hatchet and look toward the future. There is no question that Jane Fernandes was on paper a very viable and possible choice to be president of Gallaudet University -- only real events in the real world changed all that. The trustees did their best, the students and faculty did their best, and in the end a solution was reached. There are no bad guys in this story, only passionate positions and a struggle for justice.
Lennard J. Davis
Lennard J. Davis is professor of disability and human development at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author of Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness and the Body (Verso) and the newly re-edited second edition of The Disability Studies Reader (Routledge).
Over the years, Antioch College birthed a number of campuses to constitute a university now composed of the college and five other campuses -- New England, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Seattle and McGregor. The five non-residential campuses comprise over 5,000 students, 400 faculty and staff members, and 18,000 alumni and constitute 92 percent of the total enrollments of Antioch University. Some 85 percent of the students in the non-residential colleges are enrolled in graduate programs -- master’s and doctorates -- in the professional fields of psychology, education, management, communication, leadership, creative writing, and environmental science.
The campuses are non-residential but not “virtual.” Students take classes in actual buildings on campus; instruction is delivered in a variety of formats (including some online components), but the substantive focus of all instruction is on reflective practice. Antioch University students aim to bring the ways of knowledge and expertise to bear on the needs and changing realities of the community and larger society. On multiple campuses but with one overarching purpose, Antioch University embodies values that are the core components of effective leadership, education, and social activism -- values which have been embedded in them by their mother campus, the college.
Indeed, the university mission statement reads “Antioch University is founded on principles of rigorous liberal arts education, innovative experiential learning and socially engaged citizenship. The multiple campuses of the university nurture in their students the knowledge, skills and habits of reflection to excel as lifelong learners, democratic leaders and global citizens who live lives of meaning and purpose.”
As is the case at some other progressive institutions, including Hampshire, Goddard, and Evergreen State ( Editors' note: Hampshire and Evergreen State have systems of long-term faculty employment that are in some ways equivalent to tenure.) Antioch chose not to establish tenure at these non-residential campuses. The campuses were intended to address a group of students whose needs would be ever changing -- adult students, many of them in professions and with families, returning to higher education to get the knowledge and qualifications they need to be effective in their careers and their communities. And to meet those students’ needs, the campuses realized their own need for flexibility in curricular offerings, the ability to anticipate program requirements and to fulfill them in creative and adaptive ways, engaging a diverse and at times non-traditional faculty.
Over some 30 years, the "adult campuses" grew and thrived by addressing the demand for graduate professional programs that are innovative and ensure quality while adapting to the working adult's schedule. To offer such programs took a group of faculty who are confident in the quality of their academic credentials and teaching ability in ways that enable them to be creative and flexible as they design programming and curriculum to stay current. It takes an amazing group of talented core faculty who spend hours on campus serving as instructors, faculty advisers, supervisors, and mentors while encouraging critical inquiry and challenging students to think in new and different ways. These core faculty hold doctorates and most are practitioners, researchers, and scholars.
Students at the Antioch University campuses do not receive a large portion of their education in courses taught by teaching assistants, as is often the case at many institutions. Rather, they are taught by these core faculty members, a significant number of whom have been with their campuses for over 20 years. In a practice that enhances the breadth and depth of their curricula, programs offered at the campuses often employ part-time faculty members who otherwise work as professional practitioners in their respective fields. These individuals, almost all of whom hold graduate degrees, many of them doctorates, commit to teaching at an Antioch campus over a period of time, providing students the opportunity to work with successful, often prominent figures in their fields of study and their professions.
The result of all of this is a faculty that brings multiple kinds of experience, expertise, and both theoretical and practical engagement with the knowledge, beliefs, and actions that are the hallmark of Antioch’s innovative and progressive education for change.
Across the years, students have responded enthusiastically -- in word and in action -- to this kind of educational process. "Antioch offers an opportunity to give yourself permission to think deeply about why you’re doing what you’re doing, then put it into practice,” wrote one. Another said, “Just a few years ago, if you talked about environmental or holistic sustainability, you were out on the edge or over the edge. Antioch has one foot in the mainstream and one foot not so.” And another: “Antioch is a school that did not seek to shape my voice, but rather helped me find and strengthen my own voice. My professors cared about how I thought; because that is the tool they taught me to sharpen.”
A few snapshots of programs and accomplishments will suggest something of the innovation, excellence, diversity, and commitment to the greater good that characterize Antioch University across its campuses:
Antioch University Seattle is the leading institution in the nation in reforming the delivery of education to Native American youth. Its innovative program, supported by multimillion-dollar grants from the Gates, Lumina and Kellogg Foundations, has established over 10 Early College models in three states that have witnessed amazing results in increasing the Native American high school retention, graduation, and successful passing of state required testing, in some cases far above the rates of middle- and upper-class students. Antioch Seattle has just named as its new president Cassandra Manuelito-Kerkvliet, who is believed to be the first Native American woman to hold the presidency of an accredited university outside the tribal college system.
Antioch University New England’s doctoral program in psychology is noted for its quality by receiving a 10-year accreditation from the American Psychological Association. The majority of the psychology master's programs in Seattle and New England are accredited by their professional accrediting agencies.
Antioch University Los Angeles's Creative Writing program will be named in the forthcoming summer fiction issue of the Atlantic magazine as one of the top five low-residency MFA programs in the United States, in the company of the Bennington and Vermont College programs. The Los Angeles MFA has distinguished itself through the use of award-winning faculty in fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction, and through innovative features such as field study, the translation seminar, the alumni weekend residency, and a student-edited online literary journal.
Antioch University McGregor recently received accreditation from the National Council on Accreditation for Teacher Education (NCATE), which attests to its excellence, for its master's in education program while many other large public institutions have lost their accreditation.
The Antioch University Ph.D. in Leadership and Change has been recognized by the Ohio Board of Regents for its quality and innovation. In “Shift Happens" (published in the July/August issue of Educause), Bill Graves cites Antioch's Ph.D. program as "a paradigm-shifting innovation in doctoral education" with positive implications for both graduate-level curriculum and delivery design and undergraduate applications.
These few glimpses of the campuses should confirm that Antioch University is a community of educators and learners – advocates, activists, risk-takers, mavericks, entrepreneurs, creative thinkers, and problem solvers. Those who teach and study at the non-residential campuses fully believe in and work to extend the values upon which Antioch College was founded and for which it has stood across the decades. Indeed, as one current student in the Ph.D. in Leadership and Change program wrote recently in a letter to TheChronicle of Higher Education, “Many of us in the doctoral program profoundly value our program’s connection with the undergraduate, historically significant, values-driven college. We signed on to study at Antioch, among other reasons, because we wanted a program connected with a deep history and values, a program with deep roots. We chose Antioch.”
The Board of Trustees of Antioch University is committed to ensuring the future of Antioch -- across all its campuses and in a manner consonant with its proud history and accomplishments. The temporary suspension of operations at Antioch College was taken as a protective move to enable a time in which to regroup and revitalize the College. Its reopening is strongly advocated and anticipated. As that process moves forward, the five non-residential campuses of Antioch University continue to embody the Antioch vision of higher education, with its dedication to innovation and excellence.
We have all heard about Procrustes, the mythological Greek bandit who stretched short visitors and lopped off limbs of taller guests to make them fit his bed. I imagine that Procrustes himself fit his bed perfectly. That is, he saw himself as the ideal height and of course the ideal being. To invoke a less brutal tale, we might say this is the Goldilocks understanding of the world where my bed, and of course my porridge, are “just right.”
I have Procrustes and Goldilocks on my mind because after 30 years as a university president, I am now reinventing myself as a professor who will also serve as a consultant to Korn/Ferry’s higher education practice. As a faculty member, I hope to teach and write about the academic world, particularly its leadership. And, on an adjunct basis, I hope to be helpful, in a clinical way, identifying the next generation of university presidents. Reflecting on this reminded me of a story. A distinguished friend of mine was in the running to be president of a land-grant university. His credentials as a professor, dean, vice-president, and provost were the best any university could hope for, let alone expect. He had two earned doctorates. He made it to the short list of three or four candidates. Then he learned he had been cut, the reason being that he had spent his entire prior career in private universities, and this shortcoming proved fatal.
What makes this recollected story more interesting and poignant is my friend and colleague got exactly the same response that I received from exactly the same institution when I was a candidate for its presidency over 20 years ago. I wondered what they were thinking then and continue to wonder what they are thinking now.
The board of trustees of that public university naturally has changed and no doubt most of the faculty and the administration have been renewed. But the antipathy against a career in private universities has proved much more durable and incomprehensible: they still make a Procrustean bed and find it just right to sleep in.
Where and how does this thinking arise? My hunch is that it comes from a sense of exceptionalism, a belief that State U. or Leafy Quad College is just right and thus a candidate for the presidency, or even a deanship, should have a résumé and experiences that fit right in. Of course, these similarities are a matter of form rather than substance.
The substantive differences between any two institutions may lie in size, wealth, the faculty, traditions, religious affiliation, physical location, the student pipeline, and other possibilities, but the form of its charter -- public or private -- does not seem in any way probative of difference. Like all such notions, the one I have been describing is arguably unjustified.
This troubles me. As I anticipate my role as a trusted advisor, I am concerned that I may act in the same way. I have been the successful and unsuccessful object of searches, but I have no experience seeking a university president (searching for deans and professors is not the same). And in this way, I am in abundant, if not necessarily good, company. The odds are long that any member of a presidential search committee will have ever done it before -- and just as long that, having done it once, no member of the committee will ever do it again. There’s usually no practice or rehearsal.
As far as I can tell, many of the firms universities engage to help get the search going do not routinely instruct members of the committee deeply in the art and mystery of their craft. Left to their own devices, the committee members are likely to fall back on their personal experiences. They may earnestly believe themselves to be open-minded and clear-sighted and be sure they have no preconditions in mind. Unless, however, they examine themselves closely and, ideally, undergo some introspection to reveal any lurking predispositions, it seems likely that some institutional or personal perspective (or both) will inevitably inform their thinking and, ultimately, their choice of candidate.
The reason I believe this is that most of us are given to thinking in the short or near term. In the present case, the near term is hiring a new president, though the president may be around for a generation. Even if he or she serves only six or eight years, roughly the average tenure these days, that can be a longish period of time. Because the committee is likely thinking of the job at hand, its members may not see the outer distance; they want to choose a president and get on to the future. They will look for characteristics which, they believe, will solve the immediate problems which are 1) the hiring itself, 2) any specific (and possibly annoying) issues on campus, and 3) the advancement of their own concerns by finding a sympathetic candidate.
Thus, for example, one trustee may want a candidate who appears willing to robustly engage unions, another will want someone who seems committed to diversity, and a third will be interested in a candidate who has successfully raised funds for science buildings. Anyone can add to this list -- and it will be very long. But it will be a bill of particulars, a pork barrel.
These desires do not reflect what the long-term project is intended to accomplish -- which is the election of someone capable of leading the university for years and being able to handle the dozens of tasks and constituencies that confront any university president. These may include labor relations, affirmative action, and facilities, but details like these should be secondary in the search process to discovering and understanding the character, temperament, values, vision and personality of the candidates.
One can quite reasonably imagine a candidate from a private institution whose experiences and his/her response to questions from the search committee are exactly right for a land-grant university. Just as an individual who has been at a state institution could be perfect for a small liberal arts college. I myself, for example, have had my entire education and my entire career at independent institutions (Columbia, Yale, Harvard, Boston University, University of Hartford and George Washington University) but I am a great advocate of community colleges, which I believe to be authentically American and I often say that they are to higher education what jazz is to music. Moreover, I am a non-stop advocate for public institutions and the value they add to the nation and constantly refer to the observations I had as a boy and the good work done by the City University of New York and the State University of New York. You couldn’t grow up in Brooklyn without believing in the Dodgers and Brooklyn College. My professional path reflects the way things went and opportunities presented themselves not as ideological Johnny-one-note.
This is extremely difficult, given the amateur status of the members of the search team, the comparatively brief time most committees spend with even the short-listed candidates, and the ambition to get the job done with dispatch. Yet it seems to me that probing the character, temperament, and personality of the candidates, and especially the leading one, is the most rational (or perhaps the least irrational) avenue of approach. I was pleased to see this accomplished recently at my own institution when they looked for someone to follow me.
It puts Procrustes and Goldilocks to one side, by neither forcing a fit nor declaring the candidate is “just right.” The fit will be revealed over the course of years, not on the fly, and no one can conceivably be just right on all the particular institutional and personal issues. What is more important is the indefinable, but recognizable, quality of being what the institution needs now and, as far as anyone can see, for some period to come -- perhaps an innovator or a consolidator, maybe a tear-down specialist or a peace-maker, all depending. But we will find that by understanding the candidates’ substance and versatility, not their take on the issues of the day, which will be forgotten or different next year anyway.
What I propose is time-consuming, but cheap at the price of a little more work. It is much costlier to hire the wrong candidate and even more unthrifty to have to conduct a new search before its time. It is also the least irrational approach to a piece of work that sorely tests reason.
Stephen Joel Trachtenberg
Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is president emeritus and professor of public service at George Washington University.
Antioch University was given an advance copy of the following op-ed, with the permission of the author, and offered the chance to respond with its own statement that would have appeared simultaneously with the publication of this piece, so that the university could offer its views and analysis of the issues discussed. After initially indicating that it would do so, and confirming as late as Wednesday afternoon that it would do so, the university stopped returning calls or responding to e-mails about the op-ed piece and indicated through an outside public relations official that it would not respond at this time. At the same time, the university's lawyers sent a letter objecting to any use of the phrase "NonStop Antioch," the former name of an effort mentioned in this op-ed.
Hundreds of Antioch College alumni returned to Yellow Springs, Ohio for a reunion in June, and they packed Kelly Hall for the Alumni Board’s update on talks to save the college. Even as the Antioch University administration was proceeding with its plan to close the college at the end of the month, Antioch faculty took the stage to tell the audience about what was then being called "NonStop Antioch," an ambitious and indeed inspiring enterprise that will keep the Antioch spirit alive and in the village of Yellow Springs for the next two years: Without campus classrooms, dorms, or services, faculty will nevertheless design and teach courses in which students as well as community members will enroll while fund-raising staff work intensively with alumni to raise the money needed to reopen the college and begin its restoration to health. Several professors from surrounding colleges will teach NonStop courses and seminars gratis and individuals and organizations in Yellow Springs will provide teaching and study locations -- which they aren’t calling “classroom space” but “sanctuary.”
Longtime Antioch faculty member Hassan Rachmanian captured the spirit of the effort when he told the Kelly Hall audience that the university administration “may have taken the college’s body but we have its soul.” Ironically, the creators of this initiative cannot utter the words “NonStop Antioch” because the university has threatened legal action against any unauthorized use of the name “Antioch.” So old-fashioned call-and-response filled Kelly Hall: those on the stage shouted “NonStop!” and the audience, not subject to the university’s legal threats, roared back “Antioch!”
Some professors will offer their favorite courses. Others will create new courses designed to capitalize on Antioch’s co-op tradition as well as the town/gown relationship. In one such course, combining political science with investigative journalism, students will track the presidential election by conducting videotaped interviews in traditionally liberal Yellow Springs as well as in nearby Clark County, long considered a bellwether district in nationwide voting.
Inspiring as this weekend was, and brave as NonStop is, we have to ask: How did it come to this? How could the university’s Board of Trustees have decided to turn down three reasonable deals with great potential to save the college -- and at considerably less cost and effort than will now be required? As a board member from October 2001 until last month, I can offer my perspective on events since June 2007 and on what’s happening now.
The chancellor’s presentation also included a sweetener -- a plan to re-open the college in 2012. The plan had a couple of hitches: the chancellor would have to find corporate funding, and she and her “team” would direct the design of this “new Antioch College.” A lot of alums were skeptical the minute they heard “corporate funding” and “Antioch College” in the same sentence. And college faculty saw at once that the plan’s target date of 2012 would enable the university to terminate tenured appointments without violating AAUP requirements that faculty be rehired if the institution reopens within three years. (An earlier draft suggests that the plan’s original target date was 2011. If Murdock made the strategic change to evade AAUP censure, it would make sense. In her prior position as president of Antioch-Seattle, which like all of Antioch’s regional campuses operates without tenure, she had advocated eliminating tenure at the college and tried to ignore AAUP concerns about the dismissal of several Seattle faculty members.)
Last year’s reunion took place just two weeks after the board’s closure bombshell and elicited from alumni on behalf of their alma mater an outpouring of love and commitment that university administrators and board members had claimed did not exist. With 250 alums scheduled to attend, more than 600 showed up and turned the reunion into an old fashioned revival meeting that raised hearts, hopes, and more than $8 million dollars. Over the following year, alumni submitted a series of proposals to the trustees that sought to keep the college open, establish its autonomy from the university, and create an independent board. The critical argument was that alumni and other significant donors would support the college under conditions of independence but not when it remained within the university structure. Then on May 8 of 2008, the board rejected the last of these proposals, a move that most trustees must have hoped would finally bring this fraught and exhausting year to an end. But this wasn’t to be. When the board convened on June 5 in Keene, New Hampshire, trustees found campus advocates awaiting them with statements, arguments, petitions, and media packets, and promises of more to come. Unexpectedly, at the end of the meeting, the board voted unanimously to direct the Antioch Alumni Association to develop a plan to save the college that would include taking over its operations for good.
Thus this year’s reunion, too, came hard on the heels of a startling announcement from the Board of Trustees, and no one knew exactly what to think. While the June 2007 decision was the frustrated outcome of decades of heartache and hand-wringing by a series of boards about the college’s financial problems, this board’s vote in May 2008 to reject the last of the proposals not only acknowledged its own failure to solve those problems but also its stubborn determination to “stay the course” despite the massive re-engagement of alumni, the commitment of significant funds, and ongoing publicity critical of the university and the board. Though the board leadership spent incalculable hours and travel dollars in negotiations and acknowledged the college’s materially changed outlook, they treated the June 30, 2008 closure deadline like a holy grail. I joined the board in October of 2001. I resigned on May 7 this year, the day before that final negative vote, because I had violated the board’s cult-like oath of confidentiality that by then we were each required to renew at the beginning of every meeting and conference call. A number of trustees during the past year objected to the board’s secrecy, but largely in vain, and this helped doom all three plans to save the college. "Secrecy is for losers," said Daniel Patrick Moynihan, but secrecy was a winner in the decision to close Antioch.
Of course, just about every board that hasn’t adopted radical sunshine laws conducts some of its business in confidence, notably personnel matters and especially the hiring or firing of chief executive officers. But our board, as the year proceeded, enlarged the cone of silence to encompass just about everything we did short of picking turkey or veggies for lunch.
Was this destructive? Yes. It helped isolate board members at a time when we badly needed outside voices and independent expertise. Information technology, for example, was a fairly large line item in the university’s reckoning of college expenditures, but many campus community members said IT was a joke: Faculty, students, and even administrative staff told me that they often had to leave campus to find a functioning computer and Internet connection, and there seemed to be only one working copy machine available to the whole campus. A more serious discrepancy involved the role of the college’s assets in providing security for the university’s capital expenditures. Professors charged that the assets -- including the endowment -- were used as loan and bond collateral for buildings on the adult campuses, including Antioch-McGregor’s controversial building in Yellow Springs. The university administration and the board categorically denied this charge.
Ironically, the board’s commitment to “transparency” served to obscure such discrepancies. True transparency, if such a thing can be achieved, is fine: It aims to illuminate what is not readily visible, acknowledge and articulate competing interests, identify the historical and cultural contexts that have shaped divergent positions, and vigorously articulate counter-arguments and interpretations. True transparency means less control, more contradiction, more openness.
The board and administrative leadership and the university’s legal counsel repeatedly espoused and asserted transparency, with Exhibit A being the chancellor’s PowerPoint forecast of financial doom in June 2007. But as negotiations continued and pressures mounted, presentations became dogmatically non-transparent. They had their version of the truth and selected facts, arguments, and documentation to support it. Sometimes the efforts were laughable: With hundreds of alumni and others loudly protesting Antioch’s closure each week in letters, e-mails, and national media, and with Google Alert making updates immediately accessible, board members would be forwarded only expressions of support for their decision: An e-mail complaining about the college from an embittered 1980 alum, a letter from the pissed-off mom of a recent college drop-out, a George Will column. More disturbing were the memoranda prepared for us by the university’s lawyers with their relentlessly narrow and corporate interpretations of our fiduciary responsibility and duty of care, the nature of trusteeship, and our risk of personal liability. The chancellor at one point characterized the college’s alumni as “chaotic” because they do not speak with a uniform or unified voice. These cautionary directives from the university’s legal counsel, in contrast, were designed to promote a unified voice on the board.
In part as a result of this controlled information flow, most board members have known little of the chancellor’s behind-the-scenes aggressions against the college this past year. She would no doubt say she was just doing the job we told her to do: closing down the campus. At first it just seemed like coincidence that when events took a pro-college turn, the chancellor would scorch some campus earth. But after awhile these actions began to look deliberately and unnecessarily hostile. Or, at least with regard to the first example, just callous. Just after the June 2007 announcement of closure and the negative outcry in the local and national press, a homeland security simulation had been scheduled by one of the chancellor’s minions. To be held in beloved Olive Kettering Library on the Antioch campus, the scenario called for several Antioch students to simulate being dead; even the Yellow Springs cops thought that under the circumstances this was a tad insensitive and offered alternative space. No, said the minion, the SWAT team wanted to practice in the library stacks, so -- as documented in the film “Antioch Confidential” -- the simulation went forward.
At the end of August, the board, together with the university administration, scheduled two days in Cincinnati to hear testimony from most of the college’s constituencies. By the end of the meeting the board, quite moved by the presentations, voted all but unanimously to step onto the slippery slope and support the Alumni Association’s efforts to keep the college open. So that the alumni could assemble a proper proposal with fund-raising targets and a business plan, the chancellor was directed to share all necessary financial data and to help. I left that meeting optimistic and full of respect for my fellow board members who, it seemed to me, genuinely wanted this initiative to succeed. And Steve Lawry, president of the college, said he was satisfied with this turn of events and would now be able wholeheartedly to resume his visits to potential donors.
The minions then created a management-sanctioned alumni newsletter, as though the professional alumni development staff were irresponsible cranks: In place of the familiar graphic of the Antioch towers, alumni opened their e-mails to the inaugural issue of “Good News!” with its upbeat account of the “positive” and “collaborative” meeting in Cincinnati. Alumni, also receiving the “real” alumni newsletter from the college development staff as well as the Yellow Springs News and the Antioch Record online -- all with reports of what had already been dubbed the Labor Day Massacre -- were understandably astonished and outraged. Yet when they, and I myself as a board member, asked Art Zucker, the board chair, to account for these actions, he denied their significance and impact. He characterized Steve Lawry’s dismissal as the decision any responsible CEO might make, changing the locks as “standard operating procedure,” and campus reactions as “over-reactions.” A member of the board’s executive committee chided me privately for questioning the chancellor’s actions; she was “following our mandated process” and was quite in order to take control over an unruly college staff. Whenever you shut down a division, he added, “you gotta expect anxiety and fallout.” In this instance, and thereafter, “fallout” was rarely discussed formally by the board, but the leadership did start issuing regular statements of praise for the chancellor, while “the board’s mandated process” became a familiar mantra.
Then in November, following a regular board meeting in Yellow Springs that seemed to last forever, the board voted to lift the suspension of operations. Students rang bells in the campus towers, but the vote turned out to have changed nothing: With financial exigency still in place, the chancellor argued, there could be no student recruitment, no renegotiation with the Ohio Board of Regents of the college’s degree-granting and accreditation status, no extension of faculty positions or student graduation dates. The chancellor had her marching orders and it was her legal and fiduciary duty to honor the timeline, no matter how many bells were ringing. Legal counsel chimed in.
In a 2006 essay on communication at Antioch University (posted on the Antioch Papers Web site), the chancellor clearly expressed her preference for top-down, fully controlled communication, with everything authorized or supervised by the chancellor. So when the alumni leaders scheduled an open meeting to talk with the campus community, the chancellor wanted to close the campus to them, and to outsiders in general -- anyone who might foster the free flow of information and specifically deliver misleadingly hopeful messages about the college’s future. As one of the minions said, “Hope is creating the problem.” Trying to close the campus to the alumni leaders also reflected the university’s position that they were not a group of alumni but a rival corporation seeking to engineer a hostile takeover of the college. In the same spirit, the university even forced the Alumni Association to rent back its own campus buildings for this June’s reunion and, with dorms already shut down, alumni had to sleep in tents or off campus; there was no cafeteria service because the university is suing the village over its chiller unit.
Such ways of thinking are common in corporate culture and most of the board seemed familiar and comfortable with them, but they’re at odds with academic principles and practices. While the university is, indeed, a corporation and the chancellor is its CEO and the members of the board are its directors, an academic institution is distinct in many ways from other corporate bodies. Not only Antioch but most American colleges and universities subscribe to principles advocated by the American Association of University Professors, widely regarded as a leading authority on sound academic practices. Most famous is the AAUP’s 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which the Antioch College faculty references in their lawsuit against the university. Like other academics who’ve served on the board (sadly, a shrinking constituency), I’m an AAUP member who’s raised issues about academic practices, including “shared governance,” the association’s principle that the administration, board, and faculty of an academic institution should work together to shape its life and future. But the board and chancellor appear to have rejected shared governance, declaring financial exigency without prior or subsequent faculty consultation and even stating at one point that “shared governance may apply to the Antioch campus but does not apply to the relationship between the campus, the university administration, and the board.” I believe the AAUP would consider this interpretation incorrect.
As the scorched earth campaign continued, the chancellor found new ways to disrupt fund raising and alumni relations, and board deadlines came and went. College support staff would find their corporate credit cards canceled, so they couldn’t schedule fund-raising trips or meet with alumni chapters (in June 2007, eight alumni chapters existed; today there are nearly 50). Or they would be told that as college employees they couldn’t raise money for an outside corporation, or their reservations for meeting rooms would be canceled without notification, or they’d be prohibited from contacting certain donors or accessing certain records, or a minion would be installed as their supervisor, or they’d be threatened with being audited or fired. Alumni leaders were regularly summoned to mediate conflicts, further delaying progress. And the campus grew dimmer and grimmer. Housekeeping and security services on campus were sharply curtailed, buildings were closed, long-time faculty and staff members were fired. The Coretta Scott King Center for Cultural and Intellectual Freedom, opened in March 2007, was closed, and a funding proposal from its director was rejected. When the chancellor learned that many of the confidential documents posted on the Antioch Papers Web site had not been leaked by insiders but legitimately acquired by members of the public from Antiochiana, the institution’s archive, where board materials were routinely sent for storage, she changed the archives’ locks and restricted its hours and access to the public, including the alumni who have donated many of its holdings.
Some actions were taken without full board notification, consultation, or approval. Although many of them will radically increase the financial and administrative burden of re-opening the college and its campus, the full board never directed her to explore putting off the deadline for closure. They just let her run out the clock.
So now it’s July 2008. Students, faculty, and staff have left, retired, taken other jobs, or moved to the NonStop campaign, while the physical plant is on a forced march to oblivion. Historic G. Stanley Hall Hall has been razed along with the huge trees that surrounded it. Heat and air conditioning have been turned off. Furniture, equipment, curtains, and carpeting will be discarded. The buildings will accumulate moisture all summer and be subjected to a hard freeze when cold weather comes. The minions found algae in the campus pool and drained it, depriving the Yellow Springs community of a long-shared facility. Next year zero-occupancy rules apply. If, or when, the Alumni Association’s plans for the college come to fruition, the buildings may not be permitted to reopen unless they meet current construction codes.
Of course we’re joyful that we still might get our college back. But are we like Charlie Brown, eternally wooed by Lucy’s promise that this time will be different -- this time she won’t pull the football out from under him, this time she’s on his/our side? Or is the chancellor determined to wreck the college by any means necessary? As one of my Antioch friends channels her, in a screech, from the Wizard of Oz: “I’ll have your college -- and your little dog too!”
Some alumni believe that if they can raise enough money, the board will now cooperate.
I agree about the money. And I agree that the board has moved in a significantly different direction. But the reign of terror against the campus and its ongoing human cost, which I have sketched briefly here, are significant realities as well.
Scholars of conflict, like anthropologist Victor Turner, tell us that during prolonged conflicts, especially under conditions of structural inequity or ambiguity, the less powerful are likely to paint the more powerful in apocalyptic terms. In writing here about Antioch, I have likened the chancellor to the wicked witch, hinted that the board and university leadership share qualities with the George W. Bush administration, and even used “ground zero” in my title. But when I look coldly at the outcomes of this past year, I see something more mundane: a failure of imagination, an aversion to risk, a regime fixated on management instead of governance, and ultimately an overall pattern of incompetence.
“The chancellor calls the alumni chaotic,” said one community member recently: “This is a woman who can’t even change a lock without throwing the whole campus into chaos.”
Whether apocalyptic or mundane, the college struggle has not unfolded on the flat playing field trumpeted by Toni Murdock’s idol Thomas Friedman. The chancellor is still the CEO of this corporation. The board is still the decider. The university is still the entity its legal counsel prioritizes and protects. Against such odds, alumni and Antioch’s other friends must continue financially and politically to support the activities and organizations that can still provide direction and leverage: Direct action, legal services, NonStop, the Alumni Association and the College Revival Fund, the Antioch Papers, and the many creative projects that help document the Antioch story. Even as we hope for a happy ending, we have to stay vigilant. In the largest sense, this means we all have to be involved, NonStop.
Paula Treichler, who graduated as a philosophy major from Antioch College in 1965, grew up in Yellow Springs, Ohio; her parents served on the Antioch faculty for 34 years. With a Ph.D. in linguistics and psycholinguistics, she has held faculty and administrative positions at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign since 1972. She has published numerous essays on higher education.
In the next 15 years millions more of our citizens must get into and through higher education. Why? According to the statistics and numerous reports published over the last couple of years, we need an educated work force to propel the U.S. economy forward, an economy that is capable of benefiting from and working with rapidly emerging economies around the world. But yet , as Fareed Zakaria wrote in a recent article in Newsweek, “Just as the world is opening up, we are closing down.”
The numbers are in. We know what is needed for the U.S. If our colleges and universities cannot produce the millions of additional graduates, we could confront a crisis that will lead to a preponderance of “closed for business” signs unless urgent and significant action is taken.
Today, most governors, state legislative leaders, and higher education leaders understand that the path to economic security and prosperity for our nation and our states runs through the college campus. Why, then, does the task appear to be so daunting, so overwhelming?
The force of the need to educate many more millions is on a collision course with other forces confronting today’s campuses. The federal budget and many state budgets are constrained by present economic conditions and rocketing spending for defense, public safety, health care, human services and transportation. There likely won’t be a pot of gold at the end of the government budget rainbow for most colleges and universities to garner significantly more operating funds to accomplish what they are being asked to do. Plus, now -- even more than earlier this decade -- policy makers appear to be more opposed to continuous and significant increases in tuition and fees as a means to redress budget shortfalls.
As a result, productivity and affordability in higher education will take center stage just as accountability took center stage this past decade. What is the answer? Of course, there is no one right answer, but answers must be found and they must be found quickly. Collective and empowered leadership will be required on the campus, in governing boards, at state capitols, and in the business sector. No one gets a pass; no one gets to point a finger at the other.
The challenge is to focus on colleges becoming more productive by growing revenues through increased enrollments at the same time they become more efficient in offering their services. After all, both the need and the potential users are there. Most private sector businesses would be delighted to have such a need for their services and would be retooling to meet that need.
Campus and/or system leadership is the key to unlocking doors to greater productivity and affordability. After all, the citizenry will receive their education from the campus, the place where the work gets done. Higher education leaders proclaim that campuses are loaded with the intellectual capital to create and innovate. So, as higher education leaders we should not and cannot wait for government or the private sector to singlehandedly meet these challenges for us. We must take the lead. That may be our greatest public service challenge to date.
The first requirement is for campus leaders to understand and accept the reality, the necessity of meeting the country’s need for millions more educated citizens, while at the same time acknowledging the government budget constraints to do so. Many already do understand this dilemma and would welcome partners in the policy-making realm and business sector to join them in seeking positive solutions. However, if campus leaders resist the challenge and choose to not accept reality, policy makers will likely force external solutions that may not be the most desirable or related to real campus solutions.
What is urgently needed now is collective leadership from the campus, business sector, and policy-making entities to engage as peers in addressing this crisis. Campus leaders should take the first step to create the environment where constructive solutions can be found. Old ways of solving public policy issues -- such as testifying to legislative committees in an "us vs. them" manner -- will not work: such practices foster the belief that every answer must depend on some type of funding.
Yes, initially the campus may need to address some tough questions about existing practices such as the role of tenure and using more part-time faculty, but those questions already exist. Engaging faculty and administrators with policy makers and leaders from the business sector (all in the same room at the same time) will undoubtedly lead to answers that will be more broadly understood, supported, and actually capable of being successfully implemented.
Likewise, policy makers play a key role in addressing the need for a more educated work force and should acknowledge their role in addressing the challenge to educate millions more citizens. They should accept the need for an adequate funding support base for campus operations and financial aid benefiting students at all types of institutions They should discontinue reducing the percentage of the public budget allocated to higher education in order to fund other parts of the budget. They should support innovative approaches to productivity and permit campuses to redirect productivity savings. These actions will send a clear commitment to higher education leaders about policy makers’ commitment to educating many more citizens.
Major, not minor, change will need to be considered by this collective leadership to ensure an affordable postsecondary education for millions more of our citizens. Some ideas to consider putting on the table include the following:
Change the cultural perception of a campus as a “place to go” to be one that provides instruction and enhances learning. Make significant changes to the instructional delivery model. Consider removing traditional time constraints such as quarters and semesters.
Hire campus leaders with a passion for increasing productivity and student success. Hold campus leaders and departments accountable with rewards for specific, significant results. Examples could include increases in the number of courses completed and/or degrees or certificates awarded, reducing time to degree, or reducing student costs.
Provide financial incentives -- even in tough times -- to reward campuses and departments that make significant internal changes to meet the need to educate many more citizens.
Revise state and campus funding allocation formulas to focus on student success rather than attendance, and also focus funding on special initiatives to achieve specific public policy objectives. Give funding priority to departments and institutions that can accommodate increased numbers of students at least cost and reward those that graduate large percentages of those that enter.
Establish departmental budgets that have specific goals to create specific revenue streams and then allow them to use the revenue they generate.
Collaborate. Collaborate. Collaborate. Find ways for campuses and departments to consolidate administrative, student service, and academic support functions required of all campuses. Provide incentives for faculty and departments to collaborate to offer what students need anywhere, anytime.
Focus more on “finishing degrees” for adults who earned credits earlier in their lives but did not receive a credential.
Consider charging tuition and fees tied to the actual costs of instruction. Charges for large general education classes should probably be significantly less than charges for small, highly specialized classes.
Explore having community colleges or selected four-year colleges provide all remedial instruction for the state or region, releasing resources for the other four-year colleges and universities to focus exclusively on college-level courses.
Make greater use of the expertise and experiences of retirees since there will be significant numbers of them who can offer this resource.
Balance career education and liberal arts education opportunities. An economy based on a broadly educated citizenry will be the economy most able to adapt to inevitable and constant changes.
Reduce government regulations and reporting requirements. Government regulations and policies tend to “count” not “produce.” Many policy makers believe that government cannot regulate business to success. The same principle applies to higher education.
Use accountability measures and incentives that truly focus on productivity. Don’t use accountability measures to play “gotcha” since there is no better way to drive down productivity. Accountability measures that focus on “gotchas” will “getcha” very few results.
Making college more affordable and achieving greater productivity are not only worthy goals; they are critical to the economic prosperity of the country and states. No single solution will work for all. Together we can create collaborative solutions and adapt them as needed for particular situations and needs.
This country needs to educate millions more of its citizens during the next decade. Urgent and bold leadership and action is needed to meet this challenge. Higher education leaders should take the lead to create the setting to forge the solutions to make college more affordable and achieve greater productivity. I am optimistic that such leadership exists.
Larry A. Isaak
Larry A. Isaak is president of the Midwestern Higher Education Compact and chancellor emeritus of the North Dakota University System.
You would think that a survey of “American higher education governing boards” conducted by an organization called the Association of Governing Boards would survey the actual trustees that make up these boards.
Well, think again.
The AGB’s latest report, presented as a “Survey of Higher Education Governance,” does not in fact feature a single trustee. Of the 693 respondents, more than half are presidents or chief executives, with the remainder comprised of presidential/executive assistants, board professionals and senior administrators. As it turns out, the report says little about what’s on the mind of trustees and nothing about how they understand their role, but it does unwittingly reveal a philosophy, espoused by the AGB and shared by many at our colleges and universities, that underscores why there is a governance problem in higher education.
According to this view, higher ed administrations are the governance structure. Trustees for the most part should keep to their place and do as they are told by administrators. One might call it the potty-trained trustee, the board member who shows up at football games, cuts a few big checks, and doesn’t meddle in university affairs.
Consider, for example, the seemingly innocuous question put to presidents and other administrators in the survey: How difficult is it to recruit board members? The question presupposes that administrators should be selecting the board members who will then be charged with overseeing their work. But sound governance has trustees serving the interests of students, parents and alumni — not to mention taxpayers, in the case of state colleges and universities — not those of presidents. Sound governance is not about administrators finding “the new board members they want.”
If the Enron debacle taught us one thing, it is that boards must be independent of management. While the corporate sector is turning handsprings to ensure independent trustees and independent nominating committees, apparently we are to believe that our colleges and universities should operate according to a different set of rules. That should be no surprise, of course, since trustees selected by CEOs are more likely to agree with the administration and less likely to ask tough questions.
The report also rehashes the self-serving refrain that higher education institutions are governed by their “own business model.” As the author of the report explained to Inside Higher Ed: “Higher education finance is different from the kind of financial experience or information many board members come to their trustee service with.”
If that is indeed true, isn’t that part of the problem? As tuition and fees spiral out of control, having increased at more than four times the rate of inflation and almost twice that of medical care in the past 25 years, isn’t it time for trustees to apply the solid financial acumen many have developed in the real world — and not buy into the unsustainable economics of higher education?
Given the reigning governance model, we should perhaps not be surprised by the report’s findings that many boards are out to lunch when it comes to overseeing the academic and financial health of their institutions. We learn, for example, that “boards are typically tentative about taking steps” in the area of academic quality since “[h]igher education itself has not yet defined suitable ways to define, monitor, and talk about academic quality.” The fact that administrators have not yet done so is surely no reason why trustees should be hands off when it comes to working with them and faculty to rein in rampant grade inflation or implement a curriculum that will produce informed citizens, productive workers, and lifelong learners.
We are also told that boards currently spend over half their time “listening” to staff and committee reports and that they rely almost exclusively on information supplied by the institution when monitoring academic quality.
We are led to believe that boards properly engage in strategic planning, but then are told that all boards are “significantly more likely to receive reports about the planning process and to discuss emerging priorities than to have board representatives on the planning committee.”
We are told that nearly 70 percent of boards have adopted a statement of board member responsibilities that “can provide some assurance that board members understand and are committed to their responsibilities.” Yet when it comes to real responsibilities, we learn that only 64 percent of private institutions actually inform the full board of the president’s total compensation, and that 30 percent of boards do not document the process used to determine the president’s compensation.
Forces are building that make the go along-get along culture represented here ripe for substantive reforms. During the past decade, limited resources, rising costs, and mounting concerns about graduates’ lack of basic skills have prompted a demand for accountability. Taxpayers, students, and parents are being asked to foot increasingly higher bills, with no guarantee that their dollars are being well spent.
Meanwhile, scandals continue to mount. Bad press about corrupt student loan practices, presidential malfeasance, administrative cover-ups, rigged admissions, and excess compensation have drawn increasing attention to the need for trustees who do their job — neither meddling where they do not belong, as University of Illinois trustees appointed by two corrupt governors seem to have done, nor being asleep at the switch. Each new scandal underscores how urgently college and university boards need to get their houses in order.
The rising cost and declining quality that we see today in higher ed result, too often, from the belief that administrators are the real governance structure and that trustees exist to serve the institution first and the public interest second. It is time for trustees to wake up to this mindset and reassert their central governing role.
Anne D. Neal
Anne D. Neal is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
While the seven-figure compensation packages of an increasing number of college and university presidents attract critics, the most worrisome aspect of the push toward inflationary university compensation is the growing number of presidents who not only sit on corporate boards but are drawing huge fees for doing so. This trend has dangerous implications for both the colleges and universities and the CEOs involved.
Are college and university chiefs spending too much of their time on corporate business and too little on the institutions they are entrusted to run? Are there potential or actual conflicts of interest between the priorities of corporations and those of colleges and universities? Will academic leaders draw a clear line between their loyalties to their universities and the corporations on whose boards they sit? Can the reputations of their institutions be harmed by the decisions they have made as corporate trustees?
Such questions were very recently raised by the revelation inThe New York Timesthat Ruth Simmons, president of Brown University, has been a trustee at Goldman Sachs for 10 years, during which time she participated in the decisions to award the firm’s top executives huge, publicly contentious bonuses. For her board work as a trustee in 2009, she was paid $323,539, an enormous sum amounting to more than half of her salary at Brown. She will leave Goldman Sachs later this year with a stock portfolio worth about $4.3 million, a perk granted to board members.
It turns out that Dr. Simmons also sat on two other corporate boards: Pfizer, from which she resigned three years ago, and Texas Instruments, where she remains a trustee. For her service at these two other corporations, she received substantial trustee fees and, presumably, stock or stock options. The chair of Brown University’s board was quoted in the Times as saying that the board of the university did not see any conflicts of interest with Dr. Simmons’ role at Goldman Sachs. Nor, doubtlessly, did they perceive any problems with Dr. Simmons’ two other corporate memberships. That insouciance says a lot about university governance.
While Dr. Simmons did cite the time commitment required for sitting on the Goldman Sachs board as a reason for ending her tenure as a trustee, she did not explain why it took her 10 years to come to this conclusion. The notoriety of Goldman Sachs undoubtedly led to the publicity -- as well as faculty and student displeasure at Brown – about Dr. Simmons’ board membership. But this should not obscure the fact that all corporate board memberships require a great deal of time.
Did it not concern the Brown board that its president was spending an inordinate amount of time and attention helping to direct and oversee three major corporations at a time when universities and colleges are themselves under increased financial stress, experiencing a crisis in financial aid and facing serious questions about systemic faculty and staff inequities? Corporate board and committee meetings, frequent phone consultations, reading and interpreting complex financial material and keeping up with the financial environment are all responsibilities of corporate trustees; for those who take this job seriously it involves a major commitment of time and concentration. Put simply, Dr. Simmons did not have the focus and time to do both jobs really well.
Nor has she been alone in facing this dilemma. Many of her university and college CEO colleagues are also juggling their responsibilities of running a major institution with being on corporate boards … some on three or four boards.
Why do university presidents join corporate boards? Is it greed? Aren’t skyrocketing compensation packages, including deferred compensation, free housing, special benefits and other perks sufficient to meet the needs of aspiring educational CEOs? Is it a belief that corporate board memberships lead to useful relationships with other businesses and wealthy people that can increase the coffers of the university? Yet it is questionable whether this strategy is essential to good fund raising.
Or is it a desire to broaden their perspectives and experiences? But there are other means of doing this, such as joining nonprofit boards, campaigning for national and state policies or being actively involved in their campus communities. However, such efforts need to be limited, so that CEOs can devote the preponderance of their time to college business.
For their part, college and university trustees should insist that their presidents focus on the major challenges confronting their universities and colleges. The rising cost of tuition and the need for financial aid for needy students is one such issue. So are the financial plights and disgraceful working conditions of the part-time adjunct faculty who teach more than 50 percent of the courses in higher education while being denied benefits and academic freedom. Another challenge is the provision of a living wage to the blue collar workers on campus who are the mainstays of university life. The lack of community involvement by many universities and colleges is yet another problem that requires immediate attention.
These are tough challenges, problems that don’t lend themselves to quick resolutions. But if university and college presidents were to spend more time in conversing with faculty and students, in attending a few classes and in actually teaching the occasional course, they would be better armed with the skills they need to manage their institutions effectively.
By and large, university and college trustees are not selected to focus on the major concerns cited above. Their primary, often only, responsibility is to help raise money. It is increasingly the norm that the majority of university and college board members come from corporate America; they are people often not attuned to the niceties of conflicts of interest, the reasonable limits of nonprofit salaries or the challenges of systemic inequities. They frequently fail to keep their institutions and CEOs accountable, as was the case at American University and Stevens Institute of Technology.
Yet, if they want to strengthen their institutions and assure public accountability, they should begin to insist that their presidents have only one master: the university or college itself. They should introduce policies that prohibit their chief executives from serving on any corporate board for pay and on more than one corporate board on a pro bono basis. It’s about time that university chief executives get back to doing what they were hired to do… run their institutions.
Pablo Eisenberg is a senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute and a columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
Recent events in Wisconsin draw into sharp relief the dilemmas faced by systems -- particularly where land grant institutions are involved. While independence for the University of Wisconsin at Madison is now unlikely, a key fact has been overlooked. Whether the current structures in Wisconsin and elsewhere are ideal or seriously flawed, they have not been historically set in stone, and in fact reflect significant changes in mission and governance in most states.
We can say with certainty that since Colonial days, colleges and universities have been engaged in an evolutionary process. Small sectarian colleges educating clergy have become large secular universities; local teachers colleges have become regional and in some cases national universities. The land-grant institutions themselves have undergone a transformation unimagined by their founders: from colleges focused on finding cures to oak smut and better mining or agricultural techniques to international conglomerates with budgets in the billions, selective admission standards, thousands of faculty -- many funded with federal, not state, dollars raised through grants and contracts -- and branch campuses throughout the world.
It is still not clear whether the growth and development of college and university systems following the post WWII era are the result of enlightened and strong leadership or of more mundane political factors. Like the nature vs. nurture debate, the truth lies in between, and the complex organizational systems that exist today in Pennsylvania, California, Oregon, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, Florida, Massachusetts, Wisconsin and many other states are the result of a host of factors.
They include the need to spend tax dollars in more egalitarian ways, a commitment to open access, the value of advanced degrees in the upward mobility of new middle classes, the diversification and democratization of higher education, economic efficiency and the accommodation of large numbers of students, workforce development, and the adult and continuing educational movements. Politically, these systems reflect the relative strengths of geographic interests in states (rural vs. urban), philosophical differences (egalitarian vs. elitist), and political traditions (the relative value placed on public education and the willingness to use tax dollars for it).
These factors have all played a role. Just as the canal owners and operators fought the expansion of railroads in the late 1800s, so too did a number of academic constituencies argue against the establishment of large public systems. Like other societal movements and developments, in industry, entertainment, communications, government and other nonacademic sectors, the seeds of discontent and related factors that would lead to the dissolution of systems, corporate conglomerates and the like were inevitably sown in the earliest phases of growth.
For example, the desire to emulate the "flagship" led to the clamor for and growth of professional schools and advanced degrees in branch campuses or regional campuses originally designed to promote an articulation function to the "mother" university. Today, in many systems, there are emerging powerhouses that seek greater autonomy, generating pressures which may lead to restructuring.
The sentiment, commonly heard at flagship institutions, that public institutions in other cites are taking precious resources away from the research institution, is a common refrain, almost as ubiquitous as is the disdain for the wasteful practices and regulatory interference manifested by those in the "Office of the Chancellor or President." The difficulty in unraveling reality from myth is borne from the fact there is some truth to many of the arguments marshaled in defense of one course of action or another.
In addition, many participants in these debates are not using the same definitions or databases and have different perceptions of the "mission" of a particular campus, as well as varying notions of how best to serve student populations. Moreover, large numbers of faculty members throughout state systems endeavor to recreate the kinds of institutions (replete with lighter workloads and graduate classes) where they obtained their advanced degrees. Lastly, there is the constant pressure of ranking systems, the drive to be more competitive and autonomous, to look like something or someone thought to be better, and, of course, all the while maintaining a “we are unique” mantra.
The perfect political storm in Wisconsin, with a world-class public system, exposed all the fracture points inherent in a system with 12 four-year institutions, 13 two-year colleges and a UW extension unit. A new governor, convinced by lobbyists from many parts of the state, including Madison, that a land-grant Institution does not belong in a system with institutions in Oshkosh, or Milwaukee, let alone Whitewater or Falls River, offered autonomy in what was spun as a budget proposal detaching the flagship from the system. The chancellor, along with many faculty at Madison, argued that they are capable of maintaining and sustaining independent and autonomous status, and they jumped at the opportunity when the governor proposed his plan. After all, they believe they can better serve the interests of the state as an independent institution, and the lure to be free of system regulations, raise their own funding, and determine their own future may have been a long-sought-after goal among some constituencies -- who, one suspects, did not want to be in the system in the first place.
Other universities in Wisconsin did not go along quietly, and argued that the system is greater than the sum of its parts, students are better served through statewide coordinating efforts, and symbiotic relationships are far preferable to outright and wild competition that will ensue once the system is separated. Institutions in the outlying areas of the state are not sure they will be able to compete successfully. Without attachment to the University of Wisconsin, some branch campuses might have a pretty rough road ahead; others may flourish and become real competitors for Madison.
What is unfolding in Wisconsin is not unique. Other systems have made realignments or lost institutional members, although not quite on the same scale as Wisconsin has proposed. It has happened or been proposed in Oregon, Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota (where three systems were merged), and other locales. More important, perhaps, are the political, economic and educational conditions causing significant tension in systems. One of these is collective bargaining, where branch campuses choose to unionize and flagship faculties generally do not. The processes and dynamics of unionization cause differences in approach to compensation, workload, the management of conflict, and other important aspects of institutional life, often resulting in an exacerbation of the differences between the faculty at the flagship campus and the others where faculty choose unionization.
Another factor is the real decline in state support. Campuses such as Penn State, some in the University of California system, and others around the nation now receive less than 20 percent, and in some cases only 10 percent, of operating funds from state legislatures, while this is not typically the case for regional campuses. At the same time, these campuses, adjusting to new financial realities, are often precluded from raising tuition, even though their student populations would probably withstand higher tuitions. Conversely, many flagships have other means, through patent development, technology transfer, alumni and federal research grants, lucrative sports contracts, distance education and the like, to generate revenue.
The land-grant mission is harder to sustain in many states, resulting in sustained pressure on schools of agriculture, mining, forestry, fisheries, and extension services. For those institutions that were able to get into the game early, and negotiated profitable contracts with agribusiness and seafood industries that resulted in revenue streams, problems are not as salient. However, for institutions in states without robust agricultural and fishing environments, the pressure to serve these sectors has increased, while revenues from states legislators, despite the rhetorical support for such industries, are not forthcoming.
Then there is the collapse of the enforcement of state higher education coordination plans and other policies that purport to draw lines between institutions or constrain the growth of institutions within the state. For reasons having to do with demand, aspiration and in some cases a lessening of central authority (due to the enhanced of autonomy of select institutions), mission creep is common. A health and science complex is envisioned for a state university in the fastest-growing city in the state, the state college out west wants a law or pharmacy school, a portion of federal funds is redirected to outlying branch campuses, and professional doctorates, first in education and nursing, give way to those in biology and psychology at campuses that were once supposed to restrict graduate education to a few master’s degrees.
Last, the culture of large segments of faculty at flagship institutions is not the same as that found in newer comprehensive institutions. Hierarchical decision-making is less evident, governance and shared authority is more robust, there is greater departmental autonomy, and faculty have scholarly and consulting opportunities not available to those at the state college. Budgets, student life, risk assessment, security, the maintenance of facilities -- particularly research facilities -- recruitment of faculty and administrators from different pools, and the “cosmopolitan” versus “local” orientation of employees all contribute to very different campus cultures, which are sometimes held together very tenuously and need only an immediate crisis to fracture.
Considering this history doesn’t mean that autonomy is the best path forward for Madison. But can it really be surprising that educators there want a change? Alternatively, the financial pressures inherent in the new normal may lead some states to impose greater system control in the interest of economies of scale, eliminating duplication. Finally, system fragmentation, if not dissolution, may result from the encouragement of entrepreneurial schools with greater freedom to offer market attractive programs raising tuition revenues to replace state shortfalls.
Not long ago it was inconceivable that US Steel, Ma Bell or General Motors would ever break up. Faced with growing international competition, a changing legal environment, fewer tax dollars, a decline in real wealth, expensive union contracts, redundancy in operational units, and the loss of confidence by the American public, these industrial giants inevitably came undone. Will the same occur with large state systems?
Daniel J. Julius
Daniel J. Julius is vice president for academic affairs for the University of Alaska System.