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.
After a constant conversation about college sports since early in the 20th century, the peculiar logic of hardcore fans and impassioned critics passes from the curious to the bizarre. We love sports because they teach teamwork and the value of struggle against adversity. We hate sports because they corrupt the pure ideals of academic life. We love sports because they bring glory and visibility to our college's name. We hate sports because their visibility celebrates the false value of winning at any cost.
These counterpoint rituals of praise and condemnation swirl around the games themselves and seem to thrive on the controversy, ignore the details, and repeat themselves with minor variations every year. While sports people speak of the positive rituals, they do so with the voices of tired preachers, offering an overused sermon one Sunday too often. The critics, as they grow ever more strident with their complaint, speak with the desperation of voices crying in the wilderness.
The ineffectiveness of the sports-in-college debate comes from confusion about the issues. The controversy assumes there is a fundamental open question about the place of intercollegiate sports in America’s colleges and universities. There is not. Intercollegiate sports are a required activity for mainstream colleges and universities in America. Sports programs form part of their core program and this has been so since the first decade of the 20th century as evidenced by the chronology of the big stadiums of the first 20 years. Harvard's Soldiers Field with its capacity of 57,000 in the 1920s and the Yale Bowl with its 80,000 attendance at the Yale-Army game of 1923 set a standard for elite commitment to football (" The Sports Imperative in America’s Research Universities"). Rants against the inclusion of competitive intercollegiate sports in university life, whatever their intellectual or moral worth, define the concept of irrelevant.
Similarly, high-minded concern about the culture of winning misses the point. The purpose of organized sport is to determine a winner. This is why we keep score. Once we recognize the inevitability of intercollegiate sports competition, we have also accepted the culture of winning. A well-intentioned effort to produce sports without winning borders on the absurd and defines the meaning of futile.
Still, something in college sports is understandable and manageable: the money. The issue of how much the sports program costs requires an accounting of revenue and expenses, a deceptively simple thing in theory. In the college sports world, it is often possible to get reasonably accurate data on income (because it is in the interest of the institution to demonstrate high levels of sports revenue). It is usually impossible, though, to get reasonably accurate approximations of the expenses (because it is rarely in the interest of the institution to report high expenses accurately). A table of what universities often fail to include when they report their income and expenses from college athletic programs appears in a discussion of aspects of this subject in The Sports Imperative mentioned above.
Institutions subsidize college sports programs by charging a wide range of athletics expenses to the general operating budget of the university, whether for debt, grounds, security, legal work, administrative staff, fringe benefits, insurance, or many other expenses large and small. When the campus subtracts the partial expenses from the full income, they can report a profitable or at least modestly in deficit program. This looks much better to the observing public than what a true accounting of costs might provide. Convenience accounting would be the right term for these practices.
Still, even if the published information minimizes the cost of the athletic program to the institution, administrators and their trustees (well at least the administrators) need to know the true cost so that they can manage the consequences of subsidizing athletics and recognize when the subsidy grows too large for the good of the college.
How can we weigh the significance of a subsidy to college sports? At a major land-grant flagship institution with a budget of $1.5 billion, a subsidy to the athletics department of $2 million may be a small matter, but to a small liberal arts college with a budget of $500 million, it may make a bigger difference. We can get a better perspective if we look at the opportunity cost of such deficits.
If we raise a $45 million athletic endowment we could generate a continuing subsidy (at a payout rate of 4.5 percent) of $2 million per year for athletics, and we would drive the opportunity cost close to zero because athletics donors, for the most part, do not give substantially to academics and the program would be self-supporting. However, if we cannot raise the $45 million from athletics donors, and we must use general revenue from the university’s budget to pay the $2 million deficit, the opportunity cost is high. Under such circumstances, we would have to take $2 million from teaching and research every year and devote it to intercollegiate athletics, a common practice that drives true academics to near incoherent rage and frustration.
Imagine, however, institutions in the bottom 75 percent of the Division I-A football revenue system or, worse, institutions with Division I-AA football programs, the deficit (calculated correctly and unpublished) can reach into the range of $8 million or $10 million. At $8 million, the endowment required to sustain such a deficit reaches about $178 million. This is well outside the athletic fund raising capacity of almost every academic institution in this group, especially for those in the public sector. The $8 million deficit every year has to come from the students, general revenue, and other sources that could just as easily buy books for the library, scholarships for the students, or faculty for the classroom. There lies the true opportunity cost.
The critics, sometimes easily misled, often aim at the wrong target. It is not the absolute size of the athletic program’s budget that should provoke outraged academic concern but the relative size of the subsidy. A subsidy that requires an investment equivalent to $178 million of endowment is a challenge even for an institution with a respectable $500 million endowment. For an institution with less private resources, it is simply a major annual drain on the academic budget.
At the same time, even if a mega program gets and spends $70 million on intercollegiate athletics, if its full accurate accounts show a balance or even a surplus, then the program is not too big and probably does not hurt the institution. A smaller program, one that takes in $20 million and spends $28 million, may not appear so offensively large, but the $8 million loss may be doing much greater damage to the institution’s academic prospects.
Money always matters, but we need to count all the money, know where it came from, and recognize what we purchased. Otherwise, we waste our time on immaterial, if amusing, debates about the role of intercollegiate sports in America.
My younger brother celebrated his first birthday at a campus protest. It was 1988, and my Mom, a Gallaudet University graduate, had been following the growing student movement to demand a deaf president at her alma mater. She couldn’t stand being 400 miles away, in Rochester, N.Y. So never mind that my youngest brother was still nursing. She took him with her, and joined the Deaf President Now movement.
I’m not sure when I first learned of the movement. But I can’t remember not knowing I. King Jordan -- the president whose appointment was the result of that movement -- as a symbol of what was possible for me. My mother told me stories, and I grew up with Gallaudet. There was no other university for me. I’m the fourth generation in my family to be born deaf, and the third to attend Gallaudet.
I’m a senior so I should have been spending this week celebrating (when not studying for my last round of finals). Instead I’ve been protesting, with hundreds of my fellow students, over the appointment of Jordan’s successor. It’s difficult to explain to the outside world just what we’re doing, and granted it’s difficult to understand. After all, the trustees picked a deaf woman, who has spent much of her career at Gallaudet. What’s all the fuss about?
To best understand what’s happening now, you need to know that the Gallaudet I grew up with is not the Gallaudet I am graduating from. Whereas going to Gallaudet and demanding a deaf president were once part of simply affirming our pride in ourselves and our right to basic human needs, students want more today. In fact, some deaf students don’t even want to attend Gallaudet or the deaf high schools most of us attended because a range of opportunities are now available elsewhere. Many of those opportunities exist because of civil rights laws for people with disabilities -- laws the Deaf President Now movement had a hand in getting enacted.
But that doesn’t mean Gallaudet’s historic role isn’t part of why people care so much. The university matters to the millions of deaf people around the world who have never visited it, who can only dream of enrolling in what is widely considered the “Deaf Mecca.” That’s no surprise when you consider that more than 80 percent of all deaf people in the world who have college degrees earned them at Gallaudet. Because of the hereditary link to some forms of deafness, many deaf people are like me, from deaf families, allowing us to share a passion that comes when so many of those you are closest to grew up with the same experience.
Jordan isn’t just a college president, but is a spokesman for deaf men and women around the world. The board that needed to be pressured into promoting him never assigned him that role, but it came about naturally because of the Deaf President Now movement. When he announced his retirement after 18 years, word shot around the globe in minutes. Everybody wanted a say in who is going to replace King, the man who lived up to his name.
There’s no doubt that with the departure of Jordan, Gallaudet will assume a new direction. In the 18 years since Deaf President Now, we’ve shown the world that deaf people are in fact capable of doing anything except hearing. That’s the Catch-22. DPN made it possible for deaf students to go to any college in the United States and be successful. Gallaudet has stayed symbolic, inspiring those who go to Princeton, but not always attracting those same students. We have always been the best deaf university in the world, because competition is so thin. But we’re not satisfied with that. We want the best and brightest students, the ones who now have educational opportunities that were never available before. And that’s why we need a president with all the right qualities, not just someone who shares our deafness.
When the board selected Jordan in 1988, students were thrilled that a deaf educator got the job. But the reality is that they didn’t know what kind of president he’d become. My mother took his psychology class in 1973, and could never fathom him becoming president some day. Fortunately, Jordan did just the kinds of things that presidents are expected to do (and that people previously assumed deaf people couldn’t do): He raised money, he oversaw huge endowment growth, he presided over the planning of new facilities, he dealt with campus controversies -- making both popular and unpopular decisions. In the end though, he was as good as advertised. Jordan’s tenure as president will always be marked by the history made with his appointment, but it also is marked by normalcy – by Jordan doing what presidents do.
And that’s what people are missing about the protests this week. They aren’t about us reliving Deaf President Now, trying to get our 15 minutes. The protests are about concerns we have that are just like those of other students at other campuses. On many campuses these days, students feel disconnected from trustees and from decision-making, and that -- in the end -- is what’s going on here. Jane Fernandes, whom the board selected as president, has served as provost for the last six years. There are no doubt better candidates for the position in our eyes. But what truly is upsetting is that students weren’t listened to at all. We were stunned by the decision -- and started the protests -- because an extensive system had been set up to seek our views, and we provided them. Then we were ignored. Sadly, the trustees’ willingness to only pay lip service to student opinions is not at all unique to our university.
Part of what is unique to Gallaudet is the role of its president well beyond its campus. When Lawrence Summers said some foolish things about women, he didn’t bring down the reputation of all colleges and universities. People said Harvard had a bad president, they didn’t stop paying attention to academe. One of the reasons we are concerned about Fernandes (who is not a bad person) is that she’s an administrator, not a leader. We don’t have the luxury of just going with someone who knows how to balance a budget -- we need more. We need someone who -- like Jordan -- knows everyone on campus and their families, and who can be eloquent with the media, politicians, and philanthropists. Someone who can navigate the tough issues we face – of how to attract students and define our institution’s mission in an ever changing world. In an era when people talk about “cures” for deafness, when deaf students can demand sign interpreters to go to any institution, when technology has created huge new opportunities for the deaf, Gallaudet is at a turning point.
And here too, what we want now is different from what Deaf President Now was pushing for. After 1988, we told ourselves that Gallaudet would never again see a hearing president, and only now are we able to affirm that sentiment. But with the advances of the last 18 years, deafness alone isn’t enough. We want the same kind of “good fit” that all colleges need in a president. And to say that we should be happy to have a deaf president is insulting. If Harvard makes a bad choice for president and students protest, you won’t see people saying, “Well they should just be happy that the president can hear.” Actually I’d like to see our provost considered for a presidency elsewhere, where her particular skill set would be a better fit. And I’d be proud of her for achieving such a high post in a hearing world.
Those still trying to make sense of our protests should understand that what is happening is part of a broader social movement. Gallaudet is a microcosm of colleges everywhere, where students are growing increasingly tired of being ignored. (Just witness students forcing change at the University of Miami over how their janitors are treated or at many institutions over investment in Sudan.) Keep in mind that this isn’t just Gallaudet. But the source of our passion?
It is Gallaudet.
Anthony Mowl graduates from Gallaudet University this month with a degree in English. He is the former editor in chief of The Buff and Blue, the student paper.
In the wake of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the 2002 federal law aimed at reforming the governance of public companies, corporate trustees have been on the hot seat to ensure greater transparency and accountability. While Sarbanes-Oxley does not apply to nonprofits yet, the U.S. Senate Finance Committee has been hard at work analyzing whether nonprofits merit more scrutiny and similar rules. The recent string of events at American University -- involving a president who needed a strong board to protect him from himself – has, for better or for worse, drawn attention to the challenges of higher education trusteeship. And Congress’s continuing interest underscores the pressing need for college and university boards to get their house in order – before someone does it for them.
But the existing culture of university trusteeship is one that promotes the status quo and discourages active and informed trustees. By custom and practice, trustees are not trained or encouraged to ask questions and do their job responsibly. Based on more than a decade of service as an elected regent of the University of Nebraska, and my involvement with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and the Institute for Effective Governance, I have found a number of reasons this is the case, and identified some antidotes to these unhealthy practices.
For starters, when I was elected regent I was amazed at the number of parties, dinners and social functions that board members attend. The benefit of these events from the university administrator’s perspective is very clear: a trustee who becomes friends with administrators is going to be more likely to cheerlead than to challenge policies and practices. As I delved into my work with my fellow regents, I was amazed at how willing regents were to let administrators make all the decisions. I soon realized that the “social side” of trustee life was only part of the problem.
The University of Nebraska has very good, decent people in its administration and on its Board of Regents. Yet the standard practice of public university administration, like so many other parts of our system of government, promotes agency interests first, often with results that fail to enhance the public interest. For example, the board voted 6 to 2 to spend over $3 million to build a storage facility for seldom-used books. These are not rare books, but standard texts available in libraries across the country. Now they will be stored in better conditions than the books in the University’s regular collection.
The board approved $3 million for a “hydraulically banked indoor running track system” so that the University of Nebraska at Lincoln’s sports center could boast a state-of-the-art, world-class indoor track. This at a time when the university was increasing tuition and student fees and lobbying the legislature for more money claiming we do not have enough to pay faculty.
The list goes on. Trustees who realize that their responsibility is to make decisions that serve the public (not always the university) would never approve these proposals. But the prevailing culture on university boards is one of routinely succumbing to administration demands. A significant part of the reason boards behave this way is that most university administrators contract with the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities to train new board members. AGB training follows a single model, which emphasizes following the administrators’ lead and not “micromanaging” -- in other words, not asking tough questions.
But if our universities are to be well managed, we need trustees who promote responsible policies and serve in a responsible manner -- which means asking tough, challenging questions, advancing public understanding of the trade-offs and costs of public programs, promoting responsible behaviors and often voting No for programs that do not meet cost-benefit standards.
Having criticized my fellow board members for voting irresponsibly, let me offer a brief case study in which the University of Nebraska Board of Regents took a very courageous and responsible stand in the face of extreme pressures. In 2000, the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) came under attack for conducting fetal tissue research using tissue from aborted babies. UNMC is prohibited from performing abortions, but it accepted tissue donations from a doctor who had been awarded “honorary faculty” status.
UNMC had not been doing fetal tissue research in secret; faculty had published more than 50 papers based on the research. But UNMC did deliberately keep the source of the tissue quiet -- and this proved to be a big mistake. When the news media picked up the issue, it was described as “secret research using tissue from aborted babies.”
Nebraska pro-life groups condemned the research as immoral. Several vowed to defeat any regent running for re-election who supported this research. Political watchers predicted that the Board of Regents would quickly cave. The board thoroughly studied and debated the topic, and made the responsible decision. We weighed the overall public costs and benefits, thought through the moral questions, and, against significant threats and pressures, voted 12 to 0 to approve continuing fetal tissue research at UNMC. Recognizing the sensitivities of certain citizens on the issue, the board also directed the Medical Center to try to develop an alternative supply of tissue. UNMC did eventually develop some alternative sources for some of the cells needed, but to this day, it continues to use fetal tissue from abortions for some of the cell types since no other source can be found.
We need elected officials and university trustees who will make the tough and sometimes unpleasant decisions that result in responsible policy. Making tough calls, saying No, voting against programs that are recommended by administrators or government officials who are your personal friends, is very hard for an elected or appointed governing board member to do. But it is the responsible course. The public interest is clearly served by weighing all the costs and benefits to the public, debating alternatives openly and honestly, and then choosing the best option. The administration will be advocating what is best for the university from its perspective -- at a public university, it is the trustee’s job to champion the public’s perspective.
What are we to do to enhance the performance and responsible decision making by college and university governing boards in an environment that is dominated by administrators controlling the information and a board culture that promotes cheerleading rather than responsible governance? Here are 10 proposals:
1. Board members must subject major spending and policy decisions to cost/benefit analysis. It is a simple and extremely useful analysis because it forces trustees to consider disadvantages and trade-offs. While simple to do, the fact is, cost-benefit discussions are rare at governing board meetings. Unfortunately, since administrators have the resources to do analysis and do not like trustees to “micromanage,” the normal practice for board members is no cost/benefit analysis, listen and nod as administrators speak, vote yes, and let the full-time officials explain the policies and decisions.
2. The board secretary should be hired and rewarded by and responsible only to the board. If the board wants to have serious staff work done and someone who can collect information and be responsive to the board, a staff person responsible only to the board is best. Board employees who work for the administration will understandably end up being less than supportive if there is a request for information the administration doesn’t like, or a serious disagreement in policy. Beware: A request to hire a board secretary is often viewed (incorrectly) as an insult and great threat to the president, and most likely will be opposed.
3. Responsible trustees should insist on real committees and meaningful committee meetings, sessions that truly tackle issues. Administrators often favor minimal board meetings and a maximum of socializing. Similarly, administrators do not like the board breaking down into committees where they can do even more analysis and work. Trustees must take charge of their board, organize into committees to get into budget and policies in far more detail than is possible in the full board meetings, and limit the amount of time lost to unimportant university “show” presentations and social events.
4. Boards should insist on having major “strategic issue” discussions at each meeting. Another way to avoid the tendency to respond to administrator-set agendas and engage in end-of-the-process yes/no votes is to set aside a big block of time at each meeting to discuss key strategic issues in order to set policy to direct the university. Dedicating the bulk of a full board meeting to tuition policy, recruiting, and other major economic issues has been very effective at the University of Nebraska.
5. Board members should insist on the right to “have the floor” so that they can delve into issues and get all their follow-up questions addressed. The standard practice at board meetings is to have trustees wait in a queue to ask a question, with no opportunity for follow-up discussion and real debate. This needs to end.
6. To promote better accountability, trustees should insist on and help develop good “outcome measures” and “key performance indicators” for the university. It would be great for students and taxpayers if public universities required all graduates to complete the GRE or some other relevant professional exam as a condition for graduation. We need this kind of national standard and outcome measure to enable us to judge how well we do in educating our students and compare the value added by our school relative to other schools. This data would allow evaluation of programs and professors -- great information for students and those working to improve the university.
7. After new programs are approved, accompanied by promises of great results, boards should at some later date compare the program’s actual results and outcomes against the initial promises and projections. I visited Missouri's top board and found that its members followed this practice. For example, they approved a Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics and, in a board review several years later, presented facts showing that annual student enrollments had fallend far short of those projected. The natural tendency is to hide bad results like this. But a board needs to ensure that problems are disclosed and dealt with, and reviews like this can help.
8. Every few years, the board and administration should convene a committee to review administrative costs and champion efforts to undertake cost cutting. Reducing administrative costs is a “continuous improvement” effort that will often involve personnel reductions and changes to longstanding practice. An active, responsible board can help provide the impetus to make these needed changes. In Colorado, one board working closely with the president was able to reduce the administrative layers and re-direct the savings to instruction. This is a story that should inspire us all.
9. Trustees must demand an issues/requests tracking system, so when information is requested or an action is agreed to by the board, the request actually gets done. This is often not the case -- especially if the board secretary is responsible to the administration, not the board.
10. Finally, I recommend that university boards join the Institute for Effective Governance. I have attended sessions conducted by the Association of Governing Boards (the only other organization for trustees besides ACTA, which founded the institute) and read their materials, and the overwhelming message of AGB is for trustees to cheerlead for the campus administration. It has been my experience that AGB too often adopts the proposition that any disagreement with the administration is micromanaging or intolerable failure to support the president. If there were any doubt, recent problems at American University, where the board essentially gave a blank check to the president, should surely settle the matter: American University has been a member of the AGB for decades. The best way to adopt better practices is to visit other university boards, attend their meetings and talk with them about differences in practice. The Institute for Effective Governance (a group of trustees, not administrators) is a great source of best board practices and the most helpful resource I know for boards of trustees.
While I have great admiration for Nebraska’s current and past presidents, and have supported them on the vast majority of issues, I would never trust anyone with the freedom and blank check that trustees almost universally give to their top administrator. Nationwide, university boards simply do not scrutinize the budget the way city councils, county boards and legislatures do. We have great people on university governing boards, but the system is stacked against change and efforts to cut back spending or say no to new policies that continually lift the burden of responsibility from individuals.
To be a responsible board member, one must ask hard questions, do research, and frequently question and oppose college administrators who, understandably, often focus on the narrower interests of the college or university rather than the broader public interest.
In serving as a trustee, if you are not periodically voting “no” at meetings, or preventing some good-for-the-school-but-bad-for-the-public proposals from making it to the board for a vote, then you are not doing the job properly. If you have become such good friends with the school administrators that you find it too uncomfortable to oppose them on a vote, then you are not serving the public interest. If you are spending more time attending the athletic events, parties, and dinners with administrators rather than researching and questioning, then you are not serving as a responsible trustee.
Drew Miller is a member of the University of Nebraska Board of Regents, member of two public company boards of directors, and adviser to the Institute for Effective Governance. He is the president of Heartland Management Consulting Group and a colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve.
The University of California Board Regents recently created a compensation committee to increase their oversight of university compensation practices and will introduce a yearly review of the system president’s performance. The regents also added an independent compliance officer to assure their compensation policies are followed and will add several new positions in the president’s office to address management shortcomings. These changes are designed to end excessive and secretive compensation practices recently revealed by the press.
Will these efforts bring administrative compensation more in line with the university’s compensation of top professors as suggested by the Academic Senate? Or will they simply provide a method for administrators to convince California legislators that higher administrative compensations are justified so that UC “can compete for the best people?”
The Regents’ compensation committee should, first and foremost, appreciate that top UC administrators already receive generous compensation packages. While some UC professors receive handsome offers from other universities, no UC campus chancellor has ever left for a comparable job at another university. Indeed, UC’s administrative generosity distorts salaries elsewhere.
When in 2004 Marye Anne Foxe received a $92,000 raise to induce her to leave the chancellorship of North Carolina State University to take the same position at the University of California at San Diego, North Carolina newspapers editors ridiculed “California dreamin" for provoking an “ugly” trend toward unjustified administrative salary increases in North Carolina. Editors noted that prior to Foxe moving to San Diego, salaries at San Diego and North Carolina State were comparable, with San Diego paying its chancellor $280,700, only $32,700 a year more than Fox was making in North Carolina. They also noted “all the interest generated when one of the [North Carolina] chancellors’ jobs comes open,” asserting that North Carolina chancellors’ salaries and generous perks already were the envy of most state and private sector employees.
North Carolina editors also denounced UC for paying MRC Greenwood, second-in-command of the 10-campus UC system, $100,000 more a year than her immediate predecessor. And all this was before the press’ revelation that UC administrators paid Foxe an additional $248,000 -- without informing the regents -- to forego her North Carolina sabbatical, making Foxe one of the highest-paid chancellors in the nation.
Trustees of the 16-campus North Carolina system reacted, somewhat predictably, with raises “to get our chancellors up to market.” North Carolina editors lamented that politically connected legislators "seem so eager to help higher-paid (and politically connected) state employees [i.e., university administrators] while they go on the cheap when it comes to the rank and file.” Mindful of a political backlash, in October 2005, North Carolina trustees capped the salary of incoming president Erskine Bowles at $425,000. When this failed to quell the political pressure, Bowles promised to return $125,000 as a donation to student aid programs.
Elsewhere in the country, concerns over administrators’ compensation permeate higher education. In testimony before the California Senate Education Committee hearing on UC compensation, David Longanecker, a national expert on university compensation, opined that "American higher education by and large has lost its way. We are spending an awful lot on executive compensation compared with what we used to spend."
Both at UC and across the nation, top education administrators are being paid increasingly high salaries without any evidence of higher-quality services. At UC this results, first, from questionable practices that paid certain top administrators more than the market price for the job. The second reason applies across the nation as well as to UC and stems from trustee’s condoning of executive searches that artificially restrict the supply of eligible top education administrators.
Since 1981, UC Regents have delegated the authority to select the campus chancellors to the university president. The president presents one name to the board for an up-or-down vote. The same is true for the salary of each proposed chancellor. For starters, the regents should revoke these delegations and assume responsibility for selecting the chancellors and setting their salaries. At a minimum, the regents should demand that the president offer at least three viable candidates for each vacancy and then negotiate the salary of the one chosen with the help of independent advisors rather than the president’s office. The president’s staff has a self-interest in high compensation, since typically yearly incomes are tied to the top administrators.
Going forward, the compensation committee should recognize that it is in the president’s interest to seek high administrative salaries and to bring aboard people disposed to support excessively high administrative salaries and compensation packages. In nominating chancellors and other executives, the president is selecting his team. Higher salaries buy the president the loyalty of these administrators as well as justification for keeping his own salary and total compensation package high. But do they buy anything for the taxpayers and students?
At the same time, there are existing practices that artificially inflate administrative salaries and deserve reform. While many university presidents leave the room when administrators’ salaries are considered, no UC President since 1995 has done so. As a result, trustees and auditors are less willing to discuss executive fiscal responsibility freely. And the UC president, besides advocating salary hikes for himself and his colleagues, could identify his detractors in the open-ballot regents’ meetings and punish them, for example, by not appointing them to various advisory committees.
Although the University of California is a public institution, meetings of special committees to advise the president regarding the selection of campus chancellors and other top administrators are held in secret, facilitating artificial restrictions on the number and types of candidates under consideration. Furthermore, for each administrative search, the president retains a search firm whose consultants’ fee is tied to the size of the nominees’ total compensation package, an arrangement that undermines efforts to rein in compensation.
Also, regents are typically asked to vote to accept or reject the president’s top personnel proposal in a telephone conference, in my experience a difficult context in which to organize resistance to a nomination or salary proposal.
Furthermore, UC administrators continually engage Mercer Human Resource Consulting to benchmark UC compensations with those of comparable universities. Mercer regularly finds that average salaries of administrators, while understandably somewhat higher than those at other public universities, are substantially below those of private universities. Although Mercer notes that UC pay is comparable when retirement and other benefits are factored in, the impression left with their readers is that UC administrators are underpaid. This suggestion ignores the possibility that private university administrators generally face more stringent oversight and therefore job pressures than those in public universities -- not to mention the fact that private funds, not taxpayer funds, are being used.
Indeed, Mercer’s results consistently ignore and discount the fact that UC administrators are public employees. The university's Academic Council found Mercer’s methodology flawed and in need of revision: In particular, “it is biased too heavily toward the private sector,” said Stanton Glantz, chairman of the faculty senate’s committee on planning and budget, adding that “there are plenty of people in California government who are running agencies that are larger and more complex than the University of California who are not getting ridiculously astronomical salaries."
The Academic Council also observes that the salaries of top administrators in Mercer’s report are not performance-based. “At least at the highest levels, [senior management group] salaries are based primarily on membership in administrative categories.” The council recommends that periodic performance reviews be introduced to the salary-setting process for top UC administrators.
Mercer’s procedure is flawed in other ways. Mercer does not report dollar values of the various non-monetary perquisites provided administrators. Nor does Mercer account for administrators’ gifts back to their universities, thus frequently overstating the net salary paid the administrator. Top-ranked University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman, for example, on paper makes $724,604, but in fact nets far less since she periodically donates her performance bonuses included in that sum to university programs, in 2003 pledging $500,000.
Year after year, the biggest flaw regarding the Mercer executive compensation report is that UC administrators regularly hire Mercer to create it. In continuing to hire Mercer, administrators are buying results that they like. In sharp contrast, regents periodically change their outside financial auditors to ensure a fresh, critical look at the university’s overall finances.
UC President Robert Dynes has publicly acknowledged that his executives promoted high administrative compensations by applying existing policy inconsistently, favoring top administrators, and failing to disclose fully compensation information to the Regents. Rules put in place after a similar 1992 scandal required that the regents approve executive compensation packages. To address these nevertheless recurrent management failures, the regents recently established an independent compliance officer -- reporting solely to the board -- to assure that compensation practices are consonant with board policies and an ombudsman to speed the University’s response to information requests. They also will restructure the president’s office and are considering adding a chief operating officer and a chief financial officer. Addressing the president’s deficiencies by adding still another layer of employees to that bureaucracy hardly seems a serious attempt to ensure it will follow correct employment practices.
Even if the new Compensation Committee comes to acknowledge and correct the high-administrative-salary bias in the pre-existing UC salary-setting process, the problem of excessive high-level administrative salaries is largely a reflection of a different, probably greater, national problem resulting from trustees’ acceptance of artificial restrictions on the supply of eligible top education administrators.
For top administrators to have placated the regents and similar boards of trustees across the country, the supply of ostensibly qualified candidates for their universities’ top administrative positions must have been somehow artificially restricted. Otherwise, the above-described, high-salary regime could not have persisted because the excess supply of qualified candidates at the higher salaries would have put downward pressure on salaries.
Ever-spiraling salaries have in part resulted from trustees’ irresponsible acceptance of a convenient belief -- perpetuated by top administrators and their hired consultants -- that the only people qualified to head universities are those who have "gone through the chairs," that is, people who have previously served in similar positions elsewhere or come from the higher education establishment. It is hardly surprising that among U.S. doctoral universities, presidential salaries rose an average 81 percent while faculty salaries rose only 47 percent between 1993 and 2003. Moreover, as top administrators from the post-World War II baby boom era retire, selection of new presidents from the existing and limited pool of itinerant college presidents and other top administrators will potentially provoke even more intense bidding wars.
Nevertheless, an enormous supply of willing and able, administratively-oriented, professors -- such as existing deans, vice chancellors, vice provosts and chairs of professional schools and large departments -- as well as term-limited politicians and similarly suitable outsiders, would provide essentially the same services at much lower salaries.
The growing salary gap between university administrators and faculty (and staff) will likely become more divisive. Selecting from a small, virtually revolving pool of candidates who have previously led similar academic institutions demoralizes deans and other academic middle managers who have no realistic expectation of rising through the ranks of their institutions. An exemplary social science dean I know is returning to full-time teaching after having participated in innumerable administrative searches as “the token white male.” Narrow selection criteria also risk promoting leaders who will not mesh with their campus cultures. Universities are being disserved when the selection process disadvantages the large and growing number of middle-level university administrators, term-limited politicians, and others who would be excellent higher education executives and willing to serve at much lower salaries than are currently paid.
Berkeley provides a market check. Berkeley recently became the first UC campus to designate a chief administrative and financial officer to oversee its nonacademic functions. The former banker’s base salary is $260,000, with no relocation or housing support, and a standard 5 percent severance ($13,000). Berkeley’s Chancellor Robert Birgineau (whose compensation package is somehow more than twice as generous) opined that the three suitable candidates who came forward at the advertised $250,000 salary did so because “they love Berkeley.” Sorry, chancellor, that’s the market rate -- when the search process is open, not larded up with unnecessary requirements. The other two qualified candidates would be more than suitable to perform similar tasks in the nearby UC president’s office at much lower than current rates there.
UC’s current compensation debacle is largely a replay of UC’s early-1990s, “golden handshakes” problems. Subsequent policies to fix these problems were either waived, ignored or circumvented by administrators. Had the regents used independent advisors they likely would have questioned the market-justification for the large proposed salary increases for administrators and certainly would have discovered the discrepancies between regent compensation policies and their implementation.
Nevertheless, the regents’ addition of an independent compliance officer will at best solve only what is probably a relatively small part of the compensation problem. Even if this officer corrects the internal problem of improper executive overpayments within UC, the larger problem of continually escalating salaries and perks would remain. A more important change would add independent advisors to inform the regents about available alternative administrative personnel and other compensation issues. While the regents and the president can be presumed knowledgeable about suitable outsiders, a couple of experienced, full-time, taxpayer-sensitive, UC professors who are painfully aware of qualified, underemployed administrative talent within the university would suffice. Recognition of the above problems at UC may not inspire boards of trustees everywhere to reclaim their authority over the hiring of top administrators. It should, however, inspire trustees to broaden significantly their board’s qualifying criteria for top administrators, as well as to insist that recommended compensation packages be demonstrably in line with the candidates’ options in the marketplace. To eliminate the current excessive salaries of top administrators and executives will require that boards of trustees and directors both hire advisors to expose overpayment fraud and recruit independent, full-time advisors from the ordinary, experienced, non-administrative employees of the organization to inform them about available alternative administrative personnel.
Velma Montoya, a Ph.D. economist, is a consultant and writer about higher education. She was a member of the University of California Board of Regents from 1994 to 2005 and represented the board on the California Postsecondary Education Commission.
Trustees of public and private research universities have a fiduciary responsibility to act in the best interest of their institutions. However, actions that appear to be in the private interests of their institutions may not be in the social interest and these institutions are also expected to serve society as a whole. In deciding what optimal policies are, trustees must weigh their institutions’ private interests against the interests of society as whole. Seven examples are provided below.
Undergraduate Financial Aid
Increasingly, and with a few exceptions (such as my own university), public and private research universities are competing for prestige in the market for undergraduate students by offering non need-based grants to admitted applicants. However, evidence suggests that the increased use of merit aid may “crowd out” need-based aid and lead to fewer students from lower and lower-middle income families enrolling at these institutions. How should trustees trade off enhancing their institution’s prestige as an undergraduate institution versus maintaining the social goal of remaining accessible to students from all socioeconomic backgrounds?
This is an important issue because our nation’s public and private research universities spend more per student on undergraduate education than their comprehensive university counterparts. Considerable research suggests that students who attend institutions at which more resources are devoted to their education achieve higher earnings after graduation and are more likely to be admitted to top professional schools, which also contribute to mobility and prestige, than comparable students who attend institutions at which fewer resources are devoted to their education. With few exceptions, the shares of students attending our nation’s most selective public and private research universities that are Pell Grant recipients are woefully low.
Similarly, to the extent that institutions are under pressure to enhance their graduation rates, because these are used as another metric of institutional prestige and success, they can do so by devoting more resources to help the most disadvantaged students that the universities enroll succeed. Alternatively, they can do so by reorienting the nature of their institutions’ student bodies; as an example a number of urban research universities are moving away from their roots as institutions that serve disadvantaged urban residents by building more on-campus housing and using merit aid to attract less disadvantaged students from outside their cities to their institutions. Trustees must ask which strategy makes most sense for the institution and which is in the public interest. Suppose that to achieve any given level of graduation rate success is cheaper for the institution if it goes the merit aid route, rather than spending resources recruiting talented students from lower income families, providing need-based aid to them, and then providing extra support services to help them succeed at the institution. From the perspective of a trustee, is the appropriate policy choice obvious?
Creating the Faculty of the Future
American colleges and universities, including our nation’s research universities are increasing their usage of adjuncts and other forms of contingent faculty. Partially, this has resulted from financial pressures facing the institutions and uncertainty about future budgets. Partially, it has resulted from research universities encouraging their tenured and tenure-track faculty to “buy back” their teaching time so that they can devote more time to research and generate more research ( and potentially more commercialization revenues) for the university.
While adjuncts and other non tenure-track faculty save universities money, research also shows that, on balance, they adversely impact upon undergraduate students in the form of reducing graduation rates, increasing drop out rates, and reducing student interest in taking subsequent classes in the same field . That’s not to say the adjuncts aren’t working hard and that many of them aren’t deeply committed to teaching -- but people teaching from semester to semester, frequently at multiple institutions and without offices or meaningful support, face great difficulties in being as effective in the classroom. In addition, the reduction in the share of undergraduate teaching done by tenured and tenure-track faculty at research universities deprives these students of role models who might encourage them to go on to Ph.D. study and the reduction in the share of faculty positions that are tenured and tenure-track at research universities reduces the attractiveness of pursuing Ph.D. study to undergraduates attending these institutions. Put simply, although each research university trying to maximize its research output is operating in its self interest, these employment practices may hurt undergraduate education and have contributed to the decline in Ph.D. going behavior of American college students.
Should trustees take a more forceful position and argue for the importance of having more of the undergraduate teaching at research universities done by the tenured and tenure-track faculty, even if this means that less research will be produced at the university? Should trustees argue for the importance of maintaining the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty so that their institution’s students will be more likely to go on for Ph.D. study, even if this is not the deployment of faculty that will minimize the cost structure of their university?
Tenure and the Absence of Mandatory Retirement
Research universities make a commitment to faculty members when they award them tenure. Tenure is important to both faculty and the university both because it protects academic freedom and because it provides an incentive for faculty members to work for the best interests of the university and to participate in faculty governance. However, with the passage of the 1987 amendments to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, since 1994 tenure has become effectively a lifetime employment contract because tenured faculty members cannot be compelled to retire. The end of mandatory retirement for faculty surely has contributed to the growing use of contingent faculty.
The tenure system was originally adopted in the United States with mandatory retirement as an important part of the system. One would think that with the elimination of mandatory retirement that universities and their faculties would devise systems of post-tenure review processes to assure that tenure is not seen as an unfettered lifetime employment contract. Indeed, the American Association of University Professors position is that post-tenure review systems are consistent with a tenure system as long as the evaluations of faculty members are done by their peers, these reviews are seen as formative (seeking at the first level to improve performance) rather than summative in nature, the reviews are not used to shift the burden of proof from an institution (to show cause for dismissal) to the faculty member (to show cause for retention), and the reviews are conducted according to standards that protect academic freedom.
To date, post-tenure review processes have been adopted primarily at public universities, often under threat of legislatively imposed mandates. No president or provost at a private research university wants to even raise the issue with his or her faculty because of the concerns that doing so would cause the administrator to lose the support of the faculty (making it harder for him or her to lead the university) and that some faculty (but presumably not the most talented) would flee to other universities. So even though adoption of post-tenure review systems by all research universities would help to demonstrate that higher education is trying to maintain “quality control”, which is socially desirable, it is very unlikely to occur. Should the trustees of individual private research universities play the role that the legislatures play with respect to public institutions and urge the president of research universities to push for the development of post-tenure review system?
The 'U.S. News & World Report' Rankings and Controlling Costs
The annual U.S. News ranking of research universities as undergraduate institutions is partially based on the amount that each university spends per student. Any university that unilaterally cuts its spending or holds down the rate of increase in its spending relative to its competitors will fall in the rankings -- even if the spending cuts have no impact on the undergraduate experience. Previous research has shown that an institution that falls in the rankings finds in the next year that it receives fewer applications, has a lower admitted student acceptance rate, has lower SAT scores for its entering students and must increase the size of the financial aid packages that it offers to attract students, other factors held constant. No trustee should want to see his or her university fall in the U.S. News rankings.
While spending more per student does, on average, lead to better outcomes for undergraduate students (see my discussion above), given concerns about runaway costs and tuition in American universities, one would think that running an institution in an efficient matter and cutting out waste would also be a social goal.
Should trustees of public or private research universities put pressure on their institutions’ administrators to hold down costs as a way of increasing economic efficiency and reducing future increases in tuition? What is more important, their institution’s position in the rankings or operating the institution in a way that does not waste resources?
Commercialization of Research
The Bayh-Dole Act encourages universities to obtain patents on faculty research findings from research funded by government grants to provide universities with a financial incentive to speed the flow of faculty research findings into commercial use. Many research universities have established offices of technology transfer to facilitate the development of licensing arrangements and joint ventures to help accomplish this goal. While most universities actually have not yet shown a profit on such arrangements, a few have hit it big.
Even if such efforts ultimately enhance the revenue flow coming into universities, commercialization efforts may have downsides as well. These include limitations placed on access of other researchers to new research findings and limiting poor countries’ access to scientific breakthroughs that have the potential to improve their populations’ economic well-being and health. For example if the rights to market new strands of disease resistant crops or new medicines to combat serious diseases are licensed to third parties, there is no guarantee that these parties will sell them to poor nations at prices that are at all affordable. Should trustees of research universities encourage their administrators to seek commercialization contracts that would guarantee access to such discoveries to people from poor nations, even if this means a reduction in commercialization revenues coming into their universities?
Training Our Nation’s Teachers
A number of our nation’s selective private research universities have eliminated or deemphasized undergraduate teacher education programs. One reason is that teachers’ salaries are lower than the earnings in alternative occupations that graduates of these institutions enter and thus potential teachers may be unwilling to take on the large debts that are often necessary to finance attendance at these institutions. Another reason is that schools of education typically do not generate large volumes of external research funding and that the alumni of these schools typically do not have the financial resources to generate large gifts to the institutions.
A number of studies suggest that, on average, students learn more when they are taught by teachers with high academic ability. Other studies suggest that students from selective academic colleges and universities are more likely to enter teaching if there is an opportunity for them to become at least provisionally certified as a teacher as part of their four-year undergraduate program. Given concerns about the quality of elementary and secondary education in the United States, encouraging, rather than discouraging, bright college students to enter teaching careers is very important for our nation’s well-being.
Rather than reducing their role in training teachers, should research universities, especially the most selective ones, be developing programs to encourage their students to enter the teaching profession? One possible policy would be to develop loan forgiveness programs for graduates who enter teaching; these would be analogous to programs that a number of leading law schools have adopted for their graduates who enter public interest law careers. To develop funding to support these programs will require the development of increased annual giving or increased endowments for these purposes; to do so will invariable reduce the funding available for other initiatives that the institution may perceive to be in its private interest. Should trustees of research universities urge their administrators to move in this direction?
The Land Grant Mission
Many public universities were founded with explicit land grant missions and historically have received funding from state and federal governments to help them carry out these missions. Through agricultural, cooperative, and industrial extension services, they have been major transmitters of knowledge to American farmers, consumers, workers and industry. Cuts in state and federal funding have limited the ability of land grant universities to carry out their land grant missions. The universities cannot “load” the costs of these activities onto the backs of undergraduates in the form of higher undergraduate tuitions. They have been forced to become more entrepreneurial and to use the “profits” that they generate from groups that can pay for their services (e.g. large corporations) to subsidize the provision of services to underserved populations. However, forced to generate their own revenues, it is natural for them to spend a larger share of their time on commercial activities and less on serving the public at large.
If a land grant university were to devote more resources to extension and public service activities, these funds would again have to come from annual fund raising and from raising endowments to support these activities. More generally, if other public and private research universities are serious about their social mission, they too should be engaged in activities to benefit society more broadly, such as working to improve elementary and secondary education, and will need similar sources of funding to do this.
While a recent Washington Monthly ranking of universities took involvement in extension and public service activities into account, this ranking is currently not one to which many people pay much attention. So devoting resources to these activities will mean doing less of other things. How do trustees, who have fiduciary responsibility for operating budgets, decide what the appropriate balance is between these activities and what many view as the core missions of the university -- undergraduate and graduate teaching and research?
Ronald G. Ehrenberg
Ronald G. Ehrenberg is th Irving M. Ives Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Economics at Cornell University, director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, and a faculty trustee at Cornell. The views expressed in this piece are solely his own. A longer version, with citations, is available on the research institute's Web site as a working paper titled “Key Issues Facing Trustees of National Research Universities in the Decades Ahead.”
The academic year 1990-91 was my third year at Wesleyan. I did not know it at the time, but it would end the first half of my presidency at the institution. I thought at the time that I would stay there for many years. I had only begun to work on some of the major issues of the place: its budgetary shortfall, its far-flung curriculum, and, above all, the painful question of its identity.
There was a great deal to do. Over the years Wesleyan had lost key faculty and these individuals, I knew, had provided much of the intellectual life-blood of the place. We had to replace them with scholars who would replenish and then increase the school’s educational capital. Everything I knew about colleges and universities had told me that you build institutional strength on the quality of the faculty; nothing can substitute for it. And I wanted to fulfill the pledge I had made to the campus that at least 4 of the 19 vacant professorial positions would be filled by people of color and 10 of them by women. This was not going to be easy to do.
As the year began, I proceeded to do what, on occasion, presidents must do. Concluding that Wesleyan did not have the administrative strength it needed to resolve the issues it faced, I asked for and accepted the resignations of several officers who had served the school for a long time. The chief academic officer had worked for Wesleyan in a meritorious way for years, exercising considerable diplomatic skill in countless situations with his faculty colleagues, both good and troublesome. He gracefully returned to the faculty and resumed his career as superb teacher and scholar. The dean of students who, years before, had been one of the first black students at Wesleyan had risen to administrative prominence contending again and again with difficult students, impossible students, and some very good students. But exasperated and fatigued by his job, his for 17 years, he left Wesleyan to take a position with the Ford Foundation. The third officer, who for years supervised in a distant and supercilious way both fund-raising and public relations, seemed wedded to the style of my predecessor and considered me an unfortunate interloper. After several failed attempts to get him to accept the fact that I really was the president, I told him that I would begin a search for his successor. He left the university in anger and resentment.
New college and university presidents find that changes they want to make in the administrative structure are not accomplished easily or quickly. That was my experience; it is the experience of every president. The administrative colleagues I had inherited had been at the institution for a long time. Each of them had allies, networks of memory and friendship, and a sense of rootedness. For me to make personnel changes was to challenge the weight of institutional history. While some observers might believe that a university president can behave like a CEO, striking with impunity down through the layers of personnel to achieve an instant result, everything the president does is subjected to the closest and most protracted possible reading.
Universities, not being corporations, are profligate with time. Hence nothing on a campus is viewed only once; every change, as well as every possibility of change, is scrutinized again and again. Moreover, the "hermeneutics of suspicion," as literary scholars term it, is visited upon all new things. And it does no good to consider the job I had to be equivalent to that of a "CEO." The business CEO is responsible only to a board of directors; the university or college president is responsible to a great number of parties, each of them holding its own system of values and its own proprietary relationship to the institution. Chief among these parties are the trustees and the faculty. Each of them has a hold on the president’s tenure, and a faculty who has lost confidence in a president possesses as much authority as the trustees who officially appoint presidents and accept their resignations.
But the personnel changes I made were more or less accepted by the campus and Wesleyan seemed ready to work with new people. But I did not appoint them all by myself. Everything important on a university campus is done collectively. For example, a search committee, made up almost entirely of faculty members, and chaired by a senior member of the faculty, was established to find the new chief academic officer. Because authority is oddly dispersed on the Wesleyan campus, as it is on every campus, this new officer would formally report to me, but his or her selection would largely be in the hands of the faculty group. The principle of "dual control" would be in force, a principle that recognizes two facts: 1. presidents are the receptacles in which power is nominally placed, but much of that power is informally in the hands of others; and 2. faculty members are not so much the employees of the institution as they are its intellectual engine and its most important asset. They are "capital" rather than "labor." The faculty rightly demands primary control over educational processes, and considers trustee or presidential involvement in those processes as unacceptable. All of which makes “control” of the institution an ambiguous matter. Sometimes it’s hard to know who is in charge of a college and university, and while the fiction of “presidential leadership” is often employed to mask this reality, the president -- every president -- learns after a while how much of his authority is, in fact, in the hands of others.
After a strenuous search, Wesleyan appointed Joanne Creighton [who has since become president of Mount Holyoke College] as the new chief academic officer. She had been successful as the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she also was a professor of English. She brought toughness of mind and an admirably imperturbable manner to Wesleyan. “Another day; another problem solved” seemed to be her motto. She looked at the academic budget, winced once or twice, and got to work. She did not make the mistake, easy for someone new to the job, of first looking for items to cut; instead, she framed the process as one establishing what had to be saved. After that, in time, but with certainty: the cuts.
Beginning with a sense of priorities, she looked at her work as objective exercises in academic planning. This formalized her labors and it depersonalized the process. For a while, the faculty reared back and pleaded self-rule, but she briskly informed the chairs of departments that, after all, she held certain important “cards,” they being the collection of faculty positions reverting to her office upon the death or retirement of colleagues. She would reallocate them on the basis of her judgment of which departments were making good sense of what they were doing, what they were teaching, and where they were going. She was aware of the narcissistic tendencies of the faculty and their preference to cast blame rather than take responsibility for the institution, but she reminded them that Wesleyan would be their professional home for the rest of their lives. They had better care for it.
At times the faculty accused her of playing favorites, and this was true in an admirable sense: she gave preference to academic departments that were well organized and productive. And week by week, month by month, she employed her every resource to chip away at the culture of entrenched fiefdoms. Together we created a new committee, the Institutional Priorities Advisory Committee, made up entirely of faculty members. We asked its members to use every fact available about the institution to establish what Wesleyan, at its best, could be. We would listen to their advice and then we, not they, would make the most of it. I wanted, and she wanted, the faculty to take what they already had -- namely, a sense of rights and privileges -- and to add to it a sense of responsibility and obligation. I willingly gave up my position as chair of the academic council, believing that a member of the faculty should take on the job -- as occurs at most colleges. Either it was an academic body or it was not. Although several faculty members first saw this as a ploy so ingenious that its malign administrative intent could not be discerned by even the closest inspection, everybody finally accepted it as only right and proper.
We were less successful in our efforts to make institutional sense of the process by which Wesleyan tenure awarded. We inherited a highly inefficient mechanism that presumed perfidy at every turn: within the department recommending a candidate, within the elected advisory committee that would spend hours mulling over the department’s action, within the office of the provost bringing the case forward to the full complement of tenured faculty members, and also within the president who would take the case forward (if I deemed it meritorious) to the trustees for final approval. Although the faculty claimed to be interested in “quality control,” the system confused the labor-intensive with the rigorous, adding to the mix the special ingredient of suspiciousness.
While Joanne and I only partially succeeded in making the system more rational and less wasteful of faculty time, we reconciled ourselves to the fact that the faculty should indeed figure prominently in that most crucial moment: the tenure decision, the means by which they would look after their own posterity. We could supervise the fairness of the system and mop up after the occasional derelictions of faculty duty, but we had no right to extract from the faculty the dignity of their own self-determination.
In time, and with the customary indulgence of other search committees, I found able successors to the remaining vacated positions. Although I was concerned about the institution’s budgetary deficit, the chief financial officer -- Bob Taylor -- was a man of thoroughgoing integrity and competence. He had struggled for years with the institution’s predisposition to live beyond its means. He had learned, as I was to learn, that no chief financial officer can alone balance the budget if the institution continually exerts a pressure to do things for which it does not have the money. I found at Wesleyan a collective desire -- rooted in faculty hopes and dreams and endorsed by administrative sympathies and trustee lenience -- to be a certain kind of institution, indeed a wonderful institution, but one that could not support itself. The chief financial officer could minimize here and there, look for savings, and exert discipline where possible. But Joanne Creighton and I had to exercise authority and judgment about how most of the money was found and used.
As the three of us -- Joanne, Bob, and I -- worked on these problems, I began to see that the three major issues at Wesleyan -- its identity, its financial condition, and its curriculum -- evolved into one problem: could the institution shape its curriculum to reduce costs and also project to itself and to the interested public an attractive and compelling self-portrait? That was the issue I faced and asked others to face.
In addition to this imposing task, I also dealt at regular intervals with the single most exotic component of a college or university: the trustees. Those times came when the full complement of 33 men and women (mostly the former) descended upon Middletown from New York, Boston, Washington, Houston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and other cities to accomplish their regularly scheduled work. They undertook their tasks through five or six standing committees but always left themselves plenty of time to see again the campus at which most of them had once been students, have drinks and dinner, and chat about Wesleyan as they believed it to be or as they wanted it to be. Their visits were occasions for the administration to present carefully designed “show and tell” exercises, to give the best possible meaning to any situations under review, and to demonstrate that Wesleyan was in good hands. They were also occasions for the trustees to comport themselves in a way that would reinforce their belief that they were exerting general control over the institution.
After I participated in these ceremonies several times, I reflected on the historical reasons for the existence of trustees and considered the kind of asset -- or deficit -- they were to the institution. Richard Hofstadter and Walter Metzger observe in their magisterial The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States that only this country and Canada have boards of private citizens governing their private universities and colleges. European universities are characteristically under their own control but have evolved under the additional impact of both state and church. On the other hand, schools like Wesleyan (and Harvard, Princeton, Haverford, Emory and countless others) founded by nonconformist Protestant churches are quite different from the medieval universities that, thanks to church sponsorship, were held at a distance from civic authorities. As Hofstadter and Metzger observe, “both the church principle of ecclesiastical independence and the guild principle of corporate self-government provided [European] universities and society at large with dominant models of autonomy.”
Such autonomy was not a part of the formula that created America’s private universities and, in being deprived of it, institutions like Wesleyan found that the lay government establishing them wound up exerting considerable control over them. One early consequence was the reduction of the faculty’s freedom to determine its own affairs. As Hofstadter and Metzger point out, lay government, with trustees holding fiduciary control of the institution and thus, at least legally, retaining the power to hire and fire faculty and administrators, has "hampered the development of organization, initiative, and self-confidence among American college professors, and it has contributed, along with many other forces in American life, to lowering their status in the community. Other professional groups have far greater power to determine the standards and conduct of their own professions. "
And thus the strange spectacle of the Wesleyan trustees, a spectacle common to all such American trustees. While regarding their sporadic duties with utmost seriousness and working without any monetary compensation, these well-meaning men and women brought to their duties no special knowledge of education, of either teaching or research, the twin functions of the institution. They brought instead affection and loyalty. Knowing Wesleyan had changed them in positive ways, they offered it their time, their respect, and, in some cases, their philanthropic support. Officially, they were “in charge.” That is what “fiduciary responsibility” meant. But none of them, in fact, knew the college well, nor could they, given the limited time they could spend on campus. The faculty, which did possess an intimate knowledge of the institution, nonetheless felt inferior to trustee power and prestige as it was periodically visited upon the campus. This peculiar situation, in which the local education experts on the Wesleyan campus -- the faculty -- were by tradition made to feel inferior to the distant entities setting policy for them, was at the root of their anemia, an anemia of morale.
The faculty and I recognized, by way of consolation, that the trustees saw in Wesleyan what it once had been in the past -- sometimes in the imaginary past -- not what it currently was. Their link was to a place that only partially continued to exist. We, on the other hand, were on the campus as it was and there we made our respective ways. There is an endearing pathos to this situation, but I soon concluded that trustee sentimentality, as poignant as it might be, is a poor guide for stewardship.
I had to keep in mind that the duty of trustees is, in fact, to “contribute.” I learned, however, that trustee contributions are a mixed blessing. At their best, they bring, as the euphonious clichés go, “time, talent, and tribute” or “work, wisdom, and wealth.” But only rarely did any Wesleyan trustee, even those with “talent” or “wisdom,” possess the kind of sophisticated knowledge about the academic workings of the institution to be any more than a kindly observer of it. And we in the administration behaved as if indeed we were being observed. Hence the careful design of our staged presentations to the trustees, the formal introduction of one or another precisely selected star faculty member or student to speak to them, the scrubbed and polished views of the budget. We did not seek to deceive, but to convey what we could to a body of people who knew far less about the institution than we did and whose connection to it was, in sum, charitable but quite imperfect.
During those meetings, often taken up by topics with which some trustees felt affinity, such as investment management or deferred maintenance, I would wish that I could take them to witness the genius and magic of the place. It did not exist where, in light of their business or legal experience, trustees felt most comfortable -- the management of money and the repair of buildings -- but in the classroom, that extraordinary arena where young minds could be challenged and enlightened through the touch of a teacher. Wesleyan had such teachers, many of them, and such teaching constituted the core of the school’s value. But, to the trustees, the classroom seemed inaccessible, a foreign territory made up of odd young people and slightly eccentric older men and women. For me, the tragicomedy of the trustee visits was that these decent men and women were unequipped to comprehend the essence of the institution they were pledged to guide and support.
Some, but hardly all, were financially generous. One in particular, the CEO of a large national company, had long since seen Wesleyan change from the place he knew as a student. He had become a Republican businessman in Texas but something arising from his largeness of spirit and his ability to recall with genuine love the quality of his youth prompted him to support, in a wide variety of ways, and usually anonymously, his alma mater. Student radicals, incensed by one thing or another the trustees had done (usually concerning their investment policies), customarily called him terrible names when he would visit the campus. He would smile gently and, after a while, call me to say that another handsome check was in the mail. Another wealthy trustee, wise and generous about young people, set up a splendid fund along the lines of the Rhodes Trust to support fully some 80 students from 10 countries in Asia who, carefully selected, would enrich the student body and would, in time, return to their native countries with a strong American education. Such trustees exemplified what a combination of “wealth” and “wisdom” could do. But in their generosity, and in their benign understanding that the institution they now supported had moved leagues away from the one they had known as students, these two trustees were exceptions. Others, including those few who seemed prompted only by parsimony and intrusiveness, behaved differently.
Perhaps the oddest trustee behavior arose from those who felt that Wesleyan should have a specific and unique “mission” and that I, as president, must sound a rallying-cry to let the world know what Wesleyan, as opposed to all other liberal arts colleges, stood for. One trustee, looking at me with eagerness and hope, asked what my “vision” of Wesleyan was. He wanted to relay this precious idea to others in his alumni class. At the time, all I wanted was to end the year peacefully, with no other buildings burned, and students taking their final exams in peace. I thought back to Richard Lyman’s defense of Stanford in a time of violence and fear. Lyman had a “vision” then of Stanford: it should survive. That seemed to me a paramount aim for Wesleyan at the time. To the trustee, I responded that I had tried to make my idea of the institution as clear as possible in my inaugural address. I then added, by way of digest of that address, that I saw Wesleyan as a place where the highest standards of teaching and learning, reinforced by research, would be upheld, a place that would have the means to take good young minds and make them more responsive, capacious, and informed. He looked at me, deeply disappointed. To him, my words must have seemed little puffs of presidential air. I was sorry that he had nothing to take back to his classmates, but Wesleyan’s survival was my main mission at the time.
On another occasion, a trustee volunteered the idea that, to achieve fiscal equilibrium at home and uniqueness among all our “competitors,” we should consider simply dropping a full range of curricular offerings. He suggested the social sciences -- economics, political science, sociology, and history. When I responded that without those things we could not call ourselves a liberal arts institution, he asked that I think about moving away from “timeworn tradition” to establish a genuinely special “brand.” This I knew was “thinking outside the box,” but, as a result, we would destroy the box.
Unworkable ideas like this, born of business practices, now and again occur to trustees and did not surprise me. Trustees speak of what they know and where they have been. This man was an aggressive and successful broker. He moved money and thought I could just as easily move the curriculum. Although he was extraordinary in the boldness of his misunderstanding, he was no more than typical in other ways. Trustees tend to fit the following general categories: they are male, in their 50s, white, and financially successful. They are mainly in law, business, and medicine. Few are musicians, artists, or writers. Almost none is a teacher. One of the most striking facts about them is that they are almost wholly unfamiliar with the basic literature about higher education. By and large, they do not know studies such as the popular book by Henry Rosovsky, The University: An Owner's Manual (whose title might seem tempting to them). One study of their reading habits concludes: “…the trustees’ lack of familiarity with the literature serves to underscore the peripheral nature of the trusteeship for most of the board members.” Yet most trustees are not peripheral in the affection they have for “their” institution. The contrast, then, between the emotional weight they bring to their roles and their shallow knowledge of higher education in general creates a considerable challenge to all presidents and their administrative colleagues. At Wesleyan, we faced that challenge three or four times a year.
In a gesture of solicitude, a trustee would now or again tell me that he thought the presidency “must be the toughest job in the world.” Usually this meant that in his business or profession, the lines of command authority were clearer and he could exercise power more directly than I could. I would respond with thanks, adding that the scholarly literature on the presidency supported his thinking. Many people who have looked at the job have concluded that it is, if not impossible, at least very difficult. Clark Kerr delivered the classic summation of the duties of a university president:
The university president in the United States is expected to be a friend to the students, a colleague of the faculty, a good fellow with the alumni, a sound administrator with the trustees, a good speaker with the public, an astute bargainer with the foundations and the federal agencies, a politician with the state legislature, a friend of industry, labor and agriculture, a persuasive diplomat with donors, a champion of education generally, a supporter of the professions (particularly law and medicine), a spokesman to the press, a scholar in his own right, a public servant at the state and national levels, a devotee of opera and football generally, a decent human being, a good husband and father, an active member of the church. Above all, he must enjoy traveling in airplanes, eating his meals in public, and attending public ceremonies.
With the exception of those duties the president of a public institution alone would have, Kerr’s droll description fit what I found myself doing.
I knew that people thought my job very difficult, but perhaps blinded by excessive self-regard or limited in imaginative intelligence, I thought it a good one, not an impossible one, and I enjoyed almost all of its aspects. In performing all those duties Kerr described, I was glad to be active, happy to be involved in many committees, and eager to learn more about how the place worked, what made different people tick (or not tick), and what held such a curious thing as a liberal-arts college together. I slept well, exercised a lot, went to work every day with a smile, and thought myself a lucky fellow to be at Wesleyan.
When gloomy days descended, as they now and again did, I consoled myself with little mental games. Thinking about the profusion of advice I continually received from every quarter of the campus, I would say to myself: “Being president must be the easiest job in the world; after all, everybody seems to know how to do it.” Or I would think about how the “leadership” of a campus is so amusingly different from leadership elsewhere. I would recall that George Shultz once said that the biggest difference between his life as a corporate leader and his career as dean of a business school was that, in business, he had to make sure that his orders were precise and exact, given that they would likely be followed. No such danger in academia. In sum, the very peculiarities of the job were its most appealing feature.
Much of the literature on presidential leadership concludes that the job is impossible, but it should also note the obvious: at any given time, about 3,500 men and women do the job. The situation is much like that of the airplane: there is no obvious reason why so large and heavy a piece of metal can fly through the sky, yet it does. Despite the impossibility of their work, thousands of presidents go to the office every day, successfully complete some tasks, and return home.
Robert Birnbaum, one of those scholars who claims that the job is unworkable, argues that the problem of presidential leadership is that the criteria for success and failure are elusive:
…there is no accepted criterion presidents can employ to judge the benefits of one course of action over another, and little assurance that they could implement their preferences even if they could specify them. Presidential authority is limited, complete understanding of the scope and complexity of the enterprise exceeds human cognitive capability, and unforeseen changes in demographic, political, and economic conditions often overwhelm campus plans.
But the “impossibility” of such places can serve as a healthy reminder of what they are not. A university or college is not a business, does not make a profit, cannot declare quarterly earnings, “wins” nothing, hopes to flourish forever, will never be bought out, cannot relocate, is both in and out of the world, studies everything including itself, considers itself a meritocracy while continually worshipping the idea of community, and has as its greatest asset an odd assemblage of self-directed intellectual entrepreneurs who work on the most complicated aspects of their respective disciplines. What a university does is expensive, time-consuming, inefficient, wayward, hard to understand, and yet prestigious. It also helps young people and, more and more each year, looks after them in all sorts of ways. It is exclusive in admissions and appointments, but generous in sharing the fruits of its labor. It stands on ancient ceremonies yet accelerates the workings of democracy. All in all, I thought, a good place to be, even if my job was “impossible.”
As the smoke settles over the Gallaudet University campus, there’s still a lot of steam rising. Now that the Board of Trustees has decided to conduct a new search for a president of that institution, there are still heated emotions and fuming misunderstandings that surround this event that captured the attention of the media and the nation. Given the sturm und drang of the past weeks, it’s possible to make a few observations.
First, and most amazingly to me, the internal events at a small educational institution for the deaf have become a major media event. When I was a small boy with two deaf parents growing up in the Bronx in the 1950’s, I never imagined that the issue of deafness and the problems at a deaf university would ever end up on the front page of The New York Times. But the fact is that deafness and disability in general have gone from a marginal and marginalized experience to one that is central to the fabric of this country. Whether we are arguing about Terri Schiavo’s right to live, the fate of prenatal genetic screening, or sign language at Gallaudet, we are still, in effect, saying that disability and deafness are front and center in our sense of what it means to be human. Whereas in the past to be disabled or deaf was to be abnormal or somewhat inhuman, now we are beginning to define our humanity in a dialogue with our disability.
So the events at Gallaudet were momentous not just because a little university had an internal disagreement but because the issues raised around identity resonated with the general public. One issue that surfaced early was that Jane Fernandes, the candidate chosen by the trustees to be president, was not a "native signer." What this means is that although Fernandes was born hearing impaired, she didn’t learn sign language until graduate school. Reportedly her signing isn’t fluid and natural -- she in effect speaks sign language with a heavy accent and in a way that most deaf users of ASL would feel was inadequate.
For non-deaf people, this issue was perhaps the hardest thing to understand. Why would anyone reject a president for not being "deaf enough" when the person was in fact unable to hear since birth? The difficulty might be easier to understand if you imagined deciding to elect a president of the United States who spoke with a heavy accent and whose command of English was less than perfect. Add to this the fact that one of the new definitions of being deaf isn’t that your ears don’t work -- it’s that you belong to a linguistic community the way that Hispanics or the French do. Your community has a literature, a culture, a history, and a language -- but the leader of your community doesn’t share fully this cultural palette. Wouldn’t you want someone who was fully of your identity?
This argument, made early on in the anti-Fernandes campaign, was quickly shot down within Gallaudet for a number of reasons -- although the press continued to mention it as a factor in the demonstrations. The logic behind the “not Deaf enough” argument was flawed because the “deaf community” or DEAFWORLD, as the ASL sign indicates, is broad enough to include a range of people from hard-of-hearing to profoundly deaf, from those whose parents insisted on oral education to those who attended exclusive schools for the deaf that only used ASL or other sign languages. There are deaf people who use real-time captioning and don’t know any sign language. And of course there are the children of deaf adults (CODA’s) who are native signers but may be hearing. Do we really want to say that some of these people aren’t "deaf enough?" Would we want to exclude various people of color because they weren’t "black enough?"
The argument at Gallaudet quickly moved on from this starting point to other issues around Fernandes. Here the argument stopped being a national issue and became a local one. Many on campus didn’t like the selection process, felt it wasn’t open enough to student and faculty input, and felt that some candidates of color were passed over. Other folks on campus felt Fernandes, who had been in the administration of Gallaudet for a long time, wasn’t a "people person" and had made some unpopular decisions. Now the issue becomes one of bottom-up student/faculty governance versus top-down administrative decision-making. The by-laws of Gallaudet specify that the job of picking the president is solely that of the Board of Trustees, but any institution can only work if the consent of the governed is factored in. What happened at Gallaudet was that there was a loss of confidence in the administration and in Fernandes. And, in turn, both the administration and Fernandes seemed singularly inept in being able to slow down the protests and bringing rational discourse and process to Gallaudet. Instead, they chose, until Sunday, to “stay the course.” Even The Washington Post wrote an editorial in which it advised the Trustees to hold fast.
But “stay the course,” as we’ve learned the hard way, isn’t a particularly good strategy, especially if the course is a disastrous one. There is something to be said for the groundswell democratic process that happens from time to time on campuses and elsewhere. When people take to the streets, when teach-ins and public discussions transform a body of people so that they are united against a particular policy or person, then a kind of muscular democracy is taking shape. Of course, there is always the danger that this kind of improvisational democracy can become mob rule. But the flip side of this is that decisions by the appointed few can become tyranny. Those of us who recall issues from the past like civil rights, the Vietnam War, apartheid, sweat shops, and the World Bank will also remember how effective and important campus protests were.
As it turns out, the trustees were able to read the visible signs of discontent on the part of the students and faculty at Gallaudet, voting to restart the selection process. The good that will come out of this is that this new selection process will have to be more open, sensitive to the issues, and mindful of issues around deaf culture, affirmative action, and democracy in general.
But Gallaudet itself will have to learn from these trying times. First and foremost, I’d advise, as someone interested in the subject but as a non-Gallaudet person, that the issue of "not deaf enough" isn’t going to go away, although it may have dropped out of the Fernandes discussion. New calls for Gallaudet to become an ASL-only campus (now courses are taught in a variety of ways, including orally) smack of a kind of new deaf elitism. While it is more than legitimate to expect students to learn ASL (as it would be for students attending the Lycée Français in the United States to learn French), there must be ways to insure that people whose ASL isn’t up to snuff don’t get snuffed out in the education process. After all, identity is a complex and fragile thing. When you try to make it ironclad and rigid, you end up enforcing the kind of identitarianism that created discriminatory behaviors in the first place. Imagine the case of a person whose parents chose cochlear implants for them at a very early age, but now wants to come to Gallaudet and explore what it means to be deaf. Would there be room for such a person in an ASL-only environment?
The second area to develop at Gallaudet is a more democratic process for decision-making. Most people don’t realize that Gallaudet is one of a small number of universities (the military academies and Howard University being among the others) that receive substantial operating support from the federal government. The reason for this status is complicated, but at base initially was for Gallaudet a kind of paternalism on the part of the nation toward deaf people. While this notion that the nation had to protect and educate deaf people turned out to have great benefits, the legacy of paternalism remains. Perhaps the by-laws of the university reflect this stance, and it would seem a logical and progressive goal to increase the democratic processes at Gallaudet so that the legacy of paternalism can be erased forever.
Finally, it would be only right and just for all sides to bury the hatchet and look toward the future. There is no question that Jane Fernandes was on paper a very viable and possible choice to be president of Gallaudet University -- only real events in the real world changed all that. The trustees did their best, the students and faculty did their best, and in the end a solution was reached. There are no bad guys in this story, only passionate positions and a struggle for justice.
Lennard J. Davis
Lennard J. Davis is professor of disability and human development at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author of Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness and the Body (Verso) and the newly re-edited second edition of The Disability Studies Reader (Routledge).
Over the years, Antioch College birthed a number of campuses to constitute a university now composed of the college and five other campuses -- New England, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Seattle and McGregor. The five non-residential campuses comprise over 5,000 students, 400 faculty and staff members, and 18,000 alumni and constitute 92 percent of the total enrollments of Antioch University. Some 85 percent of the students in the non-residential colleges are enrolled in graduate programs -- master’s and doctorates -- in the professional fields of psychology, education, management, communication, leadership, creative writing, and environmental science.
The campuses are non-residential but not “virtual.” Students take classes in actual buildings on campus; instruction is delivered in a variety of formats (including some online components), but the substantive focus of all instruction is on reflective practice. Antioch University students aim to bring the ways of knowledge and expertise to bear on the needs and changing realities of the community and larger society. On multiple campuses but with one overarching purpose, Antioch University embodies values that are the core components of effective leadership, education, and social activism -- values which have been embedded in them by their mother campus, the college.
Indeed, the university mission statement reads “Antioch University is founded on principles of rigorous liberal arts education, innovative experiential learning and socially engaged citizenship. The multiple campuses of the university nurture in their students the knowledge, skills and habits of reflection to excel as lifelong learners, democratic leaders and global citizens who live lives of meaning and purpose.”
As is the case at some other progressive institutions, including Hampshire, Goddard, and Evergreen State ( Editors' note: Hampshire and Evergreen State have systems of long-term faculty employment that are in some ways equivalent to tenure.) Antioch chose not to establish tenure at these non-residential campuses. The campuses were intended to address a group of students whose needs would be ever changing -- adult students, many of them in professions and with families, returning to higher education to get the knowledge and qualifications they need to be effective in their careers and their communities. And to meet those students’ needs, the campuses realized their own need for flexibility in curricular offerings, the ability to anticipate program requirements and to fulfill them in creative and adaptive ways, engaging a diverse and at times non-traditional faculty.
Over some 30 years, the "adult campuses" grew and thrived by addressing the demand for graduate professional programs that are innovative and ensure quality while adapting to the working adult's schedule. To offer such programs took a group of faculty who are confident in the quality of their academic credentials and teaching ability in ways that enable them to be creative and flexible as they design programming and curriculum to stay current. It takes an amazing group of talented core faculty who spend hours on campus serving as instructors, faculty advisers, supervisors, and mentors while encouraging critical inquiry and challenging students to think in new and different ways. These core faculty hold doctorates and most are practitioners, researchers, and scholars.
Students at the Antioch University campuses do not receive a large portion of their education in courses taught by teaching assistants, as is often the case at many institutions. Rather, they are taught by these core faculty members, a significant number of whom have been with their campuses for over 20 years. In a practice that enhances the breadth and depth of their curricula, programs offered at the campuses often employ part-time faculty members who otherwise work as professional practitioners in their respective fields. These individuals, almost all of whom hold graduate degrees, many of them doctorates, commit to teaching at an Antioch campus over a period of time, providing students the opportunity to work with successful, often prominent figures in their fields of study and their professions.
The result of all of this is a faculty that brings multiple kinds of experience, expertise, and both theoretical and practical engagement with the knowledge, beliefs, and actions that are the hallmark of Antioch’s innovative and progressive education for change.
Across the years, students have responded enthusiastically -- in word and in action -- to this kind of educational process. "Antioch offers an opportunity to give yourself permission to think deeply about why you’re doing what you’re doing, then put it into practice,” wrote one. Another said, “Just a few years ago, if you talked about environmental or holistic sustainability, you were out on the edge or over the edge. Antioch has one foot in the mainstream and one foot not so.” And another: “Antioch is a school that did not seek to shape my voice, but rather helped me find and strengthen my own voice. My professors cared about how I thought; because that is the tool they taught me to sharpen.”
A few snapshots of programs and accomplishments will suggest something of the innovation, excellence, diversity, and commitment to the greater good that characterize Antioch University across its campuses:
Antioch University Seattle is the leading institution in the nation in reforming the delivery of education to Native American youth. Its innovative program, supported by multimillion-dollar grants from the Gates, Lumina and Kellogg Foundations, has established over 10 Early College models in three states that have witnessed amazing results in increasing the Native American high school retention, graduation, and successful passing of state required testing, in some cases far above the rates of middle- and upper-class students. Antioch Seattle has just named as its new president Cassandra Manuelito-Kerkvliet, who is believed to be the first Native American woman to hold the presidency of an accredited university outside the tribal college system.
Antioch University New England’s doctoral program in psychology is noted for its quality by receiving a 10-year accreditation from the American Psychological Association. The majority of the psychology master's programs in Seattle and New England are accredited by their professional accrediting agencies.
Antioch University Los Angeles's Creative Writing program will be named in the forthcoming summer fiction issue of the Atlantic magazine as one of the top five low-residency MFA programs in the United States, in the company of the Bennington and Vermont College programs. The Los Angeles MFA has distinguished itself through the use of award-winning faculty in fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction, and through innovative features such as field study, the translation seminar, the alumni weekend residency, and a student-edited online literary journal.
Antioch University McGregor recently received accreditation from the National Council on Accreditation for Teacher Education (NCATE), which attests to its excellence, for its master's in education program while many other large public institutions have lost their accreditation.
The Antioch University Ph.D. in Leadership and Change has been recognized by the Ohio Board of Regents for its quality and innovation. In “Shift Happens" (published in the July/August issue of Educause), Bill Graves cites Antioch's Ph.D. program as "a paradigm-shifting innovation in doctoral education" with positive implications for both graduate-level curriculum and delivery design and undergraduate applications.
These few glimpses of the campuses should confirm that Antioch University is a community of educators and learners – advocates, activists, risk-takers, mavericks, entrepreneurs, creative thinkers, and problem solvers. Those who teach and study at the non-residential campuses fully believe in and work to extend the values upon which Antioch College was founded and for which it has stood across the decades. Indeed, as one current student in the Ph.D. in Leadership and Change program wrote recently in a letter to TheChronicle of Higher Education, “Many of us in the doctoral program profoundly value our program’s connection with the undergraduate, historically significant, values-driven college. We signed on to study at Antioch, among other reasons, because we wanted a program connected with a deep history and values, a program with deep roots. We chose Antioch.”
The Board of Trustees of Antioch University is committed to ensuring the future of Antioch -- across all its campuses and in a manner consonant with its proud history and accomplishments. The temporary suspension of operations at Antioch College was taken as a protective move to enable a time in which to regroup and revitalize the College. Its reopening is strongly advocated and anticipated. As that process moves forward, the five non-residential campuses of Antioch University continue to embody the Antioch vision of higher education, with its dedication to innovation and excellence.
We have all heard about Procrustes, the mythological Greek bandit who stretched short visitors and lopped off limbs of taller guests to make them fit his bed. I imagine that Procrustes himself fit his bed perfectly. That is, he saw himself as the ideal height and of course the ideal being. To invoke a less brutal tale, we might say this is the Goldilocks understanding of the world where my bed, and of course my porridge, are “just right.”
I have Procrustes and Goldilocks on my mind because after 30 years as a university president, I am now reinventing myself as a professor who will also serve as a consultant to Korn/Ferry’s higher education practice. As a faculty member, I hope to teach and write about the academic world, particularly its leadership. And, on an adjunct basis, I hope to be helpful, in a clinical way, identifying the next generation of university presidents. Reflecting on this reminded me of a story. A distinguished friend of mine was in the running to be president of a land-grant university. His credentials as a professor, dean, vice-president, and provost were the best any university could hope for, let alone expect. He had two earned doctorates. He made it to the short list of three or four candidates. Then he learned he had been cut, the reason being that he had spent his entire prior career in private universities, and this shortcoming proved fatal.
What makes this recollected story more interesting and poignant is my friend and colleague got exactly the same response that I received from exactly the same institution when I was a candidate for its presidency over 20 years ago. I wondered what they were thinking then and continue to wonder what they are thinking now.
The board of trustees of that public university naturally has changed and no doubt most of the faculty and the administration have been renewed. But the antipathy against a career in private universities has proved much more durable and incomprehensible: they still make a Procrustean bed and find it just right to sleep in.
Where and how does this thinking arise? My hunch is that it comes from a sense of exceptionalism, a belief that State U. or Leafy Quad College is just right and thus a candidate for the presidency, or even a deanship, should have a résumé and experiences that fit right in. Of course, these similarities are a matter of form rather than substance.
The substantive differences between any two institutions may lie in size, wealth, the faculty, traditions, religious affiliation, physical location, the student pipeline, and other possibilities, but the form of its charter -- public or private -- does not seem in any way probative of difference. Like all such notions, the one I have been describing is arguably unjustified.
This troubles me. As I anticipate my role as a trusted advisor, I am concerned that I may act in the same way. I have been the successful and unsuccessful object of searches, but I have no experience seeking a university president (searching for deans and professors is not the same). And in this way, I am in abundant, if not necessarily good, company. The odds are long that any member of a presidential search committee will have ever done it before -- and just as long that, having done it once, no member of the committee will ever do it again. There’s usually no practice or rehearsal.
As far as I can tell, many of the firms universities engage to help get the search going do not routinely instruct members of the committee deeply in the art and mystery of their craft. Left to their own devices, the committee members are likely to fall back on their personal experiences. They may earnestly believe themselves to be open-minded and clear-sighted and be sure they have no preconditions in mind. Unless, however, they examine themselves closely and, ideally, undergo some introspection to reveal any lurking predispositions, it seems likely that some institutional or personal perspective (or both) will inevitably inform their thinking and, ultimately, their choice of candidate.
The reason I believe this is that most of us are given to thinking in the short or near term. In the present case, the near term is hiring a new president, though the president may be around for a generation. Even if he or she serves only six or eight years, roughly the average tenure these days, that can be a longish period of time. Because the committee is likely thinking of the job at hand, its members may not see the outer distance; they want to choose a president and get on to the future. They will look for characteristics which, they believe, will solve the immediate problems which are 1) the hiring itself, 2) any specific (and possibly annoying) issues on campus, and 3) the advancement of their own concerns by finding a sympathetic candidate.
Thus, for example, one trustee may want a candidate who appears willing to robustly engage unions, another will want someone who seems committed to diversity, and a third will be interested in a candidate who has successfully raised funds for science buildings. Anyone can add to this list -- and it will be very long. But it will be a bill of particulars, a pork barrel.
These desires do not reflect what the long-term project is intended to accomplish -- which is the election of someone capable of leading the university for years and being able to handle the dozens of tasks and constituencies that confront any university president. These may include labor relations, affirmative action, and facilities, but details like these should be secondary in the search process to discovering and understanding the character, temperament, values, vision and personality of the candidates.
One can quite reasonably imagine a candidate from a private institution whose experiences and his/her response to questions from the search committee are exactly right for a land-grant university. Just as an individual who has been at a state institution could be perfect for a small liberal arts college. I myself, for example, have had my entire education and my entire career at independent institutions (Columbia, Yale, Harvard, Boston University, University of Hartford and George Washington University) but I am a great advocate of community colleges, which I believe to be authentically American and I often say that they are to higher education what jazz is to music. Moreover, I am a non-stop advocate for public institutions and the value they add to the nation and constantly refer to the observations I had as a boy and the good work done by the City University of New York and the State University of New York. You couldn’t grow up in Brooklyn without believing in the Dodgers and Brooklyn College. My professional path reflects the way things went and opportunities presented themselves not as ideological Johnny-one-note.
This is extremely difficult, given the amateur status of the members of the search team, the comparatively brief time most committees spend with even the short-listed candidates, and the ambition to get the job done with dispatch. Yet it seems to me that probing the character, temperament, and personality of the candidates, and especially the leading one, is the most rational (or perhaps the least irrational) avenue of approach. I was pleased to see this accomplished recently at my own institution when they looked for someone to follow me.
It puts Procrustes and Goldilocks to one side, by neither forcing a fit nor declaring the candidate is “just right.” The fit will be revealed over the course of years, not on the fly, and no one can conceivably be just right on all the particular institutional and personal issues. What is more important is the indefinable, but recognizable, quality of being what the institution needs now and, as far as anyone can see, for some period to come -- perhaps an innovator or a consolidator, maybe a tear-down specialist or a peace-maker, all depending. But we will find that by understanding the candidates’ substance and versatility, not their take on the issues of the day, which will be forgotten or different next year anyway.
What I propose is time-consuming, but cheap at the price of a little more work. It is much costlier to hire the wrong candidate and even more unthrifty to have to conduct a new search before its time. It is also the least irrational approach to a piece of work that sorely tests reason.
Stephen Joel Trachtenberg
Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is president emeritus and professor of public service at George Washington University.