EXECUTIVE POSITIONS

Two legal cases illustrate growing tensions over rights of transgender students at Christian colleges

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As Christian colleges seek exemptions from parts of some federal laws, two institutions face legal challenges to their treatment of transgender students -- and Education Department exempts one from part of Title IX.

Essay calls for the preservation of presidential email

For decades now, email has been the preferred form of communication for individuals in large and small organizations, including colleges and universities. The impact of the use of email on the need for vital primary sources for institutional histories, however, has been little noticed, let alone addressed. And the clock is ticking.

David Skorton, president of Cornell University (where I have taught and served as an administrator for 30 years), receives between 150 and 200 emails each day. He replies to virtually all of them. The volume of email traffic (perhaps 100,000 notes a year per person) is about the same for the provost and many of the vice presidents and deans at Cornell. Like telephone conversations, which are often informal and irreverent, with a mix of the personal and the professional, their emails can be more important – and more candid – than snail mail letters.

It is not entirely clear who owns emails. Lawyers at private colleges and universities claim that all business records and communications, including correspondence conducted on computers, iPads or iPhones purchased and maintained by the employer, are the property of the institution. In many states, email records at public colleges and universities are covered by open records laws, and can become public as a result. Many experts acknowledge, however, that few colleges and universities have policies that explicitly engage this issue with reference to email.

Past practice, moreover, has permitted presidents, provosts and deans (and, for that matter, faculty and staff) to review their own correspondence, be it in the form of hard copy or emails, before deciding what material is personal and what “documents,” if any, should be housed in library archives. It should not be surprising, then, that many college and university officials routinely delete their incoming and outgoing emails, rendering them difficult to recover and doomed to extinction when the computer that houses them is discarded.

Given the volume – and the sometimes sensitive content – of email exchanges, it seems likely that few, if any, academic leaders will have sufficient time or be inclined to conduct a comprehensive review of their “files.” Nor, I suspect, will they choose to allow a third party to make decisions about what items to include or exclude. Absent a formal policy governing this correspondence, which may or may not resemble the preserve everything that has “documentary or evidential value” approach taken by the litigation and freedom of information-conscious federal government and applied to many state employees, it may well be that in the 21st century, the official “papers” of college and university officials will lack vitally important information about decisions made during their tenure.

In my view, boards of trustees should act – with a sense of urgency. They might begin by appointing a task force, composed of professional historians, lawyers, board members, and administrators, to recommend procedures for an independent review of the correspondence of presidents and provosts. Although a mandate that all communications should reside in library archives might have a chilling effect on email exchanges (and boost the telephone bills of academic leaders), it should be considered as well. Equally important, boards of trustees should set aside funds for the review – and for cataloging presidential and provostial papers (having just completed a history of Cornell from 1940 to the present, co-authored with my colleague Isaac Kramnick, I can attest to the massive challenges posed by uncataloged collections, which contain millions of documents).

In addition to making possible more accurate institutional histories, complete and accessible presidential "papers" might well help sitting presidents facing tough decisions, by allowing them to understand what their predecessors considered, said and did in similar situations.

Such an approach will cost a considerable amount of money, but even at a time in which resources are tight, the alternative – a less complete, more sanitized, and impoverished account of the history of colleges and universities – is far too steep a price to pay. Emails are, in a sense, an endangered species: it’s in our interest to design a practical plan to preserve and protect them.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

 

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Essay on why all academics should oppose ouster of U. of Texas president

Like our fellow Americans, we planned to spend the July 4 holiday weekend with our families and friends. Instead, on the late afternoon of Independence Day, we found our email inboxes near to bursting with reports that the president of the University of Texas at Austin, Bill Powers, had received an ultimatum -- resign, or be fired this week -- from the chancellor of the University of Texas System, Francisco Cigarroa. The timing of this alarming news regarding our president, and the short timeline, seem very odd. Chancellor Cigarroa had announced earlier this year that he will be stepping down to return to his prior career in academic medicine. In addition, many faculty feel it cannot be a coincidence that this announcement came during a national holiday in the summer session when the population of the university community is at its lowest.

While relationships are often strained among UT Austin, its parent organization UT System, and the Board of Regents that provides oversight of multiple campuses and health science centers across the state, we were completely blindsided by this "July 4 Coup." We first learned about events through the media, and we are still waiting to learn the basis for the chancellor's decision. In this age of ever-increasing rules and mandates from the Board of Regents to improve transparency and accountability, we call upon Chancellor Cigarroa to explain his actions, to allow the faculty and other stakeholders at UT-Austin to have a voice, and to listen to what we have to say.

Certainly, any decision to terminate Bill Powers's presidency is independent of his exceptional competence as a leader and visionary in higher education. President Powers has demonstrated an irrefutable ability to successfully lead a university of over 50,000 students and faculty members in good times and bad. Indeed, as chair of the Association of American Universities, he is a "president among presidents" in higher education.

As the 2013, 2014, and 2015 chairs elected to lead UT Austin's Faculty Council, we have worked closely with Bill Powers since he took the helm in 2006. From Hillary Hart, current chair: "In my years on the UT-Austin Faculty Council, and 27 years as a faculty member at the university, I have never seen a president so devoted to students and faculty and so open to innovative ways to deliver high-quality higher education. It seems extremely shortsighted to eject Bill Powers before he can finish the initiatives he has championed in partnership with the very UT System that is now threatening his presidency: programs to increase the four-year graduation rate, to empower faculty to develop innovative courses -- efforts that embody UT Austin's motto of ‘what starts here changes the world.’ ”

These are volatile times for higher education in Texas, and the country needs to pay close attention to events as they unfold. A similar, albeit not identical, situation happened at the University of Virginia in June 2012, when President Teresa Sullivan was forced to resign by that university’s Board of Visitors. Events at Virginia turned into a public relations nightmare, with several prominent faculty members talking about leaving, a loss of donations from alumni (until Sullivan was reinstated), and scorn from the entire country. Interestingly and importantly, it was ultimately the backlash from the faculty that seems to have made the greatest difference in U.Va.'s reappointing Sullivan as president. Among the similarities between the U.Va. and the UT situation, it is interesting that faculty at U.Va. learned of Sullivan's forced resignation on a hot summer Sunday.

Like our counterparts at U.Va., UT Austin faculty members, while famed for independent-minded behavior, are fiercely protective and proud of our university and the president who leads us. Although we have not been heard -- yet -- our voices will be loud, unambiguous, and unanimous in moving forward.

The forced resignation or firing of President Powers, if it happens, will irreparably damage UT Austin's reputation across the state and country, and around the world. His firing would destabilize an exceptionally productive and internationally respected institute of higher learning and research, resulting in a loss of productivity and ultimately, a decline in the quality of education for our students. We cannot believe this is a desirable outcome to leaders at UT System.

A case in point is the new Dell Medical School under development on the Austin campus. The university is in the critical early stages of establishing roots in the medical community, hiring a top-notch faculty, and attracting the country's best students. This will prove exceedingly difficult to achieve in an environment that may, to external appearances, appear hostile. We believe that Chancellor Cigarroa, a talented transplantation surgeon, will understand the consequences of a missed opportunity to build a highly innovative new medical school at the UT System's flagship university.

The July 4 Coup seems to us unmerited, unjustified, and unacceptable.

Author/s: 
Andrea C. Gore, Hillary Hart and William Beckner

Andrea C. Gore, who will be chair of the UT Faculty Council in 2015-16, is Gustavus and Louise Pfeiffer Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Hillary Hart, chair of the council during 2013-14, is distinguished senior lecturer in civil, architectural and environmental engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

William Beckner, the 2014-15 chair of the council, is the Paul V. Montgomery Memorial Centennial Professor of Mathematics at the University of Texas at Austin.

 

U. Colorado System survey examines political climate and attitudes

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Controversial survey of political climate at University of Colorado finds (to no one's surprise) that conservatives are in the minority, but also found that 96 percent of students believe their instructors promote respectful classroom environments.

Professor says Brooklyn College missed chance to get millions from Koch Foundation

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Brooklyn College professor accuses administrators, allegedly afraid of controversy involving the foundation of the brothers who bankroll many conservative politicians, of passing on a chance at millions.

Discussion focuses on envisioning faculty models of the future

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Adjuncts became the majority teaching force haphazardly over many decades, participants at TIAA-CREF symposium say. Now it's time to focus on creating better ways to employ the non-tenured.

Supreme Court says First Amendment protects truthful speech by community college employee

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U.S. Supreme Court rules unanimously that a community college employee had First Amendment protection when he testified under oath about an Alabama legislator's no-show job.

AAUP votes to censure Northeastern Illinois U. over academic freedom dispute

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AAUP censures Northeastern Illinois for alleged violation of former professor's academic freedom in tenure denial. Draft of new policy questions ties to Confucius Institutes.

Winthrop board moves to fire president days after report about her husband being paid

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Days after reports that Winthrop U. gave part-time work to husband of its president, board moves to fire her.

Essay on the negative role being played by too many trustees of colleges

Over the past couple of years we have experienced several difficult and high profile situations regarding trustees  Most notably, Pennsylvania State University’s board appeared to know too little as a horrific scandal broke, the University of Virginia’s board moved to oust a president over the objections of most of the campus, and the University of Texas board has been consumed over whether to get rid of the president at Austin, who so far has survived.

Time will tell if these boards actually learn something from these challenging situations and become much better at governing their institutions but I have my doubts.... A survey last year by Gallup and Inside HIgher Ed found many presidents have doubts about their governing boards.

I want to highlight a critical issue facing higher education over the next decade: the quality of board governance in our institutions of higher learning. If we are going to deal effectively with the many complex and ambiguous challenges we face, we will need the very best boards possible.

Once in a while, we see a high profile situation burst upon the scene but I know that  there are scores of these difficult situations happening throughout our campuses that never get the publicity or see the light of day. It is as if poor board governance is something that is known  about, but rarely talked about in an open forum.

Over the past 25 years I have had the opportunity to work with over 100 boards of trustees.  I have found most trustees to be intelligent, dedicated and thoughtful stewards of their institutions. Generally, I have found that 80 percent of board members I have worked with to be excellent trustees who do their homework, share their expertise and wisdom, provide support financially and stay out of operations.  In short, they are a strategic asset to their institutions. 

Another 15 percent are “fair to middlin.” They “attend” board meetings but really don't make much of a strategic contribution to their institution. In fact, if they didn't meet, it wouldn't really matter.

The remaining 5 percent are my greatest concern. These trustees can cause real damage to the institutions they serve by acting in dysfunctional ways. They play petty politics with almost everything; try to micromanage the institution; attempt to go around the president and lead from the shadows; they tend to be critical of faculty but not knowledgeable or curious about faculty life and offer simple solutions to complex and sticky challenges.

Over the past several years, I have talked with many presidents who believe this small group of toxic boards is growing in size and impact and migrating north towards 10 percent of all boards. We simply cannot afford this.

Let me provide  some real and recent examples of these toxic boards from my own consulting experience and the negative impact they have on the institutions they are supposed to govern.

1. One institution I have worked with has  had five presidents in seven years! Given that the average tenure for a president is about seven years, what went wrong here? Did the board members question their effectiveness after the third failed presidency? How about the fourth?

Did they ever discuss why they were so bad at selecting the right president for their campus? Or that their expectations were either unreasonable or poorly communicated? Who asks the board these tough questions?

Did they ever think about the negative impact this kind of rapid turnover would have on the  campus culture? On the senior team? On students? Did they discuss how all these early exits  create an almost impossible situation for a new president? What talented leader would want to  be the sixth or seventh president of this campus?

2. Another institution I am familiar with had five  board committees (e.g., financial, student affairs) for many years. With a new board chair transition, they have increased the number of committees to 14! What's going on here?  Is this strategic oversight or micromanaging? This board is now getting deep into the operations of almost everything on campus. This is not good.

The recent and pervasive financial “challenges” many campuses are experiencing have created the “opportunity” for many boards to become deeply involved in the details, something they are both interested in and quite good at. Unfortunately, I have found that once these kinds of boards are “involved” in the operations and details, they find it difficult to extricate themselves. Their interest slows down decision-making and execution on the campus because administrators find themselves double checking the details and second guessing themselves. Who tells the board chair that more than doubling the number of committees just might not be a  good idea?

3. With another situation, I was working with a veteran president who was transitioning into his third presidency. He was excited about the new possibilities he could help realize and was eager to get started. His enthusiasm was short-lived. In his first official meeting with the board chair, he was handed a list of 105 “strategic objectives” that he was expected to accomplish over the next several years.

Over the next few weeks, I was involved in several “sensitive” and intense conversations with the board chair and the president in an attempt to whittle down the ridiculously long list of objectives by two-thirds and sequence them over time. It  was a grueling task.

If this veteran president didn't have the experience, political savvy and courage to collegially challenge the suggested list of objectives and engage the board chair in a robust and honest dialogue, he would have failed at attempting to do too much.

What gave the board chair the notion that he was supposed to provide a detailed game plan for  this experienced president? Did he think that the way you run a manufacturing plant is similar  to how you lead a campus?

4. I know of two first time presidents who, unfortunately, share the same dilemma. Their board chairs call each of them daily to “check up” on things. Both presidents dread these phone calls and report that they create a great deal of stress. Who tells the board chair that these “check-ups”, although possibly well-intentioned, might be ineffective? It would take a great deal of courage for the new presidents to constructively challenge the board chair's deep interest in their work given the fragile nature of a burgeoning relationship.

5. I recently attended a board meeting at the invitation of a president I have known for years. It felt rather uncomfortable from the very beginning and there was tension in the air. I was stunned to see the board chair openly berate a vice president in full view of the board and cabinet. The chair strongly disagreed with the findings of the report the vice president presented and questioned its validity. He simply “knew” that the data was wrong and derisively asked him to recheck his data. He ended up raising his voice and slammed his hand on the table repeatedly for emphasis.

I thought I was in a bar watching an avid football fan rant and rave about the opposition. The  behavior was inappropriate, disrespectful and stupid. But who tells the board chair that this  kind of behavior cannot be tolerated?

6.  Lastly, I know of two situations in the past three years where the Faculty Senate voted “no confidence” in the board. In talking with the board chair of one institution, I was surprised to learn that many of the board members  questioned the importance of a no confidence  vote. “Did it really matter” they asked. It most certainly does and is a diagnostic that they are governing an institution they clearly don't understand .

In the second one, something startling  was communicated by the board chair, who believed that the “no confidence” vote was a good sign, that “things were changing” and that faculty were “getting the message” that the board meant business, and a new day was coming. Unfortunately, the new day will be a bad one,if the faculty have no faith in the competence and integrity of the board.

These are exceptions to be sure but I use them to highlight a pernicious dynamic that seems to be emerging on some campuses. Our very best boards know how to govern wisely and we are in their debt. We need to neutralize the negative impact of the toxic boards, as soon as possible

The Association of Governing Boards is creating a commission to “rethink” the role of governing boards, a laudable task given the complex changes we are experiencing in higher education. The individuals who are leading this effort have wonderful reputations and deep knowledge about trusteeship. I hope the outcome of their deliberations and discussions helps create a set of clear and strong recommendations for boards, presidents and senior leaders to consider.

It would be best if they could avoid lofty principles like, “build a collaborative relationship between the board and senior administrators” or “create a respectful climate for debate and disagreement” or “collaboratively clarify the roles and decision rules for trustees.”

I think real specifics might be needed here – not platitudes.

I would suggest the commission actively solicit the “war stories” of sitting and recent presidents so that  their recommendations help deal with real and difficult situations. That will add real value to how we will govern our institutions of higher education going forward.
 

Patrick Sanaghan is president of the Sanaghan Group, an organizational consulting firm that works with leaders in higher education.

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