The governance crisis at the University of Virginia is over and the results are surprisingly positive. A strong president remains in place and a great university remains on track. I even applaud Governor McDonnell’s decision to reappoint the Board of Visitors chair, Helen Dragas. She said she had made a mistake and had learned from it. He accepted the apology, noted she was a good and highly capable person, and said let’s move on. The legislature agreed and re-elected her. This is the kind of class we need more of in national politics.
So what about the “But...” above? Well, the concern is rooted in our society’s tendency to overdraw lessons from events that get a lot of media attention. In this case, many people are likely to say that the message from Charlottesville is that trustees should leave the administration alone and let them manage the university and shape its future.
If trustees react in this way, it will be a disaster for American higher education.
What we should learn from Charlottesville is about how trustees challenge administrators and faculty — not whether they should.
The distinction is critical because, in today’s kinetic higher education environment, the role of trustees in both operational oversight and in setting mission is far more important than ever.
I agree that trustees should be extremely wary of involvement in the academic core — the key areas of curriculum, instruction, research agenda, and promotion and tenure.
These are certainly sensitive issues. But they shouldn’t be entirely off-limits, not least because they can’t be extricated from the question of mission, which is always squarely in the trustees’ province.
Before we get to the tough academic parts, though, here are some thoughts about the relatively more straightforward operations side.
Colleges and universities over all have higher debt ratios than in the past. There are mostly good reasons for that, but more debt should mean more vigilance. Trustees, typically drawn from business, have generally been good at financial oversight. So there’s reason for confidence. But for heaven’s sake don’t let up.
One area where trustees haven’t done such an effective job is insisting on more outsourcing and, where possible, more collaborations with other institutions. That’s a problem because colleges and universities too often suffer from the Not Invented Here syndrome and tend to show pride in the range of services and programs they offer and the number of people they employ.
To illustrate where this mentality leads, consider an example from business. Before IBM’s near-collapse into bankruptcy in 1990, its executives were ranked and compensated in large part on the number of employees in the divisions they managed. When the architecture of computing changed and the competitive heat quickly turned up to a boil, the personnel bloat nearly killed a great company. Today, companies comfortably outsource even core activities. Netflix, which absolutely depends on high-performance networking and storage, relies on Amazon for these services.
To get a synoptic view of operations issues, trustees should read Bain & Company’s study of UC-Berkeley. Critics of American higher education have tried to use this important and well-done report as part of an effort to suggest that our colleges and universities are highly inefficient. But Bain’s work doesn’t say that at all: in situations where they recommend improvement, the consultants consistently cite not cases from business but exemplary practices at other universities. The conclusion isn’t that there’s rampant inefficiency in American higher education; it’s that some universities are doing well in some areas but all aren’t optimal in everything all the time.
Not always being optimally efficient is nothing to be ashamed about — businesses aren’t either. It’s why they hire consultants at a much higher rate than universities. Of course, don’t forget to keep an open mind when you get difficult recommendations: IBM’s leaders had plenty of spot-on outside analysis well before things nosedived for them in the late 1980s. Unfortunately, the complacent management and board weren’t willing to listen.
As critical as it is for trustees to be assertive in operations, it’s now far more important for them to be visible on the super sensitive question of institutional mission and everything that flows from that.
The comments that follow speak in part to trustees at institutions that lack a clear mission. My view is this is a fairly small group. However, in today’s contentious times, it is also important for all trustees to be sure that their college or university’s mission, and the planning that supports it, is clearly articulated in a way that the public — including legislators and donors — can easily understand. Open discussion and debate is the best way to do this.
In the case of mission, the guidelines for public trustees are quite different from those for their independent peers. Trustees of the former have as their first responsibility not the institution on whose board they serve, but instead the public’s interest in higher education. Unlike private university boards, which may choose to invest in duplicative capabilities because they judge that the market requires it, public trustees must be extremely careful to avoid unnecessary duplication. Unfortunately, the kind of argument too often advanced by administrators, “What’s good for Normal State U is good for the state,” isn’t necessarily true. When trustees hear this kind of rhetoric, they should be prepared to challenge.
I can’t provide much detail in this short essay, but here are some brief suggestions of where to look for academic models of effective mission focus.
Number one on my list for university trustees is to visit just about any two-year college. For several decades now the business world has revered the concept of “lean manufacturing.” The two-year colleges know all about it. They’ve been doing “lean education” for almost that long. To illustrate from the perspective of academic programs, if there isn’t a strong market for it, two-year colleges don’t do it. And, in most cases, when they can productively cooperate with another institution in either operations or academics, they will.
University trustees will say that community colleges are different, and they’ll be right. But that doesn’t mean a visit wouldn’t be valuable — you can learn a lot just from the two-year leaders’ pragmatic attitudes and energetic approach to planning.
But studying a university or two will be necessary, so here are some models to consider.
Start with Clemson. Simply put, this university has the best approach to planning of any public institution I’ve seen. And planning hasn’t been an abstraction in Death Valley. Instead the university has used well-thought-out processes to make some very tough choices, primarily at the graduate level. Led by an extraordinary president and provost, Clemson’s faculty took a good chunk of time about a decade and a half ago to work through the options and make choices about where — which disciplinary areas and at which levels — they could compete and where they couldn’t. As a result, some programs grew with additional investment and some didn’t.
Did it work? I think it’s been a huge success in every respect. Despite very low state support, Clemson today is highly competitive. Talk to them. Visit if you can -- it’s a much nicer place than the name “Death Valley” would suggest.
My understanding of Clemson is that its rather radical strategy didn’t come from the board, but was strongly supported by it. But don’t assume a board can’t play a leading role. On to Cleveland.
Case Western Reserve University emerged from a merger in 1967 with some very good programs, some weak ones, and a less-than-stellar resource base. After over a decade of financial struggles the Board of Trustees decided that the status quo wasn’t financially viable over the long term. They decided on changes and not minor ones. Whole colleges were dropped (for example Library Science in 1986), a great many doctoral programs were effectively suspended, and investment was refocused into just a few key areas. The outcome? CWRU is very strong across the spectrum at the undergraduate level (like Clemson), and is highly focused in doctoral and professional education. The advanced programs that remain consistently compete very well with the best of their peers. CWRU had leadership problems for a while, and that slowed progress, but their strong focus kept them moving and allowed Cleveland’s University Circle to attract a president-provost team on the level of Clemson’s. They’re on the move. Go visit.
In evaluating existing programs at research universities, remember that the issue isn’t just to limit the number of disciplines that offer doctorates. The specific programs have to be focused as well. There are just a handful of places that can, for example, attempt comprehensive research and education in areas like Chemistry or Engineering. Stanford and MIT, yes. Normal State, no.
In considering program focus, one model to look at is Wright State University, which has an excellent Ph.D. in engineering that is linked to programs at Ohio State, Cincinnati, and the University of Dayton. This tightly focused program is loved by employers -- a bedrock criterion for quality that trustees should never forget.
There are doubtless other good examples of successful focus I don’t know about. But the point here is that trustees have a responsibility to be informed and then to discuss these models in public. For institutions with advanced programs, I believe commitment to this kind of analysis is a core trustee responsibility.
If you’re at a university that doesn’t have a lot of doctoral and professional programs to worry about, consider the largely untapped potential of academic collaboration. I don’t mean just a casual link here and there, but rather interdependent degree programs. “Interdependent” means that you rely on someone else to provide a field that’s critical but one where you can’t reasonably achieve high quality on your own.
To illustrate, say you have good faculty depth and quality in some traditional aspect of science but can’t compete for leading-edge people in the increasingly essential computational and molecular imaging areas.
What to do? Well, the usual option chosen by universities is to give their students a watered-down version taught by whoever they can hire.
That’s small thinking.
Why not instead partner with a research university to prepare your students at the state of the art? If Normal State contracts with Advanced State for four courses or so a year, the latter can hire another faculty member. That will make both programs stronger. This kind of arrangement wouldn’t have been reasonable 30 years ago, but today’s technology makes all kinds of sharing feasible.
Technology brings us to the question of the massive open online course (MOOC). Trustee advocacy for the MOOC is reported to have been a major cause of the Virginia board’s brief sojourn in the wilderness.
Was the trustees’ infatuation with the MOOC worth it? To answer, let’s start by asking whether this approach is a new idea or just an old one done better. My own view is it’s the latter; we’ve had media-enriched broadcast learning for a long time. Then the next question: Is instruction in a MOOC done so much better in consequence of today’s technology that it crosses a threshold to critical mass? Meaning that it justifies pervasive use? Looked at it from the perspective of students in general, I think the answer here is “no.”
Research and experience show that highly motivated and mature individuals can succeed at complicated tasks on their own. This means the stand-alone MOOC will surely benefit many focused and career-oriented adults, and by itself is a good reason for these courses to exist. Super-talented undergraduates will do well too, but don’t expect many to choose online over Stanford or MIT. They are smart, after all.
But what about those adults who are motivated but who are rusty in math and writing and generally lack confidence? These folks are unlikely to do well with pure online programs, no matter how good the materials are. For them, and for mainstream undergraduates, the best approach might be to mix some of the high-quality stuff from a MOOC into a local course. Make a MOOCshake? Sure.
How about considering some really radical ideas for our advanced technology? For example, why not use computer-based programming to reshape the curriculum so that students get modular coursework that is thoughtfully distributed across the years? Right now, we present dry general education content like science for nonmajors in a “fire and forget” first year course. We fire a stream of facts, they forget in a few weeks.
Instead, why don’t we offer strategically distributed course modules that deliver science knowledge in context — for example, connect ecological principles to a major, like business?
Again, my suggestions here aren’t for trustees to advocate some specific approach for the faculty to consider. Instead, board members should support the administration and faculty in disdaining superficial thinking in order to reflect deeply on how technology could improve the education of their own students.
In closing, some core suggestions for the busy trustee-administrator-faculty troika.
On the operations side, do outsource where you can. The principles employed by modern business really apply in this area and there’s always something important to learn from others.
If you have expensive graduate and professional programs, do ask hard questions about their relevance and don’t be swayed by departmental claims about a halo effect on institutional prestige. The reality is that weak programs don’t help anyone. And they can cause a lot of collateral damage.
Do look carefully at the opportunity to share academic programming in an innovative way. The focus here should be on benefits to students, not trying to get a virtual photo-op by riding shotgun on the latest fad.
Do not worry about the datarati and their “you didn’t do it if you didn’t measure it” mentality. Sometimes that’s right, but not always and especially not on the academic side. One little appreciated fact about standardized assessment is that getting the same measure over time necessarily ossifies the curriculum. In an era of breathtakingly rapid knowledge growth, do we want the content of our courses to be fixed in place, like an insect in ancient amber?
Do get all flinty-eyed when you discuss the debt service numbers with the president and vice president for finance. Discussions on this issue should rank comparatively low on the collegiality meter.
America’s colleges and universities are our most powerful asset in a rapidly changing economy, and the trustee system is a key part of their historical success. However, as more and more ill-informed critics suggest that U.S. higher education must be somehow “transformed,” trustees will need to be both more knowledgeable and more visible in order to effectively defend what works in the academy.
Finally, one of the most successful presidents I’ve worked with, Brother Ray Fitz of the University of Dayton, said that his goal was to be “bold but not obnoxious.” The crisis at Virginia notwithstanding, I think this is an excellent motto for trustees.
Garrison Walters, a former higher education bureaucrat, is author of the recent Total F*ing Magic: A Non-Technical Introduction to Computers and Networking.
Now that a little time has passed since Louis Freeh issued his report on the Penn State debacle, I’ve been reflecting on both the Penn State and U.Va. affairs. Reading the coverage, it seemed as though journalists and bloggers were observing a seesaw whose riders could not find equilibrium. When commentators compared the two state universities, they wrote about the relationship between presidents and trustees. The problem at Penn State, that argument ran, was that the trustees didn’t check up on the administrators. Instead, they participated in a culture that glorified football and the men associated with it. The problem at U.Va., that argument continued, was that the trustees stuck their noses in academic affairs, a place "where angels [should] fear to tread" – unless they truly understand online learning, MOOCs, hybrid courses, and perhaps even the contrast between close readings and the digital humanities.
Finding equilibrium is indeed a problem, but it is not the problem. The problem is corporatization. Not only trustees, but also politicians and administrators have bought into the current ideological assumption that higher education may once again thrive if it only becomes more business-like. The call to rationalization is not new. Nor are the characteristics of the people who are making that call. At many universities, the boards of trustees have much the same occupational distribution today as they had 30 or even 100 years ago, when in The Higher Learning in America, Thorsten Veblen wrote of how "captains of industry" were imposing their view of the world on universities.
Today’s situation seems so different, because after World War II, there was a “brief shining moment” when trustees, administrators and politicians deferred to faculty. Dedicated to leading the world in research and discovery, intent on expanding national productivity by educating the youth of the middle class and even the lower-middle class, government and corporate officials recognized professors as people who knew their stuff – as professionals who could decide which research was worthy of funding and publication and which topics were important to teach and learn. They also gave at least lip service to notions of shared governance – although it is also clear that those with a business orientation found the more idealistic liberalism of professors to be problematic. (Recall: Studies have found that people who become professors are more liberal than are the academically talented folk who enter other industries.)
Sometime in the 1980s, priorities began to shift and universities discovered that the supply of their previously preferred students – white males between the ages of 18 and 22-- was waning and the number of white women and people of color among high school graduates was growing larger. George Keller famously warned about this "revolution" in his classic 1983 book Academic Strategy. To fill the seats of classrooms and increase funds, at least some colleges and universities would have to expand their clientele. One way to do so is to accept nontraditional students, who today make up the bulk of the college-attending population. Another is to swipe undergraduates from other states and to charge them more. At Penn State’s University Park campus, in-state students pay $648 per credit and out-of-staters $1,161.
But supply, demand, and revenue streams were not the only issues. After all, to cite a waning supply of preferred students as a problem, one must be prepared to think about universities in terms of supply, demand, revenue streams, and marketing. After World War II, professionalism had been de rigueur, but corporate concerns personified as branding and marketing were to trump professionalism. Universities were to adopt facets of the institutional logic of the corporate world, as they competed for students, research money, reputation, philanthropic donations, and eventually even championship bowl wins. Instead of viewing higher education as an activity that contributed to the public good, corporate leaders, politicians, and even university administrators began to speak of it as an industry.
After drowning myself in news stories and commentary, I have come to think that Penn State and U.Va. share a common corporate concern with industrial competition, including branding. Both boards seem obsessed with risk, not in the old sense of the dangers faced when attempting to climb Mount Everest or dive off a platform 10 meters above a swimming pool. In those old examples, one faces risk by being brave. Today, like other corporatized organizations, universities face risk as what Michael Power has identified as "organized uncertainty" in his book of the same name. Sometimes you just can’t anticipate the results of even the best academic plans and organizational strategies. "The best-laid plans of mice and men" … and all that. As true of auto manufacturers, law firms, and insurance companies, the new corporatized universities care about risk as something to be managed, something that they can hope to control in order to ward off disaster. Like corporations they have departments dedicated to risk management.
The Freeh Report notes that at Penn State the Office of Risk Management "identifies and manages potential risks throughout the university related to financial, physical and reputational loss." The report states that "most of [the office’s] work centers on assessing contract-based risks," but even the inclusion of "reputation loss" is noteworthy. Supposedly, a university’s reputation contributes to the number of applications it receives and to its yield rate. Since the scandal began, applications to Penn State have risen by 1 percent and the number of donors has increased. Maybe these statistics mean that what matters is getting your name in print, as public relations specialists once assumed.
The U.Va. board's firing and rehiring of Teresa Sullivan also involved risk management. But the U.Va. Board of Visitors and the faculty cared about different risks. Apparently, members of the Board of Visitors feared that other prestigious universities would pass them in the race to become identified with online higher education; they are said to have worried that U.Va. wasn’t changing fast enough. Among the faculty the concern almost harkens back to the 1960s and 1970s: If the members of the board have so little regard for a president whom we respect and so little regard for our own professionalism, the occupationally mobile professoriate at U.Va. seemed to ask, is this a place where I want to be? Sullivan put it more directly: she worried that the actions of the Board of Visitors would encourage talented faculty to find jobs elsewhere. Not all professors can easily jump from one job to another. James Duderstadt was probably thinking of distinguished professors, like many of those found at U.Va, when in A University for the Twenty-First Century, he wrote that holding on to one's faculty can be like trying to keep frogs from leaping out of a wheelbarrow.
The Freeh Report on Penn State mentions risk and avoiding potential disaster by talking about how administrators engaged in what can be called a cover-up to protect "their brand." The Nittany Lions is more than a football team and its mascot. It is a university. Similarly, U.Va. has its brand. I don’t mean the plume-hatted cavalier whom I’ve seen swagger around at basketball games. I mean the glorification of academic integrity supposedly inherited from Thomas Jefferson, the founder of U.Va. If Joe Paterno and the Nittany Lions had personified Penn State, Thomas Jefferson’s faith in the search for knowledge as truth has symbolized U.Va. Both representations are a brand.
Penn State, U.Va. and their governing boards messed up as they entered the fray of corporate competition. Neither university could find its balance on what commentators have described as a seesaw or balancing act. Each was so intent on glorifying its brand that key people forgot that education is not a competitive game. Penn State hyped football; U.Va., its status as the first public university and a leader in higher education.
Governing a university is not a matter of balancing the concerns of the board against those of the top administrators. A university is not a seesaw. Routinely, both presidents and trustees invoke "stakeholders" to show their understanding that many groups of people feel they have an interest in a university's future. Many strategic plans mention stakeholders; Helen Dragas, chair of the U.Va. board when it moved against Sullivan, referred to the participation of stakeholders in her June 21 statement about the challenges facing the University of Virginia. But, too often, when they make key decisions, trustees and presidents ignore the pretty sentiments etched in their plans and official statements. They return to the seesaw model.
A good solution to failed risk management at each of these schools is a return to shared governance. Many professors at Penn State had decried the power of the department of athletics. Many professors at U.Va. know much more about digitization than members of the Board of Visitors. Universities boards and administrators might want to recognize that professors are a resource, not just a nuisance to be audited and held accountability for their productivity and economic contribution to their employers.
Gaye Tuchman is professor emerita of sociology at the University of Connecticut. Her books include Making News: A Study in the Construction of Reality and Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University.