The Trustee-Faculty Relationship

New report finds "generally healthy, constructive" governance roles, but some wonder whether the right people were asked.
January 25, 2010

Relations between faculty members and trustees are generally healthy, although each group could benefit from more education about the other's role in governance, according to a report issued Friday by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

The report offers data on patterns of trustee-faculty interaction and on attitudes, while also suggesting good practices to encourage healthy relationships in the shared governance of colleges. While the recommendations -- which largely focus on the need for more education -- are generally not controversial, the study is being criticized for using surveys of administrators -- with only a minority of trustees and no faculty members -- as the basis for its findings. The report was sponsored by TIAA-CREF.

Among the findings of the report:

  • Most colleges (90 percent) have a faculty senate or similar governing body. At 59 percent of institutions, this body is considered "policy influencing," while 29 percent consider it "advisory" and 13 percent consider it "policy making."
  • The influence of these bodies is considered "important" at half of institutions, and "very important" at 42 percent. The report notes that "while many critics have expressed concern regarding faculty senates that lack influence, these presidents, chief academic officers, and board chairs said they are ubiquitous and influential."
  • Most boards (61 percent) routinely approve tenure recommendations presented by administrators, with only 23 percent of institutions reporting that they regularly review the qualifications of tenure candidates. Private institutions are more likely than publics (26 percent vs. 8 percent) to review candidates' qualifications.
  • Those surveyed either agreed (43 percent) or strongly agreed (54 percent) "that trustees, administrators, and faculty typically demonstrate collegiality, respect, tolerance, and civility towards each other.
  • Most respondents agreed (54 percent) or strongly agreed (20 percent) that "policies and practices of shared governance are known, understood, and accepted by trustees, administrators, and the faculty," although a significant minority either didn't know or disagreed.
  • Most colleges have orientation programs for new trustees and most include background on the "culture of academic decision making" but only 37 percent specifically address faculty promotion and tenure and only 39 percent discuss academic freedom.

While the report portrays a generally positive trustee-faculty relationship, it also notes negative views that trustees have of professors and vice versa -- as seen through the eyes of those surveyed. One college president reported that a problem was the "hyper-negative attitudes of most senior faculty toward anything remotely resembling modern corporate governance." Another president spoke of "faculty confusion of 'shared governance' with 'independent authority' " and "board impatience with [the] slow pace of academic deliberations, lack of business pragmatism, esoteric scholarly interests."

One board chair said: "Faculty and trustees approach the institution with differing perspectives: the faculty tend to look at the present -- the students, current programs, their effectiveness. The trustees’ responsibility is to approach the institution with a view toward the long term -- the resources, facilities, programs, personnel, students, and alumni -- to ensure that the institution moving forward has the ability to deliver its education in increasingly effective ways and with the resources to ensure long-term well being. That difference in perspective can lead to conflict. Clearly necessary to educate the faculty to take a longer view, and to educate trustees to understand the faculty lens. More engagement and education will be important."

Most of the recommendations coming out of the survey stress the need for orientation of both trustees and faculty members on their roles in governance. The report discourages the placement of faculty members on boards but encourages their inclusion on board committees, especially those dealing with academic issues. Further, the report says that many boards could benefit from having more board members who have worked in higher education.

The report also notes that lack of time can limit trustee-faculty communication and time for governance roles, and suggests that shifts away from the tenure track could add to these pressures. "One challenge is the increasing number of part-time, contingent, and non-tenure track faculty who lack either the time or the opportunity for meaningful participation in institutional governance," the report says.

The survey results are based on surveys sent to institutions and completed by a mix of administrators and trustees. Responses came from 232 chief executive officers, 182 chief academic officers, 98 board chairs and 20 system heads.

Cary Nelson, national president of the American Association of University Professors, said that the report includes "a good deal of useful -- if sometimes disheartening -- statistical information." He said that he applauded the recommendations for improved orientation programs and for appointing more people with higher education work experience to college boards. But he called AGB's view that faculty members shouldn't serve on boards of their institutions "regrettable" and said it was "preposterous" to say that such service would represent a conflict of interest.

Further, he said that while the survey results "largely expressed satisfaction with the status quo, that result amounts to a self-evaluation, since only administrators and board members were polled."

Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, who has in the past criticized AGB studies for relying on administrators' views, said she saw the same problem with this analysis. "They purport to be offering insights, but why aren't board members being asked what they think? For that matter, why aren't faculty being asked?" The ACTA generally calls for trustees to take a more independent stance in questioning administrators and in pushing for a traditional college curriculum.

Neal said she agreed that trustees need more thorough orientations on how colleges and universities work, but she said she didn't accept the implication of the report that the information should come from administrators. The report "reveals the prevalent view that academic governance means that administrations are in charge."

Had a survey been done of trustees and not administrators, Neal said she thinks the results would have been different. "I think what's missing is the frustrations we've seen with trustees who don't feel that they are allowed to ask questions, and that they don't have access to independent information," she said. She also warned that the AGB report's call for more collaboration among various groups in campus governance "can be code for empowering faculties and presidents while diminishing trustee power."

Merrill P. Schwartz, director of research for AGB, said that the administrators and trustees who were interviewed "are part of AGB's membership, we have direct access to them, and we're committed to supporting them in their work by sharing with them best practices."

As to faculty voices, Schwartz said that AGB consulted with AAUP officials on the project and would love to see a survey of faculty members in the future, but "we don't have funding at this time" to conduct one.

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