Talk Therapy

In light of several recent, high-profile cases of poor communication between faculty and governing boards, AAUP advocates for regular interaction between the two groups and more shared governance.

May 30, 2013

Citing a trend toward corporate-style management across higher education, the American Association of University Professors today released new guidance concerning communication between faculty members and governing boards.

“Communication between faculties and governing boards has worsened on many campuses in recent years,” the report reads. “At a time when governing board members are increasingly drawn from the business community, some critics of the tradition of shared governance have encouraged boards to adopt top-down decision-making strategies and to intrude into decision-making areas in which the faculty traditionally has exercised primary responsibility.”

Robert Kreiser, AAUP’s associate secretary for academic freedom, tenure and governance, who helped draft the report, said previous association guidance on communication dates back to 1966, and does not include preferred methods of interaction. With the creeping influence of the business realm on higher education that has become acute in the aftermath of the 2008 fiscal crisis – particularly at public research institutions – the time was ripe for an update, he said.

Communication gaps between faculty and governing boards can distract from or hurt the core mission of an institution, Kreiser said, noting a recent spate of high-profile faculty votes of no confidence in presidents --  votes that have been rejected by boards -- including at New York University. The report also cites the tumult surrounding the resignation and reinstatement of the University of Virginia’s president during a two-week period in 2012. In that case, faculty widely supported the president, who was at odds with the board.

AAUP’s new guidance on faculty-board communication calls for "regular, open, unmediated" interaction between faculty and trustees through a liaison or conference committee made up of members of both groups. Such committees are rare, said Hans-Joerg Tiede, a professor of computer science at Illinois Wesleyan University who served as the report subcommittee chair, because “in general, presidents are hesitant to give faculty and trustees a forum for unmediated discussion.” Although it's common and can be efficient for the president to be the sole conduit for faculty-board communication, the report says, "it is not always effective in enhancing understanding between governing boards and faculties."

The report also recommends that every standing committee of the board, including the executive committee, include a faculty representative who has completed an orientation session alongside trustees. Presumably these representatives will have voting rights, especially in committees on academic affairs and other matters that are the primary responsibility of the faculty; at the very least they will participate fully in discussions. According to a 2009 Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges report on shared governance referenced in the AAUP report, 27 percent of institutions surveyed included faculty as members of the governing board;15 percent of private institutions and 13 percent of public institutions have faculty trustees with voting power. Another 14 percent of private institutions and 10 percent of public institutions have non-voting faculty trustees. AGB standing guidance recommends against faculty as voting members on boards, due to what it sees as the potential for conflict of interest.

In an e-mailed statement, Richard Legon, AGB president, said: “While AGB and AAUP have not always agreed on board and faculty relations, we commend AAUP for focusing on the issue of faculty and board awareness of each other’s roles. This can only help ensure that shared governance works as institutions deal with the critical issues facing higher education. In today’s environment, boards must be appropriately engaged in ensuring academic quality and a strong learning environment. To facilitate this, boards need to have a greater understanding of what faculty do and vice versa. We at AGB are fully committed to helping both parties understand their responsibilities.”

Ronald Ehrenberg, a professor of economics and labor relations at Cornell University who served on that institution’s board as an elected faculty member and now serves as a gubernatorial appointee to the Board of Trustees of the State University of New York, recently surveyed faculty members who had served on boards of trustees. A common concern among faculty is that administrations control the flow of information and that “boards are in the pocket of administrators,” he said. Consequently, he agreed with AAUP’s recommendation for conference committees composed only of trustees and faculty. But having to include a faculty member on every standing committee – such as those related to audits or financial management, in which he or she may not be expert – seems unnecessary and could be logistically difficult, he said. However, he added, faculty on boards should be privy to committee activities and attend meetings if they can.

Although Ehrenberg said there have been examples of top-down management by boards in recent memory (in his own article on the topic in the current issue of AAUP's journal, Academe, he calls them “activist” trustees), he also wondered if the AAUP report overstated the business reach into higher education leadership. “I’d like to see the data on that,” he said.

Although it’s hoped that more institutions will adopt better means of communication between faculty and governing boards, even the best mechanisms won’t function without goodwill between groups, Kreiser said. “The board can’t view the faculty as the enemy and the faculty can’t view the board as the enemy. It’s getting back to that whole notion of shared governance.”



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