Trustees/regents

Lawmakers Criticize Retiring President's Payout

The president of Mount Wachusett Community College in Massachusetts is retiring with a $334,000 payout for unused sick days, and state lawmakers are not happy, The Boston Herald reported.

Daniel Asquino, president of the college, accumulated more than 1,250 sick days in his three decades at Mount Wachusett, accounting for $266,060 of his payout. The remaining $68,079 comes from his unused vacation time.

Lawmakers are hoping to use this case to reinvigorate their efforts toward capping unused vacation and sick days.

“It’s mind-blowing,” State Senator Ryan Fattman, a Republican, told the Herald. “There has to be something that can be done legislatively, and I think these are the types of stories that give those efforts a lot of traction.”

Asquino’s payout surpasses that of a former Bridgewater State University president, who came away with about $270,000 in 2015. Until now, that was believed to be the biggest payout in public higher education in Massachusetts in the last decade, according to the Herald.

After the Bridgewater State case, the state Board of Higher Education adopted new rules to limit vacation payouts to 64 days. Asquino and Mount Wachusett are following that law in the retirement payout, but it’s Asquino’s massive supply of unused sick days that accounts for most of his take.

Governor Charlie Baker said the payout is “disappointing.” He is considering a proposal that would limit the number of unused sick days state employees can cash in on, but even that would only apply to the executive branch.

Others in the Legislature are hoping to expand on that proposal to include public colleges and universities’ employees as well.

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Kentucky State Faculty Vote No Confidence in Board

Faculty at Kentucky State University last week voted no confidence in the Board of Regents and its chairwoman, The State-Journal reported.

The board received 39 votes for no confidence and 36 for confidence, while the chairwoman, Karen Bearden, fared worse. Fifty faculty members voted no confidence in Bearden’s leadership, while 30 asserted their confidence.

The vote was first suggested in late February, when faculty voiced concerns over the board’s handling of the presidential search as well as issues with the budget, tenure, promotion and raises, according to The State-Journal.

In addition to the votes of no confidence, the Faculty Caucus of Color was also formed at Kentucky State last week. The group will seek to address the limited number of African-American faculty members at the historically black university, which has led to the “systematic and de facto alienation, marginalization and disempowerment within both the institution and the Faculty Senate’s shared governance and decision-making processes, protocols and mechanisms,” the interim president of the caucus said in a statement.

A spokesperson for the Board of Regents said the board will use the vote of no confidence “as a catalyst for change.”

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Wright State President Resigns Amid Budget Crisis

The president of Wright State University resigned last week -- almost four months sooner than he had planned to retire from the institution -- in light of a budget crisis at the Ohio college, The Dayton Daily News reported.

“We have a substantial undertaking to bring our budget into alignment with our revenues,” said David Hopkins, outgoing president of Wright State, in an email to faculty, staff and students on Friday.

In lieu of the $432,000 salary he would have earned in the year following his retirement, Hopkins will now be eligible for an annual faculty salary of $200,000 in the College of Education and Human Services. He will still receive $150,000 in deferred compensation.

Cheryl Schrader has been selected as the next president of Wright State. She will take office July 1. In the meantime, the Board of Trustees chose Curtis McCray to serve as interim president. McCray has previously worked with the university as a consultant for its operational review.

The budget crisis that has consumed Wright State over the last few years stems from overspending, officials told The Dayton Daily. This year, the university is projected to spend $40 million beyond what it earned.

“That cannot continue under Dr. McCray’s leadership,” said Michael Bridges, chairman of the Board of Trustees. “You have to live within that budget.”

The trustees hope to bring the university out of as much debt as possible before Schrader takes over this summer.

Last year, the university laid off 23 people to help cut down on costs. An announcement about additional layoffs is expected next month. Wright State has also been under a hiring freeze since February, when Hopkins instituted it.

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Colleges and universities should recruit more nonalumni and donors to boards (essay)

Imagine if Apple’s Board of Directors consisted entirely of former customers. Older directors have fond memories of buying their first Apple computer in 1980 (the much-loved Apple IIe), which they used more for playing Castle Wolfenstein than for doing homework. A few directors grew up with the Macintosh, drawing with MacPaint and playing The Ancient Art of War. Several younger directors rocked out in the early 2000s to the 1,000 songs that fit on their first iPod. They all love Apple products and, out of dedication and nostalgia, accepted invitations to join the board.

It sounds silly, right? But this is how private colleges and universities select their boards of trustees. In choosing trustees, private colleges and universities pick satisfied former customers, i.e., successful alumni. Often, this is a requirement in the institution’s bylaws and consistently advantageous for fund-raising. Alumni agree to serve on the board with the best of intentions, wanting to “pay forward” all that their alma mater has done for them. These are civic-minded and generous people who had a wonderful experience and are committed to providing the same caliber experience for current and future generations of students.

But apply the private college model to Apple. Would this be a model for good governance? Would the board of Apple aficionados have the relevant expertise to evaluate and approve the necessary investments that allowed Apple to invent the iPhone? If the Apple board were overly influenced by the Apple IIe or the Mac, guidance to management may have reflected conservatism that would have kept the company in the personal computer business rather than transforming it into the leader in mobile and entertainment. Neither Apple, nor any other corporation, nor any other nonprofit organization, selects its board in this way.

Private college and university boards are full of brilliant, accomplished people with expertise in a range of fields. But too often their vision for the institution is rooted in nostalgia. A university’s mission in 1980, as experienced by a student, may restrict the vision of the university in 2017, and what it could or must become by 2050. Most obviously, what might have worked when tuition was $5,000 may not work when it’s $50,000. And what might have worked to get students good jobs when only 10 percent of American adults earned bachelor’s degrees may not work when over 30 percent do.

In addition, the focus on alumni keeps many colleges and universities from matching organizational needs against the experience and competencies of potential directors. Today, every board of every college and university ought to have professionals with demonstrated expertise in data analytics, education technology, research funding, employability and the labor market, and, where applicable, hospital management and athletics -- not to mention teaching and learning methods and outcomes.

Relevant expertise is essential to ensure appropriate governance, like asking the right questions at board meetings and -- most important -- making sure the board agenda is set to focus on the most important challenges and opportunities and not merely those senior managers want to discuss. But in selecting alumni, an institution often ends up with a board comprised of the wealthiest or most celebrated alumni, without regard to the fact that their fields of achievement are unrelated to the pressing needs of the institution. It’s as if the celebrity brand or ranking focus that afflicts so much of higher education also infects the alumni trustee selection process.

Securities regulations require that public companies have independent directors. All private colleges and universities receive public funding in the form of Pell Grants and Stafford Loans. In addition, they all aim to advance the public good. So private colleges and universities should be required to diversify their boards by adding a significant number of highly qualified independent directors -- directors with no prior affiliation with the school -- to challenge traditions that no longer work, including academic cultures that may no longer be in sync with market realities.

What we mean is not director independence in the technical sense, as defined by the NYSE, but rather emotional independence: directors without emotional or sentimental attachment clouding their decision making or vision. If the Department of Education does not demand as much, perhaps state attorneys general will.

Higher education is facing a triple crisis of affordability, completion and employability. Nowhere is this clearer than at private colleges and universities -- particularly smaller, nonelite institutions without significant endowments. There is no silver bullet for any single institution; strong governance will be required to make it through the storm. These schools need forward-looking directors making decisions based on real facts, not alternative facts or nostalgia.

If American higher education is to lead the world in this century, as it did in the last, our universities must invent higher education’s version of the iPhone: a new model to educate the next generation more efficiently and effectively. So let’s make our boards more like the real Apple board. While current college and university trustees have the best intentions and development efforts necessitate their continued involvement, only by adding independent experts to boards will private colleges and universities get where they need to go.

Ryan Craig is managing director of University Ventures, an investment firm. David Friedman is an associate professor who teaches corporate governance at Willamette University College of Law.

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Advice to boards and presidents on how to avoid forced separations (essay)

Messy breakups between colleges and universities and their presidents made headlines again this summer. Trustees have accused presidents of poor judgment, unapproved and unauthorized spending, lack of professionalism, and inadequate goals and objectives. The separations played out in public, and many of them required a legal resolution.

But litigation costs are only a fraction of the harm done to both the college and the president in these kinds of terminations.

The reputations of both the college and the president are damaged by the controversies. Stories that portray a board as not supporting its president will probably cause future candidates for leadership positions at the college to think twice about applying. Community supporters and donors may withdraw support from the institution in response to the negative press that often accompanies the termination of employment of top leadership. For their part, presidents who are fired often have trouble overcoming the damage to their careers and successfully securing a leadership position at a different college or university.

Sometimes, the breakups occur early in the president’s tenure. In 2016, the president of Lake Michigan College was ousted after only three months on the job. Others may occur later in the president’s tenure, perhaps after contentious campus issues, difficult financial decisions or the election or appointment of new trustees.

What can trustees, presidents and candidates for presidencies do to reduce the chances of such a forced separation?

The first consideration for both the board and candidate is one of fit. From the board’s perspective, it’s important to ask if the candidate is the best choice to meet the needs of the college. When a presidential vacancy occurs, the board should take the time to assess current institutional challenges, problems and opportunities. Before beginning a search, it should review the college’s mission, goals and strategic plan, and then it should agree on the characteristics and capabilities needed in a new leader. The outcome of that review should shape the position announcement, guide the search committee and determine advertising venues, screening criteria, interview questions and questions for references.

Before making a hiring decision, trustees should, where possible and with the candidate’s authorization, consider sending representatives to the institutions or organizations where the finalists are employed to talk directly with people who work with the candidates. Responses to trustee questions can be most helpful in determining fit.

Trustees bring different perspectives to their positions, so they may not all agree on a final choice for president. But the board should try hard to reach a consensus. Any implication of lack of confidence in the choice of a president can present problems for both that person and the college -- and increase the chances of a breakup.

From the President’s Perspective

When applying for a presidential position, the candidates must be as concerned about fit as the search committee and the board. They need to understand the needs and culture of the college, its current challenges and opportunities, and the culture of the community. Too many new presidents have been surprised by financial problems, pending litigation, personnel problems, labor strife or political issues. If problems must be addressed, does the candidate feel they have the experience and ability to deal with them -- and will the board support the president in tackling those difficult issues?

Candidates should view the interview as a two-way assessment and can often get a feel for the issues confronting the institution from the questions they’re asked. They should also talk to people who know the college and its issues, as well as review documents such as accreditation reports, financial audits, board meeting minutes and academic senate meeting minutes. A search for local newspaper or online articles can also be informative.

Candidates also must be concerned about the culture of the community. Some communities are more racially diverse than others. Some have deep religious traditions, while others are more secular. Some are urban, some are rural and some are suburban. Economies and culture can be based on agriculture, manufacturing, energy, chemical processing, tourism, technology, health care, higher education, policy development, mining and many other industries. Some communities are economically depressed or losing population, perhaps with community and state leaders focused on transforming the economy.

In addition, candidates should assess the strength of the college leadership team. Will changes need to be made? If so, will the board support the president in making them? And how does the candidate feel about the board itself? Is this group one that the candidate feels comfortable with? Did the board express a consensus opinion in the selection? If the board was divided, the career risk for the president will be elevated.

Easing the Transition

Some activities related to welcoming a new president should take place before that person arrives. For example, if the board sees a need to remodel the president’s office or to upgrade his or her residence (if one is provided), it is best to allocate the necessary resources before that individual is on the job. If the board wishes to schedule an inauguration to introduce the new president to the community, the board should make the decision in advance of the president’s arrival. New presidents who get involved with the details of remodeling their own homes or offices or of planning inaugurations run the risk of alienating the campus community -- especially during times of tight budgets.

The new president and board should schedule a retreat or workshop as soon as possible after the president arrives to develop a common set of goals for the president. If the board gives the president no direction -- or worse yet -- if individual trustees have different expectations for the president, there will likely be trouble ahead. The board at Lake Michigan College cited inadequate goals and objectives as one of the reasons for precipitously firing its president.

The board should also periodically schedule facilitated retreats or workshops. At those meetings, away from the demands of regular board meetings, trustees and the president can set goals for themselves, evaluate their progress in meeting those goals, and assess whether the college is advancing toward its vision of the future.

Evaluation of the president is one of the board’s most important responsibilities, and an annual formal evaluation is the key way to provide a unified and clear sense of direction. Boards need to understand that presidents must deal with conflicting demands, insufficient resources, hectic schedules and long hours. Progress toward some college goals may take longer than expected, especially when other priorities emerge. And while a president should always strive to maintain a positive institutional climate, the board’s evaluation must be more than a reflection of his or her popularity.

Colleges that have been identified as the best are those with long histories of strong and stable leadership at the board and president levels. Positive relationships between boards and presidents do not develop accidentally. They must be continually nurtured and developed. By understanding the expectations that boards hold for them, presidents can provide the leadership colleges need. And messy breakups can be avoided.

George R. Boggs is superintendent/president emeritus of Palomar College and president and CEO emeritus of the American Association of Community Colleges. He is an adjunct professor in the community college leadership doctoral programs at San Diego State University and National American University.

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Boards should ensure they are being accountable for their actions (essay)

As we read the current news about higher education and of failures of leadership by both administrators and boards, we can’t help but ask ourselves, “What the hell is going on?” Consider Antioch College, Cooper Union, Sweet Briar College, Temple University, the University of Louisville, the University of Missouri, the University of Virginia -- it seems that no institutional type is exempt from governance woes and sometimes the intervention of attorneys general, governors, alumni and more.

At the heart of many of these situations is the challenge of board accountability. Most people involved in higher education are familiar with some form of accountability. Accreditation addresses institutional accountability. The student learning movement has increased the emphasis on faculty accountability. But while accrediting agencies do call attention to board accountability, particularly when boards go off the rails, board accountability has yet to garner the same attention.

Governance accountability is difficult for a variety of reasons. First, it often includes high-stakes decisions that not everyone will agree with. Second, board deliberations often take place behind closed doors or, even if open, without much of an audience. Third, many stakeholders don’t understand governance and its role. These factors add up to a degree of skepticism about the board -- even if it is doing its work well and honorably. Because of this, boards must work extra hard to ensure they are accountable and viewed as being so.

Indeed, boards should be out ahead of the accountability curve. Doing so would greatly help them and their institutions. So what is accountability when it comes to governance? To whom are boards accountable and for what? And how can they improve their accountability?

For What Is the Board Accountable?

There are five essential areas of board responsibility and accountability:

  1. Upholding the institution’s mission;
  2. Selecting, compensating, evaluating and firing the president;
  3. Overseeing the fiscal health and integrity of the institution;
  4. Overseeing the quality of programs, services and other institutional offerings; and
  5. Ensuring the board’s own performance and conduct.

Of this list above, the final one tends to be the one that boards most often are least prepared to carry out well.

To Whom Is the Board Accountable?

First and foremost, because they hold their institutions in the public trust, boards of both independent and public colleges and universities are accountable for achieving public purposes. Boards that end up in the headlines for misbehavior often do not violate legal statutes. Instead, they and their institutions lose public trust.

Thus, board accountability has a public dimension to it. Boards need to behave in ways that make sure that the public trusts them and they are doing their collective best to move the institution or state system forward. While boards are often called upon to make difficult and controversial decisions, it often is the court of public opinion in which boards are judged.

At its most basic level, this public accountability is akin to government agencies answering to the electorate and businesses answering to stockholders. However, boards do not have stockholders or electorates who can readily demand greater accountability. Higher education’s stakeholders are a varied group, including policy makers, alumni, students, staff and faculty, and for public universities, the citizens of the state. And the expectations of these different constituencies may differ greatly from each other.

How, Legally, Is the Board Accountable?

Because the institutions they govern are supported by public contributions and enjoy favorable tax treatment, higher education boards are legally bound by the duties of care (exercising diligent oversight, being prepared for meetings), loyalty (placing organizational interest over self-interest, ensuring no conflicts of interest) and obedience (staying true to the institution’s mission, ensuring funds raised are used in support of the mission).

All academic institutions have articles of incorporation (bylaws) that describe the board as responsible for what the institution does and how it does it. Boards are also answerable to federal, state and local agencies, and they must file a Form 990 with the IRS that provides an overview of institutional governance, activities and programs, as well as discloses detailed financial information. In addition, regional accreditation keeps an eye on governance.

How Can Boards Ensure Governance Accountability?

So far, this all seems fairly straightforward. So, why so many train wrecks? We don’t believe they occur because laws, bylaws and articles of incorporation aren’t clear -- they are. We don’t believe they occur because of stupidity -- by and large, trustees are really smart, experienced people. We don’t believe they occur because of evil intention -- trustees generally want to do good work and serve faithfully.

Perhaps they occur because it’s easy to have words on paper, but more difficult to enact them. Some boards lack internal practices that help keep them aware of their accountability and that bring issues to light to help them avoid blind spots, potholes and sinkholes.

Further, boards of public universities and state systems govern in public, which certainly ups the ante. State sunshine laws are intended to increase transparency and, correspondingly, accountability. But there’s a downside, too: having to govern in public sometimes encourages individual trustees to create workarounds or to curtail dialogue, robust discussion, provocative questions and meaty deliberations.

Still despite the challenges of governing in public -- in the sunshine -- we believe that all boards can serve their organizations better by ensuring accountability. Here’s how.

  • Hold a discussion about accountability. Boards should periodically have a straightforward conversation about to whom they are accountable and how they might demonstrate it. Public boards may more easily have this conversation, given their appointment processes and the strong sense of priorities that exists in many states, while boards of independent colleges and universities may have a more complicated situation. Boards at religiously affiliated institutions may feel accountable to the sponsoring order, particularly regarding mission. Other boards may identify other stakeholders such as students, alumni, donors or the larger community. The ways in which boards demonstrate accountability to each group may vary. But the more boards can be intentional about this, the better they will govern.
  • Practice predecision accountability. In its simplest terms, this strategy means that boards should make decisions as if they -- not the president -- had to explain them to stakeholders. For example, for each board meeting, randomly select two trustees who will, in mock trial fashion, need to explain a board dialogue or decision to an unknown entity (a stakeholder group) waiting outside the door. Research shows that practicing predecisional accountability increases trustee engagement in the meeting discussions and encourages trustees to consider more stakeholder viewpoints (because they don’t know who’s waiting to hear the upshot), ask more questions and take more notes. Ultimately, they govern better.
  • Epitomize performance accountability for the institution. If the board holds itself up as an exemplar of performance accountability, it is better positioned to hold others accountable as well as themselves. That means being explicit about the board’s collective understanding of great governance, how it intends to execute it and how it will measure it. Periodically (every two to three years, although some boards undertake an annual review) you should conduct a comprehensive self-assessment of the board’s collective performance. It’s also a good idea to have trustees self-assess their own engagement and performance. While these assessments might be a bit inflated, the simple act of self-reflection is helpful. It’s also good practice to assess the work of committees and board meetings. Specific ideas for all of these types of assessment may be found in Trower’s book The Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership.
  • Create and uphold a statement of expectations. Another good practice is to have a written statement of trustee expectations, or a code of conduct, that spells out the responsibilities of board members and how the board will deal with violations. You should make this statement public and demonstrate that the board takes seriously the ways its members engage with one another and with the work of governance. Such a statement can also help boards to moderate potentially disruptive behavior by a few rogue trustees. Great boards do not tolerate renegades who violate agreed-upon terms of engagement and have consequences for misbehavior.
  • Seek management’s overall assessment annually. The best boards engage in dialogue with the president about how the board is performing. Such conversations can happen with the board chair or with the executive or governance committee, and overarching views should be discussed with the full board. Some boards ask the senior staff members to also complete the written board assessment survey and analyze results comparing board to staff members, in the aggregate (so as to not compromise anonymity). Boards provide presidents with feedback and assessment, so why not reverse the process?
  • Hold executive sessions for reflective practice. To learn and improve, boards should reflect on their performance, which can often best be done in executive session without senior leadership present. Such sessions are a time for trustees to open up with one another about how they see the board’s performance and talk about blind spots that may have been revealed in the assessments and how to overcome them. Another best practice of the best boards is to periodically take stock of the past year and discuss both contributions/successes and shortfalls in terms of the board’s governance function. Questions to ask: What did we do especially well? Where did we fall short? Why? What have we learned? How will we govern still better in the year ahead?
  • Avoid conflicts of interest. This point should not need to be reinforced, yet trustees too often find themselves in conflict. Board accountability is undermined quickly and deeply when conflicts of interest exist. While not all conflicts are avoidable, many are and should be.
  • Use the mission as a guidepost and touchstone. Too many boards get into difficulty when their actions are viewed as running counter to the mission and values of the university. For example, boards lose credibility when they offer presidents excessive compensation packages, yet leave students with a high debt load or come under scrutiny for not paying staff living wages. Boards can appoint trustees at each meeting to ask, “How does this decision reflect on our values and mission?” Hopefully such a capacity will become naturally ingrained over time. This is a type of values sniff test -- if the decision smells bad, it probably is.

In summary, a board can take many steps to ensure accountability for itself. Because boards are at the apex of the institutions they serve, the buck stops with them. They cannot and should not hide, as they should have nothing to hide. You may have noted an undercurrent of the concept of integrity running through all this. Ultimately, that is what board accountability boils down to: integrity. Without it, nothing good can happen. Once violated, it is difficult to overcome. With it, good work is possible.

Cathy Trower is president of Trower & Trower Inc., a board governance consulting firm; a board member at BoardSource in Washington, D.C.; and a trustee at Wheaton College, Mass. Peter Eckel is a senior fellow and the director of leadership at the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy in the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and a trustee at the University of La Verne.

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Mount St. Mary's and Suffolk: shared governance gone awry (essay)

The highly publicized student protests this past fall often challenged the notion of shared governance as it has been historically practiced. Student demands at institutions public and private, large and small, have sought to substitute the judgment of students for that of the faculty in areas such as the curriculum, hiring, tenure, promotion and the grading system.

Many students understandably are not aware either of how decisions are made on their campus or who is responsible for which aspects of their institution. As a result, a number of presidents have responded to student demands by reaffirming the importance of shared governance, approaching the protests as offering opportunities for (with apologies for the cliché) teachable moments. Some have noted that student protests have long had a place in higher education. And many of course have supported such goals as fostering greater diversity and seeking to end both systemic racism and the kinds of microaggressions that can cause pain to students.

The events in recent weeks at Mount St. Mary’s University and Suffolk University are a different matter. The Mount’s president and board chair and the actions of the Suffolk board have abruptly shattered notions of shared governance, to the detriment of their campuses. By ignoring best practices, they have also brought to their institutions a firestorm of highly critical publicity.

Principles of Shared Governance

Although institutional history, culture and mission all affect the details on each campus of how shared governance is implemented, most colleges and universities have generally embraced the notion of shared governance as defined in the 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities. According to the statement, formulated by the American Association of University Professors, the American Council on Education and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, the Board of Trustees -- ideally in partnership with the president -- is entrusted with the long-term health of the institution, its mission, its policies and its finances. The board is also responsible for hiring, evaluating and firing the president.

Effective boards, however, focus on strategy, not tactics, and they delegate to the president the operation of the institution. The president then delegates to the faculty primary responsibility for the educational program, most notably the curriculum, academic standards and the hiring, retention and promotion of the faculty. For their part, students have no formal role in governance on most campuses, although they may serve as representatives to trustee committees and ex officio without a vote on boards of trustees, as well as participate fully in campus committees and planning processes.

Student protesters have often mistakenly assumed that their president is responsible for everything that happens on their campuses, failing to understand that new required courses, new programs in areas such as Black Studies and Latino/a Studies, and the hiring of significantly increased numbers of faculty of color are all matters that require faculty action.

For example, protesters at Oberlin College identified specific employees they wanted fired and faculty members they wanted to receive tenure. They sought to oversee a revision of the grading process. They argued that since students in the conservatory studying classical music were not required to take courses in jazz, jazz students "should not be forced to take courses rooted in whiteness." In response, Oberlin President Marvin Krislov sought to educate the campus about how decisions are made at Oberlin, explaining that he would "not respond directly to any document that explicitly rejects the notion of collaborative engagement. Many of [the document's] demands contravene principles of shared governance."

Student protesters at Amherst College had even greater expectations of President Biddy Martin when they demanded that she apologize “to students, alumni and former students, faculty, administration and staff who have been victims of several injustices including but not limited to our institutional legacy of white supremacy, colonialism” and racism and discrimination against a wide array of groups.

While acknowledging the pain that many students experienced as a result of systemic racism, and supporting both the right of students to protest and their goals, Martin, like Krislov, reaffirmed the importance of shared governance: “The formulation of these demands assumed more authority and control than a president has or should have. The forms of distributed authority and shared governance that are integral to our educational institutions require consultation and thoughtful collaboration.”

Unfortunately, and in marked contrast, the president at Mount St. Mary’s and his board chair and the board chair and other trustees at Suffolk were either ignorant about or chose to ignore the basic principles of shared governance -- including collaboration, consultation and distributed authority. Although circumstances continue to evolve at these institutions, what has happened to date provides some important lessons for other colleges and universities.

Mount St. Mary’s: Violating Best Practices

The actions of President Simon Newman have been breathtaking in their disregard not only for shared governance but also for the following central tenets of academic life:

  • Presidents are responsible for ensuring that their institution acts in ways that are consistent with its mission and its stated policies.
  • Campuses are places where all members of the community are encouraged to ask questions and engage in healthy debate, without fear of retaliation.
  • Faculty members are valued for being independent, critical thinkers who encourage their students to be the same.
  • Policies governing the termination of employees are designed to ensure fair rather than arbitrary treatment.
  • Tenured faculty members are assumed to have lifetime employment unless they commit flagrant violations of institutional policies or commit criminal acts or if the institution is facing financial exigency.
  • Faculty members participate in the selection of the chief academic officer, which generally requires a national search.
  • Student newspapers are not part of the public relations efforts of the institution but rather educate and encourage student journalists to be professional and independent in their reporting.
  • Personnel decisions are confidential.
  • Boards and administrators should never demonize the faculty, students or alumni.

When confronted with faculty opposition to his plan to weed out students in an effort to improve the university’s retention numbers, a key factor in its ranking in U.S. News & World Report and elsewhere, Newman violated every one of those principles.

The process began when, after less than a year in office, Newman became the poster child for ignoring the best practices of shared governance, for violent language and for disregarding that part of the institution’s Catholic mission that values respecting “the dignity of other persons.” As the Mount’s student newspaper, The Mountain Echo, reported, Newman responded to the several faculty members who questioned his approach to student retention by telling them, “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads.”

But as dismaying as Newman’s plan and language were, his subsequent actions, supported by his board chair, were as egregious. He relieved the provost, who had served as chief academic officer at the Mount since 2007, of his administrative responsibilities, reportedly because the provost raised questions about Newman’s retention plan. Newman then immediately appointed a new interim provost from outside the institution, without a search committee and apparently without any consultation with the faculty.

Soon after, Newman fired a tenured faculty member who had disagreed with him. Faculty members report that Newman took this action unilaterally, without any formal process. He next fired a professor who was head of the pre-law program and faculty adviser to the newspaper, also without any formal process (even though this faculty member had previously been a trustee). The precipitating issue was that the paper reported Newman’s retention plan and his statement about the students as bunnies who needed to be drowned and shot.

Newman’s actions run counter to the Mount’s Catholic mission. His plan to dismiss at-risk students directly contradicts the university’s stated learning commitment “to supporting the academic development of all students within our campus community, regardless of disability or academic challenge, by creating a purposeful, learner-centered environment that inspires academic discovery.”

Most recently, in a letter to parents, Newman violated the principle that all personnel matters should be confidential when he made the unsubstantiated accusations that the terminated faculty members had violated the institution’s code of ethics and had conducted themselves in ways warranting their being fired.

These latest episodes are sadly not the first in which Newman, who came to his position from outside the academy, showed disdain for his colleagues, for the institution’s mission and for its students. Earlier, he reportedly referred to some students as “Catholic jihadis” and told some alumni, “Twenty-five percent of our students are dumb and lazy and I’d like to get rid of them.”

In such circumstances, one would hope that the board would intervene. Sadly, the chair, John E. Coyne III, instead in a written statement joined the president in demonizing faculty and alumni critical of the president, going so far as to suggest they were engaged in a conspiracy to “undermine and ultimately cause the exit of President Newman.”

In another statement, after offering his own disclaimer that he could not discuss personnel matters, Coyne accused the newspaper’s former adviser of having “manipulated the student journalists into portraying the retention program negatively,” according to The New York Times. He further criticized the students for “the damage you will render to this university and to its brand,” called them "quite frankly irresponsible," and claimed they violated the college's code of conduct.

At this writing, the university has reinstated the two fired professors. The faculty has voted 87-3 to ask the president to resign, while many students are backing him. The board continues to support him.

Suffolk University: Inappropriate Oversight

Before coming to Suffolk University as president, Margaret McKenna had already had a distinguished career, including 22 years as the president of Lesley University and, more recently, four years as the head of the Walmart Foundation. Nevertheless, Suffolk’s board sought her resignation only seven months into her presidency. Reportedly, and in violation of best practices, she had not been formally evaluated and the board had not met formally and with her knowledge to consider and debate such an action. (It is interesting to note that McKenna is the fifth president, including two interims, at Suffolk in five years and that one of her predecessors was removed abruptly and without explanation.)

Board members were also already courting former Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley to replace McKenna, even though McKenna had not resigned and there had been no formal search or consultation with others on the campus. In the face of the negative publicity, Coakley eventually said she would not be a candidate.

The Suffolk board clearly had not learned the lessons from the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors’ abortive effort in 2012 to remove President Teresa Sullivan in her second year. The outcry from administrators, faculty members, students, alumni, public officials and former board members led to a reversal of that decision. Sullivan is still in office.

And, in fact, many Suffolk students, faculty and staff members, and alumni were outraged about the effort to unseat McKenna and rallied in her support. The faculty immediately voted confidence in her, and Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh publicly endorsed her leadership, admonishing the board for playing the situation out in the press. Walsh also said that his message to the board was “to sit down and have a conversation and figure this out, work this out.”

Evidence suggests that the Suffolk chair and board members have ignored other best practices of shared governance. They have reportedly inserted themselves in an array of operational matters at the institution. In fact, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges made it clear in its April 2014 reaccreditation report of Suffolk that the board needed to stop micromanaging, to embrace best practices of governance and to move to a “more appropriate oversight and advisory role.”

NEACS also made it clear that at Suffolk’s next review in fall 2017, “we seek to be assured that clear lines of authority, responsibilities and relationships among the board, the administration and faculty have been established to ensure an effective governance structure.” The report went on to cite NEACS governance standards, most notably that “the board delegates to the chief executive officer and, as appropriate, to others the requisite authority and autonomy to manage the institution compatible with the board’s intentions and the institutional mission.” Trustees rebuked McKenna, for instance, for hiring eight people, including a chief of staff and an assistant chief of staff, without board approval -- actions that on most campuses would have been considered operational matters that did not rise to the level of board involvement.

McKenna herself, during the interview process, made it clear that she expected the board to delegate university operations to her. The Boston Globe reported that she said she told the trustees, “You hire me, you give me the keys. I’ll report to you. You’ll never be surprised. … You have got to trust me to make the right decisions.”

Suffolk trustees also violated at least two other central tenets of higher education: the standard policy that all personnel matters are confidential and the expectation that trustees do not have conflicts of interest. In recent weeks, In recent weeks, they openly criticized McKenna for for having an “abrasive manner" and making what they said were unauthorized expenditures, charges that she has challenged. They also appear to have sanctioned conflicts of interest. For example, in 2008, they put George Regan on the board even though his PR firm had an annual contract with Suffolk dating back to the last 1980s. In the face of adverse publicity, he withdrew from the board.

Nevertheless, Regan continued to exert a good deal of influence. According to the Boston Business Journal, Regan “personally recommended the appointment of at least seven of Suffolk's 28 board members,” a number of which were clients or former clients. And despite the contract with his firm, one of Regan’s employees also serves on the board.

Walsh got what he wanted. The board and McKenna have come to an agreement. The board chair will resign, effective this May, and the president has announced that she will step down before the 2017-18 academic year. Although the board plans to begin a national search for its next president in the fall and although McKenna has been clear that she will not be a candidate, the campus community hopes to retain her beyond that date. She has ended the contract with Regan’s firm.

Lessons to be Learned

In the midst of these governance crises, one can find some bright spots. Both campus communities have been clear about, and stood up for, the values that undergird higher education at its best. But most of all, Margaret McKenna has unhesitatingly put the welfare of the institution she leads ahead of her own interests. She also has prevailed in her insistence that the Suffolk board adopt the best practices of shared governance.

As she put it, “There were two principles for me that were critical to any agreement. First, that there be significant and lasting change in the governance policies and practices of the university. Second, any transition would come only after these policies were in place, and after a thorough and inclusive search was undertaken in a time frame that guaranteed no need for interim leadership. This ensures stability for the institution.” The Suffolk board has promised to develop and adopt new bylaws by May.

Today, when institutions are confronting economic pressures, changing demographics and growing public skepticism about whether higher education is worth its cost, collaboration among the faculty, administration and board is more essential than ever. Student success is dependent on a dedicated faculty that teaches well and creates an effective educational program. Institutional sustainability requires an administration that operates the institution responsibly and not only supports but also actively advances excellent teaching and learning. And when institutions must make cuts, reallocate resources or even modify their missions, those decisions benefit from the perspective of the faculty and staff as well as the administration. Boards, who need to be committed to the health and integrity of their institution in all its aspects, therefore need to appreciate these dynamics and foster that collaboration.

We can only hope that Mount St. Mary’s and Suffolk survive their current fraught circumstances and serve as cautionary tales that encourage other institutions to embrace effective shared governance.

Susan Resneck Pierce is president emerita of the University of Puget Sound, president of SRP Consulting and author of Governance Reconsidered and On Being Presidential, both published by Jossey-Bass.

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