Faculty Myths About Trustees

Board members are not the bean-counting "suits" that many professors think -- and colleges must reach more mutual understanding between the two groups, Steven C. Bahls argues.

November 15, 2011

Shared governance in higher education is threatened by deep suspicions between many faculty members on the one hand and some trustees and senior administrators on the other. In other settings, I have sought to bust the most common, and often derogatory, myths held about faculty members; I believe presidents have a responsibility to dispel these damaging legends at every opportunity. I’m rarely asked to talk about the other side of the coin -- the dark myths about board members and administrators. In my many years as a faculty member and now as a president, here are some of the myths I’ve heard (and sometimes repeated) over the years:

  • Board members are “suits” who engage in drive-by management.
  • They are more concerned about the picture selected for the cover of the college catalog than about the content found inside the catalog.
  • Members are motivated to have bragging rights about their college or alma mater while at their country club or at dinner parties.
  • Board members are bean counters who want to run a college like a business.
  • Members are motivated by nostalgia for the “good old days,” which they perceive to be long gone and which they want to revive.

These myths falsely suggest that the drivers of board participation are status and control; when believed by faculty and administrators, the assumptions related to these myths stand in the way of true shared governance. The strength of our nation’s postsecondary system is rooted in the shared responsibility among faculty, boards and administrators to effectively govern institutions of higher education. Board members share the same motivations held by most faculty members and administrators -- they had a great experience in college and want to find ways to share that experience and the benefits of an education with others.

While board members might be nostalgic for the “good old days,” most board members are more open to change than are many members of the internal community. They understand that colleges, like all institutions, need to keep pace with changing times or they risk becoming irrelevant in today’s market. Like faculty members, they are committed to the college’s mission and hope that, in spite of changing times, the college does not drift from its mission. Board members aren’t interested in talking a topic to death and for that reason are accused of drive-by management. It is important to note that efficiency should not be confused with recklessness.

The true skill sets of boards often are not tapped -- they have more to bring to the table than an “aye” vote on a motion, a handshake at a pep rally, a deep pocket for donations or a name on an annual report. Board members often represent professions from which higher education can learn. While bankers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, doctors and other board members from outside the academy may initially be baffled by the inner workings of shared governance, most are quick to understand it and find similarities in their world. 

I once told a board member, then the CEO of Sara Lee, that working with tenured faculty members was quite different from most interactions in her world. Without hesitation, she reminded me that key executives at Sara Lee effectively had tenure because of their high level of skill and importance to the success of the organization. Top-down decision-making is fraught with problems, she explained, and most successful businesses are managed by a team. Instead of lamenting tenure, she reminded the board that it must find ways to engage faculty in strengthening shared governance such that the institution can move forward.

Because Augustana had worked on strengthened shared governance, we were able to act and respond more nimbly through the recession. After missing our enrollment targets at the depth of the recession, the board and the administration set aside a significant pool of funds from which the faculty could develop new majors and programs that, consistent with our mission, might more effectively recruit students. 

Faculty members developed and approved seven new majors. Our opera professor even recommended, and helped us implement, an ice hockey club program. These new programs have allowed the college to return to record enrollment levels. We could not have developed these programs together if we had been hamstrung by believing the myths about each other.

But, as we all know, board members’ business acumen is just the tip of the iceberg for board expertise and involvement. Most board members spend an extraordinary amount of time on their volunteer service commitment to the college. Attendance at meetings serves as only a small part of the time investment. For most, service and financial support of the college will be their life’s legacy, with service on the board among the most satisfying accomplishments in their lives.

Nevertheless, the desire to make a difference is often confused by non-board members of the campus community with the desire to command control. While some board members may express a desire to get involved in the day-to-day operations of a program or unit, remember that micromanagement occurs only when we create an environment that supports it. A board should be focused on the vision and fiscal health of an institution, which is facilitated by the faculty and administration. It is our responsibility to set the stage for the board, allowing them to focus on providing thoughtful guidance.

I believe colleges and universities could learn a valuable lesson from the health care industry. With every increasing regulation, many hospitals have determined that doctors, administrators and boards can be effective only if there is a high degree of alignment on a common mission, common set of goals and shared measures of success. For higher education, institutions cannot be effective if faculty, administrators and boards each view the issues facing our institutions differently. The myths I described only serve to get in the way of needed alignment and good communication.

To foster greater alignment between the board and the faculty at Augustana, we look for more ways for faculty and board members to interact. In addition to making sure the elected leadership of the faculty participates in board meetings, we seek broader engagement of the faculty at board dinners, board receptions and board retreats. For alignment to work, administrators need to be highly transparent with both boards and faculty, making sure to share the same information with both.

It is true that faculty members, administrators and board members, by virtue of their positions, do look at their institutions differently. But when faculty and board members interact, they can capitalize on their differing vantage points to learn from each other. When faculty members and board members dispel myths through greater and more thoughtful interaction, they are sure to build strong institutions for the benefit of the students we serve.


Steven C. Bahls is president of Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill.



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