Witt/Kieffer search firm wants to help universities find trustees

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A firm known for placing presidents now wants to help universities find trustees, too.

Hogan's rocky tenure at Connecticut hinted at potential problems at Illinois

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U. of Illinois president's departure does not shock critics, who wonder why the university picked him after a rocky presidency at the U. of Connecticut.

Indefinite terms for Clemson trustees raise policy, legal questions

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Majority of Clemson trustees serve indefinite terms and do not answer to lawmakers -- uncommon independence for a state institution. Some question whether the structure is good policy.

Erskine board rebuffs request that it let church remove trustees

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Erskine trustees reject request from college's denomination to have the ability to remove board members.

Banishing myths about a college’s board and administration

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.


Community college president's controversial contract renewal

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Luzerne County Community College is on probation with its accreditor, in part because of concerns about leadership. But the president, who was hired without a search, may have his contract renewed.

Tea Party groups expect influence in elections for Michigan's public university governing boards

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Tea Party groups expect to influence statewide elections to pick new members of Michigan's higher education governing boards.

The Leadership Gap to Come

Richard A. Skinner offers advice to college and university board members on how they need to prepare.

Clarification or Power Grab?

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Majority of board members quit at Antioch Los Angeles after bylaws are changed by the university system.

Trustees and Tenure

Tenure conversations, those hardy perennials, spring up among public university trustees on somewhat predictable cycles, provoking a ritual engagement well known to veteran academic administrators.

The cycle often begins when a new trustee looks carefully at the bundle of tenure recommendations that come from the campus, or multiple campuses of university systems, each year. These carefully crafted recommendations look remarkably similar. The recommendations praise all candidates for their excellence in teaching, research and service; all candidate files have glowing excerpts from letters solicited from outside reviewers; and the recommendations always outline the candidates’ publications, teaching accomplishments and service achievements.  

In addition, in most public university settings, this summary includes other information on the process, including the vote totals for and against each candidate at the department, college and university levels.  Although on some occasions there may be a split vote, most tenure recommendations come forward with very large majorities in favor at all levels.

Trustees do not quite know what to make of these summaries. Should they try to understand the careers of the people proposed for tenure? Should they worry that all the recommendations say almost exactly the same things in the same ways, implying perhaps a routine approval process rather than a rigorous review? What is their responsibility as trustees in approving these tenure recommendations, which usually imply 25 to 30 years of continuing institutional financial obligation? How can trustees have a useful opinion when they have not participated in the process and do not see the full dossiers? What would be the consequences of failing to approve a tenure recommendation endorsed by the president?

Uncomfortable with the rubber stamp character of these decisions, the new trustee will typically put the question of the entire tenure process up for discussion. While a few may actually challenge the concept of tenure, most trustees, whether they like it or not, recognize that a frontal attack on this core concept of the American academy is a futile exercise. Even so, they think, “Well, maybe we must have tenure, but if these campuses never turn anyone down, maybe we need to make the process more rigorous.” So they ask for data on how many candidates the campus rejects and on the percent of a department’s faculty that is already tenured. They ask how it is that everyone’s file they see has excellent ratings.

University administrators respond in similarly predictable ritual fashion. “We are very rigorous,” they say. “We wash out the weak cases before they get to the tenure decision, by advising those who perform below our standards that they should seek employment elsewhere.” In most universities, some form of annual review of all non-tenured faculty exists, and these reviews, we tell the trustees, ensure that only the best candidates for tenure survive. “This rigorous prior screening,” we say, “explains why we approve almost all those who come up for tenure.”

When the concerned trustee expresses some skepticism about this rationale for the high success of candidates for tenure and asks for data on the failure rate, the administration falls back to a comprehensive review of the process by which institutions acquire faculty. The screening, they say, begins with a national recruitment of only the best candidates. So the campus starts out with presumptive winners and has already rejected most of the potential losers.  

Clever administrators calculate the failure rate for tenure by counting from the time of first hiring, especially if the campus uses the lecturer as an entry-level position sometimes converted to tenure track assistant professor. They demonstrate that of all those with Ph.D.’s or almost Ph.D.’s hired for teaching purposes, quite a few never make it to the tenure decision point.

The administration outlines the elaborate bureaucracy and review processes that allow only the best to survive the ordeal and provides reams of information on the process. Department-specific criteria (articles matter in some departments, books in others, for example) produce multiple versions of guidelines used throughout the institution. Examples of the documentation required by the college or school and the paperwork sent to the provost and then on to the president fill the package provided the trustees. With a final flourish, the campus hands over the elaborate campuswide description of promotion and tenure guidelines established by faculty committees and approved by presidents and often the board of trustees itself.

The determined trustee may ask for a policy discussion by the board, and the board usually agrees. A meeting takes place, and in systems, there can be many provosts and chancellors or presidents, as well as a battery of system officials, all who bring expertise, experience, data, and perspectives.

In the discussion, the trustee learns that the process is complicated and that the decisions reflect expert judgments. In a nice way, the assembled administrators gently inform the trustee that in general board members do not know enough to evaluate the full dossiers of the candidates because the subject matter is well beyond trustee expertise in most cases (as it is beyond the expertise of most administrators as well). 

The administrators make clear that absent this tenure process conducted as it is, replicated with minor variations at almost all competing public institutions of higher education, no campus can compete for good faculty because good faculty will only come to a place that does tenure exactly the way the university does it. Finally, someone mumbles about lawsuits, union contracts and other nasty consequences of failing to sustain the status quo.

At the end of the meeting, everyone agrees that tenure is a complicated and essential thing. They agree that the institution must be conscientious and careful because the investment implied by a tenure decision is a major commitment. They agree that it is not good for a department to be filled entirely by tenured or non-tenured faculty, but they also allow that it is a bad idea to have rigid tenure quotas. The trustees leave the meeting recognizing that this is beyond their ability to control, frustrated that they cannot get a grip on the process, concerned that the institution may not be doing the right thing in a rigorous enough way, but completely without any mechanism to address the issue.

The administrators go home, having spent great amounts of time and killed many trees for the paperwork, and report to their faculty that they have once again held off the trustee philistines who would have destroyed, absent the strong stance of the administration, that most cherished characteristic of academic appointment, the permanent tenured professorship.

The hardy perennial has once again flowered and died, to lie dormant until the next season of trustee discontent.

John V. Lombardi
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