Trustees/regents

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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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