Shared governance in higher education is threatened by deep suspicions between many faculty members on the one hand and some trustees and senior administrators on the other. In other settings, I have sought to bust the most common, and often derogatory, myths held about faculty members; I believe presidents have a responsibility to dispel these damaging legends at every opportunity. I’m rarely asked to talk about the other side of the coin -- the dark myths about board members and administrators. In my many years as a faculty member and now as a president, here are some of the myths I’ve heard (and sometimes repeated) over the years:
Board members are “suits” who engage in drive-by management.
They are more concerned about the picture selected for the cover of the college catalog than about the content found inside the catalog.
Members are motivated to have bragging rights about their college or alma mater while at their country club or at dinner parties.
Board members are bean counters who want to run a college like a business.
Members are motivated by nostalgia for the “good old days,” which they perceive to be long gone and which they want to revive.
These myths falsely suggest that the drivers of board participation are status and control; when believed by faculty and administrators, the assumptions related to these myths stand in the way of true shared governance. The strength of our nation’s postsecondary system is rooted in the shared responsibility among faculty, boards and administrators to effectively govern institutions of higher education. Board members share the same motivations held by most faculty members and administrators -- they had a great experience in college and want to find ways to share that experience and the benefits of an education with others.
While board members might be nostalgic for the “good old days,” most board members are more open to change than are many members of the internal community. They understand that colleges, like all institutions, need to keep pace with changing times or they risk becoming irrelevant in today’s market. Like faculty members, they are committed to the college’s mission and hope that, in spite of changing times, the college does not drift from its mission. Board members aren’t interested in talking a topic to death and for that reason are accused of drive-by management. It is important to note that efficiency should not be confused with recklessness.
The true skill sets of boards often are not tapped -- they have more to bring to the table than an “aye” vote on a motion, a handshake at a pep rally, a deep pocket for donations or a name on an annual report. Board members often represent professions from which higher education can learn. While bankers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, doctors and other board members from outside the academy may initially be baffled by the inner workings of shared governance, most are quick to understand it and find similarities in their world.
I once told a board member, then the CEO of Sara Lee, that working with tenured faculty members was quite different from most interactions in her world. Without hesitation, she reminded me that key executives at Sara Lee effectively had tenure because of their high level of skill and importance to the success of the organization. Top-down decision-making is fraught with problems, she explained, and most successful businesses are managed by a team. Instead of lamenting tenure, she reminded the board that it must find ways to engage faculty in strengthening shared governance such that the institution can move forward.
Because Augustana had worked on strengthened shared governance, we were able to act and respond more nimbly through the recession. After missing our enrollment targets at the depth of the recession, the board and the administration set aside a significant pool of funds from which the faculty could develop new majors and programs that, consistent with our mission, might more effectively recruit students.
Faculty members developed and approved seven new majors. Our opera professor even recommended, and helped us implement, an ice hockey club program. These new programs have allowed the college to return to record enrollment levels. We could not have developed these programs together if we had been hamstrung by believing the myths about each other.
But, as we all know, board members’ business acumen is just the tip of the iceberg for board expertise and involvement. Most board members spend an extraordinary amount of time on their volunteer service commitment to the college. Attendance at meetings serves as only a small part of the time investment. For most, service and financial support of the college will be their life’s legacy, with service on the board among the most satisfying accomplishments in their lives.
Nevertheless, the desire to make a difference is often confused by non-board members of the campus community with the desire to command control. While some board members may express a desire to get involved in the day-to-day operations of a program or unit, remember that micromanagement occurs only when we create an environment that supports it. A board should be focused on the vision and fiscal health of an institution, which is facilitated by the faculty and administration. It is our responsibility to set the stage for the board, allowing them to focus on providing thoughtful guidance.
I believe colleges and universities could learn a valuable lesson from the health care industry. With every increasing regulation, many hospitals have determined that doctors, administrators and boards can be effective only if there is a high degree of alignment on a common mission, common set of goals and shared measures of success. For higher education, institutions cannot be effective if faculty, administrators and boards each view the issues facing our institutions differently. The myths I described only serve to get in the way of needed alignment and good communication.
To foster greater alignment between the board and the faculty at Augustana, we look for more ways for faculty and board members to interact. In addition to making sure the elected leadership of the faculty participates in board meetings, we seek broader engagement of the faculty at board dinners, board receptions and board retreats. For alignment to work, administrators need to be highly transparent with both boards and faculty, making sure to share the same information with both.
It is true that faculty members, administrators and board members, by virtue of their positions, do look at their institutions differently. But when faculty and board members interact, they can capitalize on their differing vantage points to learn from each other. When faculty members and board members dispel myths through greater and more thoughtful interaction, they are sure to build strong institutions for the benefit of the students we serve.
Steven C. Bahls is president of Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill.
In its 1966 declaration on professional ethics, the American Association of University Professors, the professoriate’s representation organization, states:
"Professors, guided by a deep conviction of the worth and dignity of the advancement of knowledge, recognize the special responsibilities placed upon them....They hold before them the best scholarly and ethical standards of their discipline.… They acknowledge significant academic or scholarly assistance from (their students)."
Notwithstanding such pronouncements, higher education recently has provided the public with a series of ethical solecisms, most spectacularly the University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill’s recidivistic plagiarism and duplicitous claim of Native American ancestry along with his denunciations of 9/11 victims. While plagiarism and fraud presumably remain exceptional, accusations and complaints of such wrong doing increasingly come to light.
Some examples include Demas v. Levitsky at Cornell, where a doctoral student filed a legal complaint against her adviser’s failure to acknowledge her contribution to a grant proposal; Professor C. William Kauffman’s complaint against the University of Michigan for submitting a grant proposal without acknowledging his authorship; and charges of plagiarism against by Louis W. Roberts, the now-retired classics chair at the State University of New York at Albany. Additional plagiarism complaints have been made against Eugene M. Tobin, former president of Hamilton College, and Richard L. Judd, former president of Central Connecticut State University.
In his book Academic Ethics, Neil Hamilton observes that most doctoral programs fail to educate students about academic ethics so that knowledge of it is eroding. Lack of emphasis on ethics in graduate programs leads to skepticism about the necessity of learning about ethics and about how to teach it. Moreover, nihilist philosophies that have gained currency within the academy itself such as Stanley Fish’s “antifoundationalism” contribute to the neglect of ethics education. . For these reasons academics generally do not seriously consider how ethics education might be creatively revived. In reaction to the Enron corporate scandal, for instance, some business schools have tacked an ethics course onto an otherwise ethically vacuous M.B.A. program. While a step in the right direction, a single course in a program otherwise uninformed by ethics will do little to change the program’s culture, and may even engender cynicism among students.
Similarly, until recently, ethics education had been lacking throughout the American educational system. In response, ethicists such as Kevin Ryan and Karen Bohlin have advocated a radical renewal of ethics education in elementary schools. They claim that comprehensive ethics education can improve ethical standards. In Building Character in Schools, Ryan and Bohlin compare an elementary school to a polis, or Greek city state, and urge that ethics be fostered everywhere in the educational polis.
Teachers, they say, need to set standards and serve as ethical models for young students in a variety of ways and throughout the school. They find that manipulation and cheating tend to increase where academic achievement is prized but broader ethical values are not. They maintain that many aspects of school life, from the student cafeteria to the faculty lounge, ought to provide opportunities, among other things, to demonstrate concern for others. They also propose the use of vision statements that identify core virtues along with the implementation of this vision through appropriate involvement by staff and students.
We would argue that, like elementary schools, universities have an obligation to ethically nurture undergraduate and graduate students. Although the earliest years of life are most important for the formation of ethical habits, universities can influence ethics as well. Like the Greek polis, universities become ethical when they become communities of virtue that foster and demonstrate ethical excellence. Lack of commitment to teaching, lack of concern for student outcomes, false advertising about job opportunities open to graduates, and diploma-mill teaching practices are examples of institutional practices that corrode rather than nourish ethics on campuses.
Competency-based education, broadly considered, is increasingly of interest in business schools. Under the competency-based approach (advocated, for example, by Rick Boyatzis of Case Western Reserve University, David Whetten of Brigham Young University, and Kim Cameron of the University of Michigan), students are exposed not only to theoretical concepts, but also to specific competencies that apply the theory. They are expected to learn how to apply in their lives the competencies learned in the classroom, for instance those relating to communication and motivating others. Important ethical competencies (or virtues) should be included and fostered alongside such competencies. Indeed, in applied programs such as business, each discipline and subject can readily be linked to ethical virtues. Any applied field, from traffic engineering to finance, can and should include ethical competencies as an integral part of each course.
For example, one of us currently teaches a course on managerial skills, one portion of which focuses on stress management. The stress management portion includes a discussion of personal mission setting, which is interpreted as a form of stress management. The lecture emphasizes how ethics can intersect with practical, real world decision making and how it can relate to competencies such as achievement orientation. In the context of this discussion, which is based on a perspective that originated with Aristotle, a tape is shown of Warren Buffett suggesting to M.B.A. students at the University of North Carolina that virtue is the most important element of personal success.
When giving this lecture, we have found that street smart undergraduate business students at Brooklyn College and graduates in the evening Langone program of the Stern School of Business of New York University respond well to Buffett’s testimony, perhaps better than they would to Aristotle’s timeless discussions in Nicomachean Ethics.
Many academics will probably resist integration of ethical competencies into their course curriculums, and in recent years it has become fashionable to blame economists for such resistance. For example, in his book Moral Dimension, Amitai Etzioni equates the neoclassical economic paradigm with disregard for ethics. Sumantra Ghoshal’s article “Bad Management Theories are Destroying Good Management Practices,” in Academy of Management Learning and Education Journal, blames ethical decay on the compensation and management practices that evolved from economic theory’s emphasis on incentives.
We disagree that economics has been all that influential. Instead, the problem is much more fundamental to the humanities and social sciences and has its root in philosophy. True, economics can exhibit nihilism. For example, the efficient markets hypothesis, that has influenced finance, holds that human knowledge is impotent in the face of efficient markets. This would imply that moral choice is impotent because all choice is so. But the efficient markets hypothesis is itself a reflection of a deeper and broader philosophical positivism that is now pandemic to the entire academy.
Over the past two centuries the assaults on the rational basis for morals have created an atmosphere that stymies interest in ethical education. In the 18th century, the philosopher David Hume wrote that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is,” so that morals are emotional and cannot be proven true. Today’s academic luminaries have thoroughly imbibed this “emotivist” perspective. For example, Stanley Fish holds that even though academics do exhibit morality by condemning “cheating, academic fraud and plagiarism,” there is no universal morality beyond this kind of “local practice.”
Whatever its outcome, the debate over the rational derivability of ethical laws from a set of clear and certain axioms that hold universally is of little significance in and of itself. It will not determine whether ethics is more or less important in our lives; nor will it provide a disproof of relativism -- since defenders of relativism can still choose not to accept the validity of the derivation.
Yet ethics must still be lived -- even though the knowledge, competency, skill or talent that is needed to lead a moral life, a life of virtue, may not be derived from any clear and certain axioms. There is no need for derivation of the need, for instance, for good interpersonal skills. Rather, civilization depends on competency, skill and talent as much as it depends on practical ethics. Ethical virtue does not require, nor is it sustained by, logical derivation; it becomes most manifest, perhaps, through its absence, as revealed in the anomie and social decline that ensue from its abandonment. Philosophy is beside the point.
Based on much evidence of such a breakdown, ethics education experts such as Thomas Lickona of the SUNY's College at Cortland have concluded that to learn to act ethically, human beings need to be exposed to living models of ethical emotion, intention and habit. Far removed from such living models, college students today are incessantly exposed to varying degrees of nihilism: anti-ethical or disembodied, hyper-rational positions that Professor Fish calls “poststructuralist” and “antifoundationalist.” In contrast, there is scant emphasis in universities on ethical virtue as a pre-requisite for participation in a civilized world. Academics tend to ignore this ethical pre-requisite, preferring to pretend that doing so has no social repercussions.
They are disingenuous – and wrong.
It is at the least counterintuitive to deny that the growing influence of nihilism within the academy is deeply, and causally, connected to increasing ethical breaches by academics (such as the cases of plagiarism and fraud that we cited earlier). Abstract theorizing about ethics has most assuredly affected academics’ professional behavior.
The academy’s influence on behavior extends, of course, far beyond its walls, for students carry the habits they have learned into society at large. The Enron scandal, for instance, had more roots in the academy than many academics have realized or would care to acknowledge. Kenneth Lay, Enron’s former chairman, holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Houston.Jeff Skilling, Enron’s former CEO, is a Harvard M.B.A. who had been a partner at the McKinsey consulting firm, one of the chief employers of top-tier M.B.A. graduates. According to Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker, Enron had followed McKinsey’s lead, habitually hiring the brightest M.B.A. graduates from leading business schools, most often from the Wharton School. Compared to most other firms, it had more aggressively placed these graduates in important decision-making posts. Thus, the crimes committed at Enron cannot be divorced from decision-making by the best and brightest of the newly minted M.B.A. graduates of the 1990s.
As we have seen, the 1966 AAUP statement implies the crucial importance of an ethical foundation to academic life. Yet ethics no longer occupies a central place in campus life, and universities are not always run ethically. With news of academic misdeeds (not to mention more spectacular academic scandals, such as the Churchill affair) continuing to unfold, the public rightly grows distrustful of universities.
It is time for the academy to heed the AAUP’s 1915 declaration, which warned that if the professoriate “should prove itself unwilling to purge its ranks of … the unworthy… it is certain that the task will be performed by others.”
Must universities learn the practical value of ethical virtue by having it imposed from without? Or is ethical revival possible from within?
Candace de Russy and Mitchell Langbert
Candace de Russy is a trustee of the State University of New York and a Hudson Institute Adjunct Fellow. Mitchell Langbert is associate professor of business at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York.
The higher education community believes it scored a great victory on June 23 when a coalition of twenty-something organizations, including the American Association of University Professors, issued a statement supporting academic freedom. Many of their critics have fallen for it and a number of Congressmen have even declared victory. Any praise for the statement, however, must be tempered by an understanding that the people who brought us Ward Churchill won’t offer much more than lip service -- unless we keep our powder dry.
The statement was promulgated by the American Council on Education and reiterates the importance of the free exchange of ideas, grading free of political bias, grievance procedures for students and faculty who are treated unfairly, and intellectual standards. The declaration acknowledges that “intellectual pluralism” and “academic freedom” are principles widely shared within the academic community. Yet there is nary a nod to the hundreds of widely-publicized cases of political pressure in the classroom that prompted the controversy in the first place.
For years, the higher education establishment has denied that there is a problem and engaged in a series of unpersuasive rationalizations to avoid facing the obvious facts. Roger Bowen of the American Association of University Professors has called studies about faculty political imbalance "wrongheaded" and claimed political affiliations of professors are of little consequence in the classroom. John Millsaps at the University of Georgia agreed: "we have no evidence to suggest that students are being intimidated by professors as regards students’ freedom to express their opinions and beliefs." And Lionel Lewis in a recent issue of Academe went so far as to argue that political one-sidedness doesn’t matter because college has no impact anyway. Nowhere did they argue that students will get a better education if they are exposed to a variety of viewpoints and learn to think for themselves.
Numerous surveys, reports, and case studies documenting the politically monolithic character of the faculty have mounted. A recent student survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni shows that many students believe they will be penalized if they have a point of view that differs from their professors.
Faced with this mounting evidence – and a growing number of state legislators who have begun holding hearings and passing resolutions -- the higher education establishment figured it would be best to have a quick conversion, endorse intellectual “pluralism,” and then go back to business as usual. The strategy is obvious: give lip service, get it out of the papers, do nothing.
Those claiming victory are right in that the first step to recovery is to admit that you have a problem. However, the ACE statement does not admit that there is anything more than a PR problem: “these issues have become public controversies.” It does not address whether there is a lack of intellectual diversity or whether there are any victims of political intolerance at all.
Second, it does not define intellectual pluralism and makes the shocking suggestion that First Amendment freedoms mean different things to different people. These are “complex topics with multiple dimensions,” it says, and it is “impossible to create a single definition or set of standards” and, well, it is simply too much for the unwashed public. Definitions will have to be left to individual campuses, where, presumably, people are smarter.
Third, it does not address any of the specific issues raised by critics: what about unbalanced panel discussions on campus, the hundreds of speech codes prevalent across the country, student newspaper theft, speakers being disinvited or shouted down, the uncivil and intolerant behavior of administrators on campus after campus aimed specifically at students with political views who differ? Not a word on any of these topics.
Fourth, the only section calling for action is very cleverly written. It says, first, that "[n]either students nor faculty should be disadvantaged or evaluated on the basis of their political opinions." The next sentence calls for "clear" grievance procedures. And action? Not quite. Every college already has clear grievance procedures for students and faculty members. But didn't the statement say that these should be revised to include protections against political bias? If they had wanted to, they surely could have. No, they stated a general principle, but did not call for revising any grievance procedures. An action that is no action.
Fifth, if you read the fine print, the statement did not even endorse its own principles, claiming only that they "deserve to be stated affirmatively as a basis for discussion … on campuses and elsewhere." No action here either.
If they did not admit a problem, and did not define the goal of intellectual pluralism, and did not propose or even hint at specific ways to achieve intellectual pluralism, and really only proposed some discussion topics, what did they say? Leave the problem to us -- "the community of scholars.” Isn't the rhetoric great? The only clear intent of the statement is to tell the public to leave the problem to the institutions. Yes, the people who brought you Ward Churchill, who in fact include Ward Churchill, will solve the problem.
The responsibility for correcting the current situation should, indeed, fall first and foremost to colleges and universities themselves. However, it is the universities that have created the problem, have perpetuated it, continue to minimize it, and have failed to take concrete steps to solve. Indeed, the only apparent response by the higher ed community to the statement has been protests by the AFT, NEA, and various members of the AAUP.
This statement – so far – is just lip service to intellectual diversity. The reality remains that faculties are politically imbalanced, many course readings and campus speaking events are one-sided, and there is a basic hostility to ideas outside of campus orthodoxies.
It’s time for the institutions to take concrete steps to live up to their words.
Anne D. Neal
Anne D. Neal is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a national nonprofit group of alumni and trustees.
It's a familiar Washington story: an entrenched leader faces accusations of misappropriation of funds; charges and countercharges fly. This isn’t a partisan Capital feud, but the tale of American University President Ben Ladner and the university’s Board of Trustees.
The controversy erupted with an anonymous letter to The Washington Post charging that President Ladner misused university funds to hire a personal chef and executive assistant for the first lady, imbibe hundred-dollar bottles of wine to court donors and buy holiday gifts for the kids, among other extravagances.
Although I have been in education 25 years and also am a college president, I know neither Ladner nor members of his board. Rather, as with most of us in academe, I have observed the unfolding scandal through news reports and the various Web-writers blasting various players in this tragedy.
What a shame to see American mired in such scandal. The university has worked very hard to improve its standing in the past decade, for which the board and chief executive are to be complimented, along with the faculty, staff and graduates.
And we should also recall that AU’s troubles aren’t the first of their kind to arise in higher education. A decade earlier, Adelphi University was assailed as a monument to bad management when the president of the Long Island institution filled the board with cronies who awarded him a fat salary package and paid for a $1.2 million Manhattan apartment for his use. This was at the time that Adelphi’s marketing campaign "Harvard: the Adelphi of Massachusetts," evoked titters from administrators at other universities and as the institution’s enrollment, financial stability and faculty morale were plummeting. The situation deteriorated to such a point that the New York Board of Regents interceded and removed all but one of the board members. Subsequently, a new president was hired.
A few years later, the board and administration of Boston University were directed by the Massachusetts attorney general to change its governance structure and board composition following the revelation that a large percentage of the trustees were also contractors and vendors for the school. In addition, BU lost many millions of dollars investing in a company in which the president had a particular interest. I’m sure many of my colleagues recall how that same president had served on -- and was removed from -- Adelphi’s board.
I know of other small institutions riddled with similar conflicts: The chairman of one school’s board also served as its legal counsel (for a substantial hourly fee), as chairman of the executive compensation committee and as executor of the president’s estate. Talk about conflict of interest!
All these examples illustrate the importance of good governance in higher education. The situation at AU, in particular, demonstrates how the lack of role clarification for both boards and their presidents is a prescription for disaster. Trustees, increasingly volunteer leaders from business and industry, should know that they have both a legal and fiduciary responsibility for the organization. The president manages on a daily basis, subject to the authority granted him by the board; he should bear in mind that it is not part of a divine right of kings, but rather is delegated. While the partnership between trustees and presidents is clear and the expectation of civility and respect implicit, good trustees and good presidents understand the lines of authority and see that those borders are not crossed.
Yet, many of us leading institutions of higher education know isn’t easy to observe that line of separation: Trustees are held accountable to a high standard. Yet they are volunteers (at least most of them) and often have to rely on the administration, primarily the chief executive officer, for information and data upon which to make important decisions. This line becomes further blurred by the fact that trustees and presidents move in similar social circles and can end up becoming friends. Combine those conditions with the fact that many trustees come from business, where lavish executive pay packages and rich perks are customary; it is only natural that they would want the chief executive of "their" university, particularly if she or he is a personal friend, to enjoy the lifestyle of a CEO.
But, I would argue that while universities have many of the attributes of “for-profit” enterprises, they are different fundamentally.
Universities do not measure their success on returns to shareholders, but rather on value for stakeholders -- parents paying high tuition, faculty and staff members who do the heavy lifting of the institution, and, students -- the ultimate "customers." Presidents of universities are not engaged in making widgets, creating new technology or producing consumable products or services. We are engaged in something even more special -- the creation of knowledge, the transmission of that knowledge and (hopefully) the creation of educated, aware and engaged members of civil society.
For that there should be just compensation, but it is one of several factors that need to be considered in hiring and retaining a good chief executive. Those individuals who pursue higher education careers merely for the financial compensation are missing the more meaningful reward.
Besides maintaining a social distance from his trustees, a college president can avail himself of other common-sense remedies to avoid future cases like American University. The most obvious of these are standards issued by the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities. Those guidelines are clear, rigorous and constitute “best practices” in board governance that ensure that trustees and presidents uphold the highest possible ethical standards. For example, compensation should be reviewed and approved by all members of the board, not just one or two members. In the case of American, news reports hold that the President’s controversial spending arose from provisions of a second contract that some trustees had never seen -- clearly not a desirable management model for any enterprise.
It is critical that all the board and its president share an absolute understanding about the presidential contract and the expectations, rights and responsibilities for the president and the presidential spouse. In the case of American University, the compensation for the president is simply out of line with the average compensation and terms for college presidents: the National Association of College and University Business Officers offers ample benchmark data that can serve as a reality check.
A president’s contract should be reviewed annually -- and not just by the chairman of the board or other “insiders” but by a group of trustees. An experienced chief financial officer (in many of the cases I’ve cited, where was he or she?) should be hired and be a fiscal gatekeeper, without fear of retaliation. And an annual independent audit should be conducted.
For example, at my institution, when the auditors present their report, the chief financial officer leaves the meeting so the board can critique his work. Then, I also leave the room so the trustees and auditors can freely discuss executive fiscal responsibility in confidence.
Congress passed Sarbanes-Oxley to restrict certain business practices to avert even the appearance of conflict of interest. Higher education, which is becoming costlier and increasingly harder for middle-class families to afford, must maintain standards that are just as strict, if not even more so.
Whether President Ladner misused his office for personal gain remains to be seen. But as an educator, one thing I do know about the AU case: The faculty, staff, alumni and ultimately the students of American University are those suffering the most from this unfortunate and avoidable controversy.
Roy J. Nirschel
Roy J. Nirschel is president of Roger Williams University.