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.
The long-simmering tensions related to race, ethnicity, inclusion and diversity in higher education have reached the boiling point nationally. The headlines regarding protests and demands, not only by students but also by faculty and staff members, at Claremont McKenna College, Ithaca College, the University of Missouri, Yale University and elsewhere have put such issues firmly on the agendas of boards of trustees everywhere, if they were not there already.
And those recent controversies probably have added a sense of urgency to the conversations. While some boards have been giving these matters some attention forsome time, we have now reached a tipping point where all boards must step up to partner in leadership with the president.
Regardless of trustees’ personal or political views on affirmative action and other policies, boards have an important role to play in their fiduciary as well as strategic roles with respect to race and inclusion at their institutions and within the state systems that they govern. The following are some specific steps that boards should consider. They should:
Ask for numbers and climate data. Boards should request meaningful data related to race, ethnicity and socioeconomic diversity; discuss the data and trends over the past three to five years; and understand the implications of what they learn.
Beyond the data on enrollment, retention and graduation rates by race and ethnicity, Pell eligibility, and gender, boards should ask for more granular data to identify meaningful trends. In what degree programs are students of different races and ethnicities enrolling? How well are different demographics of students progressing across these various degree programs?
For instance, are white students succeeding in STEM at different rates than minority students? Does a higher percentage of minority students leave after junior year as compared to other types of students? Or do those students not return as sophomores at different rates than majority students? What about admissions and yield patterns by race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status?
Another type of data to collect relates to campus climate, which differs from asking for information that the institution already has. The methodologies often include surveys, focus groups and interviews. Climate studies may be a significant undertaking, yet they can yield keen insights because they allow personal stories to emerge. They help leaders understand the actual experience of students, faculty and staff in ways that numbers alone cannot.
Ensure a comprehensive diversity plan. In addition to the need to understand current and emerging issues, boards should ensure that the institution has an intentional plan to encourage campus diversity and equity for students, faculty and staff. Such questions include: Is the plan appropriate? Does it address the right elements? Is it consistent with other institutional goals and priorities, such as those outlined in the strategic plan? Are the milestones and metrics sensible? How realistic is the timeline? Does it clarify who is responsible for what?
Hold the president accountable. A primary responsibility of boards is to ensure progress on institutional milestones and goals, and they do this by holding the president accountable. In turn, the board should be assured that the president is holding his or her staff and the faculty accountable for progress, as well. By being explicit about their expectations, the board sends an important signal that it too cares about equity in a sustained and systematic manner.
That said, any new goals must work in concert with other presidential priorities. Unrealistic goals and a constantly changing set of priorities do little to advance the institution or provide an effective North Star for progress.
Support the president. When the institution faces difficult and challenging issues -- as those involving race, diversity and inclusivity frequently are -- a board will also often need to counsel and support the president. Many presidents have and will come under fire for lack of perceived progress on objectives related to diversity and equity. While some deserve the criticisms they receive, others are and have been working diligently on this agenda.
Given the sense of frustration on many campuses, the way forward is often unclear, with no road map. There are no simple, proven strategies or silver-bullet solutions. If progress on diversity were easy, higher education -- and the nation -- would be farther along on these lasting challenges.
Acknowledge complexity. Change in the academy can be difficult and seem slow, much to the frustration of some trustees. The complex and often contentious issues of diversity and inclusion are adaptive challenges, not technical problems with quick fixes or clear answers. In fact, treating these issues as technical problems in order to apply a tried solution may only exacerbate them.
Instead, boards must work with the president, staff, faculty and students to examine the issues, acknowledge the complexity of views of multiple stakeholders, think critically about them, define what can be done and take steps forward -- in some cases boldly, and in others more incrementally.
Make sure a campus protest plan is in place. Headline-grabbing protests have occurred at a handful of campuses and are likely to unfold at others. It is impossible to say which institutions might face significant protests. Boards should help ensure that their campuses are prepared for possible protests and know their role if such protests emerge. Intentional conversations with campus leaders can help articulate a strategy and minimize any risks to people, property and reputations.
Develop a media strategy specifically for the board. An effective approach includes clarifying questions with the board such as: Who speaks for the board? Who crafts the talking points? What do rank-and-file board members say or not say if they are approached by the media?
Any communication strategies also need to attend to social media. How are the institution and the board monitoring it? What are the means of communication that the board should pursue or try to minimize? What are the priority outlets where the board and institution should focus their attention? How agile can such media strategies be if the platforms shift, from, say, Twitter to Instagram?
Discuss lessons learned from other industries, fields or sectors. Many trustees are highly effective leaders in their own industries and fields. They may have lessons and insights to share from outside of higher education that can help campus leaders.
For instance, many corporations and nonprofit organizations have made tremendous strides related to diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Others may have lessons to share from failed efforts that can also be illuminating. Boards should not shy away from serving as counselors when they have insights to share.
At the same time, savvy boards know that not all ideas from corporate or other settings transfer smoothly into higher education. Discovering what applies well or not can only happen through a candid dialogue between the board and the administration.
Look in the mirror. Most boards themselves have a lot of work to do regarding their own diversity. According to the most recent survey of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, the racial and ethnic diversity of boards has not increased significantly over many years. Thus, boards should consider the ways in which issues of diversity, inclusion, voice, power and perspective play out in their own boardrooms.
Key questions to ask include: How diverse is the board? To what extent does it mirror the campus or larger community? What are the experiences of minority board members? Do they feel their voices matter consistently? How well has the board retained minority members? Do they hold positions of board leadership?
Such conversations can be difficult to frame and hold, much like what is occurring on college campuses -- yet they are essential for the board to have. People on the campus must know the board is as serious about addressing such issues within itself as it is within the institution.
Build the campus culture by design, not default. Values matter greatly in the academy. In their dialogues with key stakeholders, boards should always think about the campus culture they want to build and the values they hold most dear and want to perpetuate. Those values should be pervasive throughout the campus -- so embedded in the culture (part of the ethos of the place) that they define all interactions and are defended at all costs. Boards should spend time learning how students experience the climate and culture, what shapes the student experience, and whether that differs across diverse groups and individuals.
Listen to students, faculty and staff. Trustees often are most comfortable in a problem-solving mode. But what may better serve their institutions is simply to be able to listen and empathize with students, withholding immediate judgment. Boards must remember that the heart of the matter is about students, their experience and their success. Moving too fast to solutions without understanding the nuance of the issues may provide a short-term sense of progress but create more significant challenges in the future. Building bridges between the board and students and other groups on the campus may be more important now than it has been in the last decade.
In sum, the challenges of race/ethnicity and equity are longstanding in the academy. Ten years ago, the American Council on Education released a report aimed at new presidents about leadership strategies for campus diversity,Leadership Strategies for Advancing Campus Diversity. The insights still resonate today, because unfortunately the challenges remain even if the stakes are higher now. In addition to the work of administrators, faculty and staff, board members have the potential to add value in creating a campus culture that is truly open, welcoming, respectful, diverse and inclusive.