Antioch University was given an advance copy of the following op-ed, with the permission of the author, and offered the chance to respond with its own statement that would have appeared simultaneously with the publication of this piece, so that the university could offer its views and analysis of the issues discussed. After initially indicating that it would do so, and confirming as late as Wednesday afternoon that it would do so, the university stopped returning calls or responding to e-mails about the op-ed piece and indicated through an outside public relations official that it would not respond at this time. At the same time, the university's lawyers sent a letter objecting to any use of the phrase "NonStop Antioch," the former name of an effort mentioned in this op-ed.
Hundreds of Antioch College alumni returned to Yellow Springs, Ohio for a reunion in June, and they packed Kelly Hall for the Alumni Board’s update on talks to save the college. Even as the Antioch University administration was proceeding with its plan to close the college at the end of the month, Antioch faculty took the stage to tell the audience about what was then being called "NonStop Antioch," an ambitious and indeed inspiring enterprise that will keep the Antioch spirit alive and in the village of Yellow Springs for the next two years: Without campus classrooms, dorms, or services, faculty will nevertheless design and teach courses in which students as well as community members will enroll while fund-raising staff work intensively with alumni to raise the money needed to reopen the college and begin its restoration to health. Several professors from surrounding colleges will teach NonStop courses and seminars gratis and individuals and organizations in Yellow Springs will provide teaching and study locations -- which they aren’t calling “classroom space” but “sanctuary.”
Longtime Antioch faculty member Hassan Rachmanian captured the spirit of the effort when he told the Kelly Hall audience that the university administration “may have taken the college’s body but we have its soul.” Ironically, the creators of this initiative cannot utter the words “NonStop Antioch” because the university has threatened legal action against any unauthorized use of the name “Antioch.” So old-fashioned call-and-response filled Kelly Hall: those on the stage shouted “NonStop!” and the audience, not subject to the university’s legal threats, roared back “Antioch!”
Some professors will offer their favorite courses. Others will create new courses designed to capitalize on Antioch’s co-op tradition as well as the town/gown relationship. In one such course, combining political science with investigative journalism, students will track the presidential election by conducting videotaped interviews in traditionally liberal Yellow Springs as well as in nearby Clark County, long considered a bellwether district in nationwide voting.
Inspiring as this weekend was, and brave as NonStop is, we have to ask: How did it come to this? How could the university’s Board of Trustees have decided to turn down three reasonable deals with great potential to save the college -- and at considerably less cost and effort than will now be required? As a board member from October 2001 until last month, I can offer my perspective on events since June 2007 and on what’s happening now.
The chancellor’s presentation also included a sweetener -- a plan to re-open the college in 2012. The plan had a couple of hitches: the chancellor would have to find corporate funding, and she and her “team” would direct the design of this “new Antioch College.” A lot of alums were skeptical the minute they heard “corporate funding” and “Antioch College” in the same sentence. And college faculty saw at once that the plan’s target date of 2012 would enable the university to terminate tenured appointments without violating AAUP requirements that faculty be rehired if the institution reopens within three years. (An earlier draft suggests that the plan’s original target date was 2011. If Murdock made the strategic change to evade AAUP censure, it would make sense. In her prior position as president of Antioch-Seattle, which like all of Antioch’s regional campuses operates without tenure, she had advocated eliminating tenure at the college and tried to ignore AAUP concerns about the dismissal of several Seattle faculty members.)
Last year’s reunion took place just two weeks after the board’s closure bombshell and elicited from alumni on behalf of their alma mater an outpouring of love and commitment that university administrators and board members had claimed did not exist. With 250 alums scheduled to attend, more than 600 showed up and turned the reunion into an old fashioned revival meeting that raised hearts, hopes, and more than $8 million dollars. Over the following year, alumni submitted a series of proposals to the trustees that sought to keep the college open, establish its autonomy from the university, and create an independent board. The critical argument was that alumni and other significant donors would support the college under conditions of independence but not when it remained within the university structure. Then on May 8 of 2008, the board rejected the last of these proposals, a move that most trustees must have hoped would finally bring this fraught and exhausting year to an end. But this wasn’t to be. When the board convened on June 5 in Keene, New Hampshire, trustees found campus advocates awaiting them with statements, arguments, petitions, and media packets, and promises of more to come. Unexpectedly, at the end of the meeting, the board voted unanimously to direct the Antioch Alumni Association to develop a plan to save the college that would include taking over its operations for good.
Thus this year’s reunion, too, came hard on the heels of a startling announcement from the Board of Trustees, and no one knew exactly what to think. While the June 2007 decision was the frustrated outcome of decades of heartache and hand-wringing by a series of boards about the college’s financial problems, this board’s vote in May 2008 to reject the last of the proposals not only acknowledged its own failure to solve those problems but also its stubborn determination to “stay the course” despite the massive re-engagement of alumni, the commitment of significant funds, and ongoing publicity critical of the university and the board. Though the board leadership spent incalculable hours and travel dollars in negotiations and acknowledged the college’s materially changed outlook, they treated the June 30, 2008 closure deadline like a holy grail. I joined the board in October of 2001. I resigned on May 7 this year, the day before that final negative vote, because I had violated the board’s cult-like oath of confidentiality that by then we were each required to renew at the beginning of every meeting and conference call. A number of trustees during the past year objected to the board’s secrecy, but largely in vain, and this helped doom all three plans to save the college. "Secrecy is for losers," said Daniel Patrick Moynihan, but secrecy was a winner in the decision to close Antioch.
Of course, just about every board that hasn’t adopted radical sunshine laws conducts some of its business in confidence, notably personnel matters and especially the hiring or firing of chief executive officers. But our board, as the year proceeded, enlarged the cone of silence to encompass just about everything we did short of picking turkey or veggies for lunch.
Was this destructive? Yes. It helped isolate board members at a time when we badly needed outside voices and independent expertise. Information technology, for example, was a fairly large line item in the university’s reckoning of college expenditures, but many campus community members said IT was a joke: Faculty, students, and even administrative staff told me that they often had to leave campus to find a functioning computer and Internet connection, and there seemed to be only one working copy machine available to the whole campus. A more serious discrepancy involved the role of the college’s assets in providing security for the university’s capital expenditures. Professors charged that the assets -- including the endowment -- were used as loan and bond collateral for buildings on the adult campuses, including Antioch-McGregor’s controversial building in Yellow Springs. The university administration and the board categorically denied this charge.
Ironically, the board’s commitment to “transparency” served to obscure such discrepancies. True transparency, if such a thing can be achieved, is fine: It aims to illuminate what is not readily visible, acknowledge and articulate competing interests, identify the historical and cultural contexts that have shaped divergent positions, and vigorously articulate counter-arguments and interpretations. True transparency means less control, more contradiction, more openness.
The board and administrative leadership and the university’s legal counsel repeatedly espoused and asserted transparency, with Exhibit A being the chancellor’s PowerPoint forecast of financial doom in June 2007. But as negotiations continued and pressures mounted, presentations became dogmatically non-transparent. They had their version of the truth and selected facts, arguments, and documentation to support it. Sometimes the efforts were laughable: With hundreds of alumni and others loudly protesting Antioch’s closure each week in letters, e-mails, and national media, and with Google Alert making updates immediately accessible, board members would be forwarded only expressions of support for their decision: An e-mail complaining about the college from an embittered 1980 alum, a letter from the pissed-off mom of a recent college drop-out, a George Will column. More disturbing were the memoranda prepared for us by the university’s lawyers with their relentlessly narrow and corporate interpretations of our fiduciary responsibility and duty of care, the nature of trusteeship, and our risk of personal liability. The chancellor at one point characterized the college’s alumni as “chaotic” because they do not speak with a uniform or unified voice. These cautionary directives from the university’s legal counsel, in contrast, were designed to promote a unified voice on the board.
In part as a result of this controlled information flow, most board members have known little of the chancellor’s behind-the-scenes aggressions against the college this past year. She would no doubt say she was just doing the job we told her to do: closing down the campus. At first it just seemed like coincidence that when events took a pro-college turn, the chancellor would scorch some campus earth. But after awhile these actions began to look deliberately and unnecessarily hostile. Or, at least with regard to the first example, just callous. Just after the June 2007 announcement of closure and the negative outcry in the local and national press, a homeland security simulation had been scheduled by one of the chancellor’s minions. To be held in beloved Olive Kettering Library on the Antioch campus, the scenario called for several Antioch students to simulate being dead; even the Yellow Springs cops thought that under the circumstances this was a tad insensitive and offered alternative space. No, said the minion, the SWAT team wanted to practice in the library stacks, so -- as documented in the film “Antioch Confidential” -- the simulation went forward.
At the end of August, the board, together with the university administration, scheduled two days in Cincinnati to hear testimony from most of the college’s constituencies. By the end of the meeting the board, quite moved by the presentations, voted all but unanimously to step onto the slippery slope and support the Alumni Association’s efforts to keep the college open. So that the alumni could assemble a proper proposal with fund-raising targets and a business plan, the chancellor was directed to share all necessary financial data and to help. I left that meeting optimistic and full of respect for my fellow board members who, it seemed to me, genuinely wanted this initiative to succeed. And Steve Lawry, president of the college, said he was satisfied with this turn of events and would now be able wholeheartedly to resume his visits to potential donors.
The minions then created a management-sanctioned alumni newsletter, as though the professional alumni development staff were irresponsible cranks: In place of the familiar graphic of the Antioch towers, alumni opened their e-mails to the inaugural issue of “Good News!” with its upbeat account of the “positive” and “collaborative” meeting in Cincinnati. Alumni, also receiving the “real” alumni newsletter from the college development staff as well as the Yellow Springs News and the Antioch Record online -- all with reports of what had already been dubbed the Labor Day Massacre -- were understandably astonished and outraged. Yet when they, and I myself as a board member, asked Art Zucker, the board chair, to account for these actions, he denied their significance and impact. He characterized Steve Lawry’s dismissal as the decision any responsible CEO might make, changing the locks as “standard operating procedure,” and campus reactions as “over-reactions.” A member of the board’s executive committee chided me privately for questioning the chancellor’s actions; she was “following our mandated process” and was quite in order to take control over an unruly college staff. Whenever you shut down a division, he added, “you gotta expect anxiety and fallout.” In this instance, and thereafter, “fallout” was rarely discussed formally by the board, but the leadership did start issuing regular statements of praise for the chancellor, while “the board’s mandated process” became a familiar mantra.
Then in November, following a regular board meeting in Yellow Springs that seemed to last forever, the board voted to lift the suspension of operations. Students rang bells in the campus towers, but the vote turned out to have changed nothing: With financial exigency still in place, the chancellor argued, there could be no student recruitment, no renegotiation with the Ohio Board of Regents of the college’s degree-granting and accreditation status, no extension of faculty positions or student graduation dates. The chancellor had her marching orders and it was her legal and fiduciary duty to honor the timeline, no matter how many bells were ringing. Legal counsel chimed in.
In a 2006 essay on communication at Antioch University (posted on the Antioch Papers Web site), the chancellor clearly expressed her preference for top-down, fully controlled communication, with everything authorized or supervised by the chancellor. So when the alumni leaders scheduled an open meeting to talk with the campus community, the chancellor wanted to close the campus to them, and to outsiders in general -- anyone who might foster the free flow of information and specifically deliver misleadingly hopeful messages about the college’s future. As one of the minions said, “Hope is creating the problem.” Trying to close the campus to the alumni leaders also reflected the university’s position that they were not a group of alumni but a rival corporation seeking to engineer a hostile takeover of the college. In the same spirit, the university even forced the Alumni Association to rent back its own campus buildings for this June’s reunion and, with dorms already shut down, alumni had to sleep in tents or off campus; there was no cafeteria service because the university is suing the village over its chiller unit.
Such ways of thinking are common in corporate culture and most of the board seemed familiar and comfortable with them, but they’re at odds with academic principles and practices. While the university is, indeed, a corporation and the chancellor is its CEO and the members of the board are its directors, an academic institution is distinct in many ways from other corporate bodies. Not only Antioch but most American colleges and universities subscribe to principles advocated by the American Association of University Professors, widely regarded as a leading authority on sound academic practices. Most famous is the AAUP’s 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which the Antioch College faculty references in their lawsuit against the university. Like other academics who’ve served on the board (sadly, a shrinking constituency), I’m an AAUP member who’s raised issues about academic practices, including “shared governance,” the association’s principle that the administration, board, and faculty of an academic institution should work together to shape its life and future. But the board and chancellor appear to have rejected shared governance, declaring financial exigency without prior or subsequent faculty consultation and even stating at one point that “shared governance may apply to the Antioch campus but does not apply to the relationship between the campus, the university administration, and the board.” I believe the AAUP would consider this interpretation incorrect.
As the scorched earth campaign continued, the chancellor found new ways to disrupt fund raising and alumni relations, and board deadlines came and went. College support staff would find their corporate credit cards canceled, so they couldn’t schedule fund-raising trips or meet with alumni chapters (in June 2007, eight alumni chapters existed; today there are nearly 50). Or they would be told that as college employees they couldn’t raise money for an outside corporation, or their reservations for meeting rooms would be canceled without notification, or they’d be prohibited from contacting certain donors or accessing certain records, or a minion would be installed as their supervisor, or they’d be threatened with being audited or fired. Alumni leaders were regularly summoned to mediate conflicts, further delaying progress. And the campus grew dimmer and grimmer. Housekeeping and security services on campus were sharply curtailed, buildings were closed, long-time faculty and staff members were fired. The Coretta Scott King Center for Cultural and Intellectual Freedom, opened in March 2007, was closed, and a funding proposal from its director was rejected. When the chancellor learned that many of the confidential documents posted on the Antioch Papers Web site had not been leaked by insiders but legitimately acquired by members of the public from Antiochiana, the institution’s archive, where board materials were routinely sent for storage, she changed the archives’ locks and restricted its hours and access to the public, including the alumni who have donated many of its holdings.
Some actions were taken without full board notification, consultation, or approval. Although many of them will radically increase the financial and administrative burden of re-opening the college and its campus, the full board never directed her to explore putting off the deadline for closure. They just let her run out the clock.
So now it’s July 2008. Students, faculty, and staff have left, retired, taken other jobs, or moved to the NonStop campaign, while the physical plant is on a forced march to oblivion. Historic G. Stanley Hall Hall has been razed along with the huge trees that surrounded it. Heat and air conditioning have been turned off. Furniture, equipment, curtains, and carpeting will be discarded. The buildings will accumulate moisture all summer and be subjected to a hard freeze when cold weather comes. The minions found algae in the campus pool and drained it, depriving the Yellow Springs community of a long-shared facility. Next year zero-occupancy rules apply. If, or when, the Alumni Association’s plans for the college come to fruition, the buildings may not be permitted to reopen unless they meet current construction codes.
Of course we’re joyful that we still might get our college back. But are we like Charlie Brown, eternally wooed by Lucy’s promise that this time will be different -- this time she won’t pull the football out from under him, this time she’s on his/our side? Or is the chancellor determined to wreck the college by any means necessary? As one of my Antioch friends channels her, in a screech, from the Wizard of Oz: “I’ll have your college -- and your little dog too!”
Some alumni believe that if they can raise enough money, the board will now cooperate.
I agree about the money. And I agree that the board has moved in a significantly different direction. But the reign of terror against the campus and its ongoing human cost, which I have sketched briefly here, are significant realities as well.
Scholars of conflict, like anthropologist Victor Turner, tell us that during prolonged conflicts, especially under conditions of structural inequity or ambiguity, the less powerful are likely to paint the more powerful in apocalyptic terms. In writing here about Antioch, I have likened the chancellor to the wicked witch, hinted that the board and university leadership share qualities with the George W. Bush administration, and even used “ground zero” in my title. But when I look coldly at the outcomes of this past year, I see something more mundane: a failure of imagination, an aversion to risk, a regime fixated on management instead of governance, and ultimately an overall pattern of incompetence.
“The chancellor calls the alumni chaotic,” said one community member recently: “This is a woman who can’t even change a lock without throwing the whole campus into chaos.”
Whether apocalyptic or mundane, the college struggle has not unfolded on the flat playing field trumpeted by Toni Murdock’s idol Thomas Friedman. The chancellor is still the CEO of this corporation. The board is still the decider. The university is still the entity its legal counsel prioritizes and protects. Against such odds, alumni and Antioch’s other friends must continue financially and politically to support the activities and organizations that can still provide direction and leverage: Direct action, legal services, NonStop, the Alumni Association and the College Revival Fund, the Antioch Papers, and the many creative projects that help document the Antioch story. Even as we hope for a happy ending, we have to stay vigilant. In the largest sense, this means we all have to be involved, NonStop.
Paula Treichler, who graduated as a philosophy major from Antioch College in 1965, grew up in Yellow Springs, Ohio; her parents served on the Antioch faculty for 34 years. With a Ph.D. in linguistics and psycholinguistics, she has held faculty and administrative positions at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign since 1972. She has published numerous essays on higher education.
In the next 15 years millions more of our citizens must get into and through higher education. Why? According to the statistics and numerous reports published over the last couple of years, we need an educated work force to propel the U.S. economy forward, an economy that is capable of benefiting from and working with rapidly emerging economies around the world. But yet , as Fareed Zakaria wrote in a recent article in Newsweek, “Just as the world is opening up, we are closing down.”
The numbers are in. We know what is needed for the U.S. If our colleges and universities cannot produce the millions of additional graduates, we could confront a crisis that will lead to a preponderance of “closed for business” signs unless urgent and significant action is taken.
Today, most governors, state legislative leaders, and higher education leaders understand that the path to economic security and prosperity for our nation and our states runs through the college campus. Why, then, does the task appear to be so daunting, so overwhelming?
The force of the need to educate many more millions is on a collision course with other forces confronting today’s campuses. The federal budget and many state budgets are constrained by present economic conditions and rocketing spending for defense, public safety, health care, human services and transportation. There likely won’t be a pot of gold at the end of the government budget rainbow for most colleges and universities to garner significantly more operating funds to accomplish what they are being asked to do. Plus, now -- even more than earlier this decade -- policy makers appear to be more opposed to continuous and significant increases in tuition and fees as a means to redress budget shortfalls.
As a result, productivity and affordability in higher education will take center stage just as accountability took center stage this past decade. What is the answer? Of course, there is no one right answer, but answers must be found and they must be found quickly. Collective and empowered leadership will be required on the campus, in governing boards, at state capitols, and in the business sector. No one gets a pass; no one gets to point a finger at the other.
The challenge is to focus on colleges becoming more productive by growing revenues through increased enrollments at the same time they become more efficient in offering their services. After all, both the need and the potential users are there. Most private sector businesses would be delighted to have such a need for their services and would be retooling to meet that need.
Campus and/or system leadership is the key to unlocking doors to greater productivity and affordability. After all, the citizenry will receive their education from the campus, the place where the work gets done. Higher education leaders proclaim that campuses are loaded with the intellectual capital to create and innovate. So, as higher education leaders we should not and cannot wait for government or the private sector to singlehandedly meet these challenges for us. We must take the lead. That may be our greatest public service challenge to date.
The first requirement is for campus leaders to understand and accept the reality, the necessity of meeting the country’s need for millions more educated citizens, while at the same time acknowledging the government budget constraints to do so. Many already do understand this dilemma and would welcome partners in the policy-making realm and business sector to join them in seeking positive solutions. However, if campus leaders resist the challenge and choose to not accept reality, policy makers will likely force external solutions that may not be the most desirable or related to real campus solutions.
What is urgently needed now is collective leadership from the campus, business sector, and policy-making entities to engage as peers in addressing this crisis. Campus leaders should take the first step to create the environment where constructive solutions can be found. Old ways of solving public policy issues -- such as testifying to legislative committees in an "us vs. them" manner -- will not work: such practices foster the belief that every answer must depend on some type of funding.
Yes, initially the campus may need to address some tough questions about existing practices such as the role of tenure and using more part-time faculty, but those questions already exist. Engaging faculty and administrators with policy makers and leaders from the business sector (all in the same room at the same time) will undoubtedly lead to answers that will be more broadly understood, supported, and actually capable of being successfully implemented.
Likewise, policy makers play a key role in addressing the need for a more educated work force and should acknowledge their role in addressing the challenge to educate millions more citizens. They should accept the need for an adequate funding support base for campus operations and financial aid benefiting students at all types of institutions They should discontinue reducing the percentage of the public budget allocated to higher education in order to fund other parts of the budget. They should support innovative approaches to productivity and permit campuses to redirect productivity savings. These actions will send a clear commitment to higher education leaders about policy makers’ commitment to educating many more citizens.
Major, not minor, change will need to be considered by this collective leadership to ensure an affordable postsecondary education for millions more of our citizens. Some ideas to consider putting on the table include the following:
Change the cultural perception of a campus as a “place to go” to be one that provides instruction and enhances learning. Make significant changes to the instructional delivery model. Consider removing traditional time constraints such as quarters and semesters.
Hire campus leaders with a passion for increasing productivity and student success. Hold campus leaders and departments accountable with rewards for specific, significant results. Examples could include increases in the number of courses completed and/or degrees or certificates awarded, reducing time to degree, or reducing student costs.
Provide financial incentives -- even in tough times -- to reward campuses and departments that make significant internal changes to meet the need to educate many more citizens.
Revise state and campus funding allocation formulas to focus on student success rather than attendance, and also focus funding on special initiatives to achieve specific public policy objectives. Give funding priority to departments and institutions that can accommodate increased numbers of students at least cost and reward those that graduate large percentages of those that enter.
Establish departmental budgets that have specific goals to create specific revenue streams and then allow them to use the revenue they generate.
Collaborate. Collaborate. Collaborate. Find ways for campuses and departments to consolidate administrative, student service, and academic support functions required of all campuses. Provide incentives for faculty and departments to collaborate to offer what students need anywhere, anytime.
Focus more on “finishing degrees” for adults who earned credits earlier in their lives but did not receive a credential.
Consider charging tuition and fees tied to the actual costs of instruction. Charges for large general education classes should probably be significantly less than charges for small, highly specialized classes.
Explore having community colleges or selected four-year colleges provide all remedial instruction for the state or region, releasing resources for the other four-year colleges and universities to focus exclusively on college-level courses.
Make greater use of the expertise and experiences of retirees since there will be significant numbers of them who can offer this resource.
Balance career education and liberal arts education opportunities. An economy based on a broadly educated citizenry will be the economy most able to adapt to inevitable and constant changes.
Reduce government regulations and reporting requirements. Government regulations and policies tend to “count” not “produce.” Many policy makers believe that government cannot regulate business to success. The same principle applies to higher education.
Use accountability measures and incentives that truly focus on productivity. Don’t use accountability measures to play “gotcha” since there is no better way to drive down productivity. Accountability measures that focus on “gotchas” will “getcha” very few results.
Making college more affordable and achieving greater productivity are not only worthy goals; they are critical to the economic prosperity of the country and states. No single solution will work for all. Together we can create collaborative solutions and adapt them as needed for particular situations and needs.
This country needs to educate millions more of its citizens during the next decade. Urgent and bold leadership and action is needed to meet this challenge. Higher education leaders should take the lead to create the setting to forge the solutions to make college more affordable and achieve greater productivity. I am optimistic that such leadership exists.
Larry A. Isaak
Larry A. Isaak is president of the Midwestern Higher Education Compact and chancellor emeritus of the North Dakota University System.
You would think that a survey of “American higher education governing boards” conducted by an organization called the Association of Governing Boards would survey the actual trustees that make up these boards.
Well, think again.
The AGB’s latest report, presented as a “Survey of Higher Education Governance,” does not in fact feature a single trustee. Of the 693 respondents, more than half are presidents or chief executives, with the remainder comprised of presidential/executive assistants, board professionals and senior administrators. As it turns out, the report says little about what’s on the mind of trustees and nothing about how they understand their role, but it does unwittingly reveal a philosophy, espoused by the AGB and shared by many at our colleges and universities, that underscores why there is a governance problem in higher education.
According to this view, higher ed administrations are the governance structure. Trustees for the most part should keep to their place and do as they are told by administrators. One might call it the potty-trained trustee, the board member who shows up at football games, cuts a few big checks, and doesn’t meddle in university affairs.
Consider, for example, the seemingly innocuous question put to presidents and other administrators in the survey: How difficult is it to recruit board members? The question presupposes that administrators should be selecting the board members who will then be charged with overseeing their work. But sound governance has trustees serving the interests of students, parents and alumni — not to mention taxpayers, in the case of state colleges and universities — not those of presidents. Sound governance is not about administrators finding “the new board members they want.”
If the Enron debacle taught us one thing, it is that boards must be independent of management. While the corporate sector is turning handsprings to ensure independent trustees and independent nominating committees, apparently we are to believe that our colleges and universities should operate according to a different set of rules. That should be no surprise, of course, since trustees selected by CEOs are more likely to agree with the administration and less likely to ask tough questions.
The report also rehashes the self-serving refrain that higher education institutions are governed by their “own business model.” As the author of the report explained to Inside Higher Ed: “Higher education finance is different from the kind of financial experience or information many board members come to their trustee service with.”
If that is indeed true, isn’t that part of the problem? As tuition and fees spiral out of control, having increased at more than four times the rate of inflation and almost twice that of medical care in the past 25 years, isn’t it time for trustees to apply the solid financial acumen many have developed in the real world — and not buy into the unsustainable economics of higher education?
Given the reigning governance model, we should perhaps not be surprised by the report’s findings that many boards are out to lunch when it comes to overseeing the academic and financial health of their institutions. We learn, for example, that “boards are typically tentative about taking steps” in the area of academic quality since “[h]igher education itself has not yet defined suitable ways to define, monitor, and talk about academic quality.” The fact that administrators have not yet done so is surely no reason why trustees should be hands off when it comes to working with them and faculty to rein in rampant grade inflation or implement a curriculum that will produce informed citizens, productive workers, and lifelong learners.
We are also told that boards currently spend over half their time “listening” to staff and committee reports and that they rely almost exclusively on information supplied by the institution when monitoring academic quality.
We are led to believe that boards properly engage in strategic planning, but then are told that all boards are “significantly more likely to receive reports about the planning process and to discuss emerging priorities than to have board representatives on the planning committee.”
We are told that nearly 70 percent of boards have adopted a statement of board member responsibilities that “can provide some assurance that board members understand and are committed to their responsibilities.” Yet when it comes to real responsibilities, we learn that only 64 percent of private institutions actually inform the full board of the president’s total compensation, and that 30 percent of boards do not document the process used to determine the president’s compensation.
Forces are building that make the go along-get along culture represented here ripe for substantive reforms. During the past decade, limited resources, rising costs, and mounting concerns about graduates’ lack of basic skills have prompted a demand for accountability. Taxpayers, students, and parents are being asked to foot increasingly higher bills, with no guarantee that their dollars are being well spent.
Meanwhile, scandals continue to mount. Bad press about corrupt student loan practices, presidential malfeasance, administrative cover-ups, rigged admissions, and excess compensation have drawn increasing attention to the need for trustees who do their job — neither meddling where they do not belong, as University of Illinois trustees appointed by two corrupt governors seem to have done, nor being asleep at the switch. Each new scandal underscores how urgently college and university boards need to get their houses in order.
The rising cost and declining quality that we see today in higher ed result, too often, from the belief that administrators are the real governance structure and that trustees exist to serve the institution first and the public interest second. It is time for trustees to wake up to this mindset and reassert their central governing role.
Anne D. Neal
Anne D. Neal is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.
While the seven-figure compensation packages of an increasing number of college and university presidents attract critics, the most worrisome aspect of the push toward inflationary university compensation is the growing number of presidents who not only sit on corporate boards but are drawing huge fees for doing so. This trend has dangerous implications for both the colleges and universities and the CEOs involved.
Are college and university chiefs spending too much of their time on corporate business and too little on the institutions they are entrusted to run? Are there potential or actual conflicts of interest between the priorities of corporations and those of colleges and universities? Will academic leaders draw a clear line between their loyalties to their universities and the corporations on whose boards they sit? Can the reputations of their institutions be harmed by the decisions they have made as corporate trustees?
Such questions were very recently raised by the revelation inThe New York Timesthat Ruth Simmons, president of Brown University, has been a trustee at Goldman Sachs for 10 years, during which time she participated in the decisions to award the firm’s top executives huge, publicly contentious bonuses. For her board work as a trustee in 2009, she was paid $323,539, an enormous sum amounting to more than half of her salary at Brown. She will leave Goldman Sachs later this year with a stock portfolio worth about $4.3 million, a perk granted to board members.
It turns out that Dr. Simmons also sat on two other corporate boards: Pfizer, from which she resigned three years ago, and Texas Instruments, where she remains a trustee. For her service at these two other corporations, she received substantial trustee fees and, presumably, stock or stock options. The chair of Brown University’s board was quoted in the Times as saying that the board of the university did not see any conflicts of interest with Dr. Simmons’ role at Goldman Sachs. Nor, doubtlessly, did they perceive any problems with Dr. Simmons’ two other corporate memberships. That insouciance says a lot about university governance.
While Dr. Simmons did cite the time commitment required for sitting on the Goldman Sachs board as a reason for ending her tenure as a trustee, she did not explain why it took her 10 years to come to this conclusion. The notoriety of Goldman Sachs undoubtedly led to the publicity -- as well as faculty and student displeasure at Brown – about Dr. Simmons’ board membership. But this should not obscure the fact that all corporate board memberships require a great deal of time.
Did it not concern the Brown board that its president was spending an inordinate amount of time and attention helping to direct and oversee three major corporations at a time when universities and colleges are themselves under increased financial stress, experiencing a crisis in financial aid and facing serious questions about systemic faculty and staff inequities? Corporate board and committee meetings, frequent phone consultations, reading and interpreting complex financial material and keeping up with the financial environment are all responsibilities of corporate trustees; for those who take this job seriously it involves a major commitment of time and concentration. Put simply, Dr. Simmons did not have the focus and time to do both jobs really well.
Nor has she been alone in facing this dilemma. Many of her university and college CEO colleagues are also juggling their responsibilities of running a major institution with being on corporate boards … some on three or four boards.
Why do university presidents join corporate boards? Is it greed? Aren’t skyrocketing compensation packages, including deferred compensation, free housing, special benefits and other perks sufficient to meet the needs of aspiring educational CEOs? Is it a belief that corporate board memberships lead to useful relationships with other businesses and wealthy people that can increase the coffers of the university? Yet it is questionable whether this strategy is essential to good fund raising.
Or is it a desire to broaden their perspectives and experiences? But there are other means of doing this, such as joining nonprofit boards, campaigning for national and state policies or being actively involved in their campus communities. However, such efforts need to be limited, so that CEOs can devote the preponderance of their time to college business.
For their part, college and university trustees should insist that their presidents focus on the major challenges confronting their universities and colleges. The rising cost of tuition and the need for financial aid for needy students is one such issue. So are the financial plights and disgraceful working conditions of the part-time adjunct faculty who teach more than 50 percent of the courses in higher education while being denied benefits and academic freedom. Another challenge is the provision of a living wage to the blue collar workers on campus who are the mainstays of university life. The lack of community involvement by many universities and colleges is yet another problem that requires immediate attention.
These are tough challenges, problems that don’t lend themselves to quick resolutions. But if university and college presidents were to spend more time in conversing with faculty and students, in attending a few classes and in actually teaching the occasional course, they would be better armed with the skills they need to manage their institutions effectively.
By and large, university and college trustees are not selected to focus on the major concerns cited above. Their primary, often only, responsibility is to help raise money. It is increasingly the norm that the majority of university and college board members come from corporate America; they are people often not attuned to the niceties of conflicts of interest, the reasonable limits of nonprofit salaries or the challenges of systemic inequities. They frequently fail to keep their institutions and CEOs accountable, as was the case at American University and Stevens Institute of Technology.
Yet, if they want to strengthen their institutions and assure public accountability, they should begin to insist that their presidents have only one master: the university or college itself. They should introduce policies that prohibit their chief executives from serving on any corporate board for pay and on more than one corporate board on a pro bono basis. It’s about time that university chief executives get back to doing what they were hired to do… run their institutions.
Pablo Eisenberg is a senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute and a columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
Recent events in Wisconsin draw into sharp relief the dilemmas faced by systems -- particularly where land grant institutions are involved. While independence for the University of Wisconsin at Madison is now unlikely, a key fact has been overlooked. Whether the current structures in Wisconsin and elsewhere are ideal or seriously flawed, they have not been historically set in stone, and in fact reflect significant changes in mission and governance in most states.
We can say with certainty that since Colonial days, colleges and universities have been engaged in an evolutionary process. Small sectarian colleges educating clergy have become large secular universities; local teachers colleges have become regional and in some cases national universities. The land-grant institutions themselves have undergone a transformation unimagined by their founders: from colleges focused on finding cures to oak smut and better mining or agricultural techniques to international conglomerates with budgets in the billions, selective admission standards, thousands of faculty -- many funded with federal, not state, dollars raised through grants and contracts -- and branch campuses throughout the world.
It is still not clear whether the growth and development of college and university systems following the post WWII era are the result of enlightened and strong leadership or of more mundane political factors. Like the nature vs. nurture debate, the truth lies in between, and the complex organizational systems that exist today in Pennsylvania, California, Oregon, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, Florida, Massachusetts, Wisconsin and many other states are the result of a host of factors.
They include the need to spend tax dollars in more egalitarian ways, a commitment to open access, the value of advanced degrees in the upward mobility of new middle classes, the diversification and democratization of higher education, economic efficiency and the accommodation of large numbers of students, workforce development, and the adult and continuing educational movements. Politically, these systems reflect the relative strengths of geographic interests in states (rural vs. urban), philosophical differences (egalitarian vs. elitist), and political traditions (the relative value placed on public education and the willingness to use tax dollars for it).
These factors have all played a role. Just as the canal owners and operators fought the expansion of railroads in the late 1800s, so too did a number of academic constituencies argue against the establishment of large public systems. Like other societal movements and developments, in industry, entertainment, communications, government and other nonacademic sectors, the seeds of discontent and related factors that would lead to the dissolution of systems, corporate conglomerates and the like were inevitably sown in the earliest phases of growth.
For example, the desire to emulate the "flagship" led to the clamor for and growth of professional schools and advanced degrees in branch campuses or regional campuses originally designed to promote an articulation function to the "mother" university. Today, in many systems, there are emerging powerhouses that seek greater autonomy, generating pressures which may lead to restructuring.
The sentiment, commonly heard at flagship institutions, that public institutions in other cites are taking precious resources away from the research institution, is a common refrain, almost as ubiquitous as is the disdain for the wasteful practices and regulatory interference manifested by those in the "Office of the Chancellor or President." The difficulty in unraveling reality from myth is borne from the fact there is some truth to many of the arguments marshaled in defense of one course of action or another.
In addition, many participants in these debates are not using the same definitions or databases and have different perceptions of the "mission" of a particular campus, as well as varying notions of how best to serve student populations. Moreover, large numbers of faculty members throughout state systems endeavor to recreate the kinds of institutions (replete with lighter workloads and graduate classes) where they obtained their advanced degrees. Lastly, there is the constant pressure of ranking systems, the drive to be more competitive and autonomous, to look like something or someone thought to be better, and, of course, all the while maintaining a “we are unique” mantra.
The perfect political storm in Wisconsin, with a world-class public system, exposed all the fracture points inherent in a system with 12 four-year institutions, 13 two-year colleges and a UW extension unit. A new governor, convinced by lobbyists from many parts of the state, including Madison, that a land-grant Institution does not belong in a system with institutions in Oshkosh, or Milwaukee, let alone Whitewater or Falls River, offered autonomy in what was spun as a budget proposal detaching the flagship from the system. The chancellor, along with many faculty at Madison, argued that they are capable of maintaining and sustaining independent and autonomous status, and they jumped at the opportunity when the governor proposed his plan. After all, they believe they can better serve the interests of the state as an independent institution, and the lure to be free of system regulations, raise their own funding, and determine their own future may have been a long-sought-after goal among some constituencies -- who, one suspects, did not want to be in the system in the first place.
Other universities in Wisconsin did not go along quietly, and argued that the system is greater than the sum of its parts, students are better served through statewide coordinating efforts, and symbiotic relationships are far preferable to outright and wild competition that will ensue once the system is separated. Institutions in the outlying areas of the state are not sure they will be able to compete successfully. Without attachment to the University of Wisconsin, some branch campuses might have a pretty rough road ahead; others may flourish and become real competitors for Madison.
What is unfolding in Wisconsin is not unique. Other systems have made realignments or lost institutional members, although not quite on the same scale as Wisconsin has proposed. It has happened or been proposed in Oregon, Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota (where three systems were merged), and other locales. More important, perhaps, are the political, economic and educational conditions causing significant tension in systems. One of these is collective bargaining, where branch campuses choose to unionize and flagship faculties generally do not. The processes and dynamics of unionization cause differences in approach to compensation, workload, the management of conflict, and other important aspects of institutional life, often resulting in an exacerbation of the differences between the faculty at the flagship campus and the others where faculty choose unionization.
Another factor is the real decline in state support. Campuses such as Penn State, some in the University of California system, and others around the nation now receive less than 20 percent, and in some cases only 10 percent, of operating funds from state legislatures, while this is not typically the case for regional campuses. At the same time, these campuses, adjusting to new financial realities, are often precluded from raising tuition, even though their student populations would probably withstand higher tuitions. Conversely, many flagships have other means, through patent development, technology transfer, alumni and federal research grants, lucrative sports contracts, distance education and the like, to generate revenue.
The land-grant mission is harder to sustain in many states, resulting in sustained pressure on schools of agriculture, mining, forestry, fisheries, and extension services. For those institutions that were able to get into the game early, and negotiated profitable contracts with agribusiness and seafood industries that resulted in revenue streams, problems are not as salient. However, for institutions in states without robust agricultural and fishing environments, the pressure to serve these sectors has increased, while revenues from states legislators, despite the rhetorical support for such industries, are not forthcoming.
Then there is the collapse of the enforcement of state higher education coordination plans and other policies that purport to draw lines between institutions or constrain the growth of institutions within the state. For reasons having to do with demand, aspiration and in some cases a lessening of central authority (due to the enhanced of autonomy of select institutions), mission creep is common. A health and science complex is envisioned for a state university in the fastest-growing city in the state, the state college out west wants a law or pharmacy school, a portion of federal funds is redirected to outlying branch campuses, and professional doctorates, first in education and nursing, give way to those in biology and psychology at campuses that were once supposed to restrict graduate education to a few master’s degrees.
Last, the culture of large segments of faculty at flagship institutions is not the same as that found in newer comprehensive institutions. Hierarchical decision-making is less evident, governance and shared authority is more robust, there is greater departmental autonomy, and faculty have scholarly and consulting opportunities not available to those at the state college. Budgets, student life, risk assessment, security, the maintenance of facilities -- particularly research facilities -- recruitment of faculty and administrators from different pools, and the “cosmopolitan” versus “local” orientation of employees all contribute to very different campus cultures, which are sometimes held together very tenuously and need only an immediate crisis to fracture.
Considering this history doesn’t mean that autonomy is the best path forward for Madison. But can it really be surprising that educators there want a change? Alternatively, the financial pressures inherent in the new normal may lead some states to impose greater system control in the interest of economies of scale, eliminating duplication. Finally, system fragmentation, if not dissolution, may result from the encouragement of entrepreneurial schools with greater freedom to offer market attractive programs raising tuition revenues to replace state shortfalls.
Not long ago it was inconceivable that US Steel, Ma Bell or General Motors would ever break up. Faced with growing international competition, a changing legal environment, fewer tax dollars, a decline in real wealth, expensive union contracts, redundancy in operational units, and the loss of confidence by the American public, these industrial giants inevitably came undone. Will the same occur with large state systems?
Daniel J. Julius
Daniel J. Julius is vice president for academic affairs for the University of Alaska System.
If Lawrence H. Summers needs a support group, he could easily find other presidents who watched their faculties vote "no confidence" in them -- and survived.
However humiliating and damaging Tuesday's vote may have been to Harvard's president -- and experts agree that it was both of those things -- he may well keep his job for years to come. The Harvard Corporation, the university's board, issued a statement backing Summers. And many think that board backing is the norm after such a vote.
After a week of lobbying failed to win over skeptical lawmakers, the University of Maine System on Friday postponed a plan to fold the University of Maine at Augusta into the University of Southern Maine. In exchange, the merger's leading opponents in the legislature said they would let the system carry out the rest of its strategic plan.