A college is not like the Department of Motor Vehicles, and it should not be. You’d think that would be obvious. Apparently, it isn’t. A couple of states have lost sight of the distinction.
The first example is a series of failed searches for college or university presidents in Florida. Although the candidates who withdrew their applications are too polite to say so, it’s likely that they’re recoiling at the prospect of putting themselves and their ethical compasses at the mercy of a governor who has shown repeated disregard for academic freedom. I can’t blame them. It’s one thing for an environment to turn hostile after you get there. It’s quite another to sign up for one when the red flags are flying. Nobody wants to catch a falling knife.
The second is what’s happening at Ohio State. Its erstwhile president, Kristina Johnson, resigned. In a statement, she claimed that she didn’t see eye to eye with the board on issues of academic freedom. The typical playbook when a president resigns offers a couple options: a college could elevate someone internal, usually the provost, to serve in an interim capacity while it launches a national search. If it doesn’t want to create the awkward situation of the internal interim person applying for the permanent job, it could bring in a retiree to serve in the role, either drawing on local people or going through the Registry. (The Registry is a sort of temp firm for high-level academic leaders.) Or, if it has enough lead time, it could jump directly into a full national search before the incumbent leaves. Any of those would be considered normal.
Instead, Ohio State has decided to have the trustees as a group function as a sort of president by committee. The vice presidents will report directly to the board.
It’s a spectacularly bad idea. It’s almost impressive in its way.
At a basic level, a Board of Trustees is a committee. It’s a group. In most cases, it’s a group of people with different backgrounds and perspectives. Most trustees are chosen from industries other than higher education. That can be beneficial when they provide high-level input on ways that the college or university can serve different needs within the community. But when it comes to day-to-day operations, that is not their area of expertise. So you’ll have a committee of disparate voices trying to provide coherent leadership to the various vice presidents. It isn’t clear where the buck will stop in any given case, nor is it clear what a vice president should do if they receive contradictory guidance from different board members. A president is supposed to report to the board, but also to help educate the board on the various ground rules and to help shape directives to make them both possible and productive. Lose that buffer, and you’ll have managers of various subunits reporting to a group that lacks expertise in the daily operations of a college.
Boards are supposed to hold presidents accountable. If the board is the president, then the executive power is effectively unaccountable. A committee of nonexperts without accountability is, uh, let’s go with suboptimal.
Crisis management is likely to suffer, too. A tornado strikes campus; who makes the immediate decisions about emergency operations? A labor dispute erupts; who speaks for management? In the meantime, who cultivates donors? Who works with legislators? Who is the public face of the university?
As a very short-term bridge during quiet months, they might get lucky and get through it with minimal damage. But luck is not a plan, and the quiet months will pass quickly.
The common denominator between the Florida and Ohio examples is a failure to appreciate the difference between a college or university and a direct service agency. Public colleges are public, yes, but they’re also colleges. They have to follow some of the ground rules of higher education if they want to maintain accreditation. Concepts like academic freedom mean that sometimes somebody will discover something that runs afoul of the preferences of the ruling party. That has to be OK. Reducing college presidents to puppets of whoever is in power at the time isn’t going to build academic quality. Already Florida’s colleges are having trouble recruiting leaders who know the industry. I don’t see that changing until the state realizes its mistake.
Colleges can only do their work effectively when they have the autonomy to do so. That requires political leaders to have the patience and farsightedness not to try to exact revenge every time some professor says something that doesn’t align with the party. That used to be obvious. It should be again.