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.
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.
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.
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.