University of Maine sets off firestorm with graduate center and mergers

Many professors say programs are being combined without enough attention to academic issues and the faculty role.

How to avoid dysfunctional academic departments (essay)

“I can go this far and not an inch farther,” I said, red faced, at an English department meeting at the University of Michigan some time in the early 1980s. “This” -- and my hand theatrically swept the air -- “is where I draw the line.”

My colleague Julie Ellison rose to speak, full of fury at this bullying male. “Well,” she said, “I have my own line and this” -- mocking my gesture -- “is where I draw it.”

When we looked back upon that glare-versus-glare moment of tense conflict, neither Julie nor I could quite remember what it concerned. That would be unremarkable if, as would be likely between close friends of long standing, our inability to recall even the general subject of the fierce debate had taken place just recently -- years after the altercation. In fact, our recall failure occurred at a conciliatory lunch just one week after the Gunfight at Lit Crit Corral.

That’s how it goes in departments -- those crucial components of a university -- and especially in humanities departments, where we rely on hyperbole as much as social scientists rely on data. That kind of late-afternoon argument, fueled by fatigue and hunger, over a course requirement or a written policy on which the future of the world appeared to depend, often shrinks to its right proportions after the drive home and a salad, a sauvignon and a salmon.

At least that’s the way it should be, and that is the way it was in the Michigan English department by the time Julie and I had our contretemps. But that’s certainly not the way it ever is in unhappy departments, and dysfunction at the department level, if left untreated, can have ramifications throughout the entire institution.

For example, when I arrived in Ann Arbor in 1972, lunches were not the cure for conflicts but the incitement. I was a naïve 26-year-old assistant professor who had been drawn to academe in part because it appeared to provide a faculty society far superior to the life of, say, an insurance office. That fantasy began to erode as I was taken out to lunches during the first week of the semester by two separate groups of faculty. Each, it became plain in minutes, despised the other and was urging me not so subtly to sign up on their side.

The arguments centered on standards for promotion. I found myself agreeing more with the more rigorous group, but I found it natural to have friendships that defied the divide. Nonetheless, I quickly learned that you do not invite X and Y to the same party, especially if it is a small one. And every spring before the elections to the department’s executive committee, there would be two caucuses.

We were an unhealthy culture, but we were surrounded by a mostly healthy college culture, which reacted to our warfare predictably -- and rightly. We were not placed in the dreaded receivership, but the dean made certain that we received few replacement faculty members or other optional benefits. There are plenty of other departments, was the implication, and as long as you have such opposing lunch cabals, those other departments will eat your collective lunch.

That’s the problem with departmental cultures that have failed. However distinct the battling antagonists, they have one thing in common: everyone loses.

Several years ago I was a member of an external review of a department at one of universities in the State University of New York system where conflict was so rife that the five of us were registered in a local hotel under false names so that no one could get at us with their side of the conflict. The creative writers, the literary historians, the theorists and the composition experts each wanted to secede -- taking, of course, all of the departmental resources with them. At a faculty meeting organized for us, one colleague’s highly emotional diatribe was greeted by the response of another who stood and said with startling simplicity, “Well, eff that.” The original speaker unhesitatingly replied, “Well, eff you.” “If you behave this way,” I cried, “you are all effed.”

And they all were. We wrote what we believed was a strategic report allowing each of the secession scenarios to play out and showing how each would be a disaster for all concerned. Amazingly, the report’s insistence that the factions needed to disarm and learn to work together actually succeeded -- but, less amazingly, only for a year or two, after which the wars resumed and the department was placed under college control.

Why so often is departmental culture so unsuccessful? For one thing, it is understudied. Look at 20 tomes on the crises facing higher education, and you probably will not find one that discusses the life of individual departments as a key factor. Yet it is the primary place where we academics live, more there than in a college, much less a whole university. When I became chair of the English department at Michigan, after perhaps 15 years as a faculty member, and thereby began to meet colleagues in a vast array of disciplines, I felt like I had entered a new universe. Before that, my department was my planet and the universe-ity was the far-off sky.

Beyond Dysfunction

We have not thought nearly enough about departmental cultures. The usual external review rarely provides adequate help, as the visitors themselves are not always adept at leadership issues and may see their task as one of advocating for the department to the supposedly unfeeling dean. A real redo of departmental culture and behavior requires planning backward from shared goals, as moderated by academics or fellow travelers who get it. And when national reforms of higher education sponsored by foundations and agencies are undertaken, they should be informed by studies of department life that do not yet exist. Both at the local and national levels, then, we need to consider departmental culture as an anthropologist would study the life of a tribe and as a wise counselor would minister to a valuable but neurotic patient.

Speaking of which, the larger tribe is the discipline rather than the college, and as long as we continue the questionable practice of mimicking disciplines in the organization of our departments, whatever schisms exist in the discipline are likely to show up in the department to challenge a harmonious community. That is what had taken place in that department where I had been part of an external visiting team, and while that was an extreme situation, it was not a rare one. Composition and literature colleagues sometimes stare at each other like the creatures at the Star Wars bar, wondering, what are you -- or what am I -- doing here? So too historians of medieval China and their modern American history counterparts.

We either must make continually explicit why the branches of a discipline extend from a common trunk or we should reconsider the forest and plant anew. And we might question as well the high number of departments even in the smallest colleges. At one college that I’m familiar with, the classics department consisted of two tenured faculty members who alternated in the role of chair. Since they despised each other, the constant motif resembled revenge tragedy.

In addition to a lack of scrutiny and those disciplinary schisms, one other problem faces many departments: administrative neglect. Some deans and provosts just let the dysfunction go on, refusing to take sides or even take conciliatory action for fear of descending into the muck. That kind of leadership cowardice is not rare.

Herewith, I offer three fast suggestions and one slow one.

  • Find Ms. or Mr. Right. Many colleges and universities simply allow the departmental chairing responsibility to rotate among tenured faculty. That is insanity. Leadership is a precious and vital talent, and no department can thrive without a fine leader. No one would think it wise to rotate the college presidency or a deanship in this manner. Why then the vitally important departmental chairs, who collectively matter as much or more to the institutional well-being?
  • Provide an incentive. It could be a bump in salary, a course release, a research assistant or a combination of all these. Because, let’s face it, chairing is hard work and heart work. It requires an all-in dedication as well as the ability to match the institution’s overall goals with the department’s own. (The chair must interpret the president’s broad bromides and tell her, “This is what we in our department think you meant by that.”) The chair must also serve as a friend/analyst for each faculty member, while coordinating what each wants to do with an overall program that best serves students. And beyond all that, the chair must foster a “let’s try it” spirit among a group that is better known for criticizing than for entrepreneurial zeal.
  • Allow space to govern. Too often shared governance devolves into snared governance. Shared governance needs to be real and clear so that all faculty members have skin in the game, but that clarity must include a territory for the chair to have some freedom and discretion. Without that, no incentive will be adequate. With it, a culture will depend less on the individual leader and create a tradition of both leadership and collegiality.
  • Reconsider the overall departmental structure. This is the slow suggestion, but it is worthy of the highest thought. Is it best to equate disciplines and departments, given so many ambiguities and anomalies? Might fewer be far better? How do we make the multidisciplinary more than an add-on while we never take anything away and thus everything gets thinner? This rethinking of a college or university ought not to be just slow, but continuous. Colleges compete to distinguish themselves with one or another gimmick and yet all offer very similar smorgasbords of fields. Would not basic redesign provide a more dignified distinction?

Healthy Conflict and an Esprit de Corps

None of this can happen without leadership beyond the department, encouraging the right people to act in the right ways. In Michigan English, the college leadership walked the talk, and two superb chairs -- who also had friendships that crossed boundaries and who practiced integrity like master musicians -- patiently eased the conflicts. The first used his naturally diplomatic manner and his obvious goodwill to dissolve the warring camps. The second inspired us with calmly and honestly stated high goals that people beyond the college came to respect. Neither ever lied. Each knew how to say two magic words when they made a decision that didn’t work out: “I’m sorry.” But because they were both remarkably strategic as well as fine, they did not have to say that very often.

They left me, as their successor, with a department full of healthy conflict within a context of great esprit de corps. We all remembered the bad old days, and we became willing -- if not at once, at least by lunch the next week -- to let what we held in common rule over difference or to refuse difference its devolution into personal dislike. “Human beings can be awful cruel to each other,” Huck Finn remarks, but human beings can also learn to value shared achievement over fiercely held dogmas. During one of those good-spirited years, a friend from another university who visited our party at the Modern Language Association conference wrote to me in wonder, “It was like halftime in the locker room of a winning basketball team.”

Departments matter more than anything else. And however and whoever they choose to do it, they would do well to survey themselves and their students and to adopt the suggestion of David Grant in The Social Profit Handbook that the staff members of any nonprofit be challenged to ask themselves, “What would we look like if we were really successful?” And then, “What would we look like if we were even more successful?” And to plan backward from there.

If no consensus emerges, the only right response is to question the very departmental structure and seek new forms of organization. But if there really is a reason why we in a department are all here together, then what are those deep values that we share? And how do we promulgate them, in large ways and small, with our students foremost in consideration?

If we really want a new era of triumph for the liberal arts, it cannot happen in any unit larger than a single department until it happens there.

Robert Weisbuch, a former president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and of Drew University, now leads Robert Weisbuch and Associates, a consultancy for liberal arts colleges and universities.

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The wrong questions that boards ask themselves (essay)

Boards and presidents expect a lot from governance, and many know that they are underperforming and could and should do more. As we’ve written in the past, boards need a certain positive restlessness that keeps them striving to do better. Asking thoughtful, informed questions is important to that continued improvement.

In fact, this past year, we fielded many calls from presidents and board leaders in America and abroad seeking to improve governance. Those calls typically included a set of questions about which institutional leaders seek answers. While we applaud the interest and the endeavor, many of the most commonly asked questions seem to be the wrong ones. Here are a few:

How large should the board be? This question often comes up early in the conversations, particularly from presidents or board leaders at independent institutions with large boards. Our answer: “Just big enough.” That response channels a faculty member in our doctoral program, who, when asked how long papers should be, said, “Just long enough” (much to the frustration of the students in our class).

A board should be large enough to address the work the institution faces, but not so large that governance becomes unwieldy. Ideally, the board is of a size that ensures a variety of perspectives on an increasingly large number of complex topics, stimulates a positive culture and camaraderie among board members, and allows the board to work effectively and efficiently. Size is less relevant to effectiveness than other factors, which we will describe below.

How often should boards meet? The answer to this well-intentioned but not really useful question parallels the one above: just often enough to get the needed work done. Rather than fixate on a set number, boards should consider the work they need to accomplish over the next 12 to 18 months and then determine the best way to structure board engagement to ensure it can address both planned issues and those yet to emerge.

We recognize that board and committee meetings require staff time, the focused attention of busy leaders and the time commitment of trustees. But too many meetings result in make-work or a lot of long, detailed (and sometimes boring) presentations by senior staff or show-and-tell sessions involving students and faculty members. Overly frequent meetings may also open the door for micromanaging, as the board members may be looking for work and take their focus beyond governance into management or operations.

Too few meetings also create challenges: board agendas become overly full, and board members have little time to discuss complex issues and are too distanced from the institution and the factors that should shape those discussions. Further, the foundation of trustee collaboration and trust may need to be re-established if the time between meetings is too long. Too few meetings is often a recipe for disengagement.

Finally, where is it written that boards must meet in person to engage in governance -- except in some by-laws that might need revisiting? Some governance work must be conducted face-to-face in committee or full board meetings, but certainly not all. Votes on more routine matters can take place via virtual meeting technology (think almost virtual consent agendas), as can less scheduled but needed interactions among board members.

Do we have the right committees and the right number of committees? Many presidents and board leaders worry about their committee structure, and they often ask these questions in comparison to other boards. Some presidents wonder if they have too many committees. The largest we’d heard of was 18 committees on a board of 30 or so trustees. Each trustee on that board was expected to serve on at least three, if not four, committees. Trustees went to a lot of meetings, and sometimes committees had only one or two trustees present given the demands on trustee time.

Other presidents and board members wonder if they need more committees: Do we need a technology committee? A risk committee? An enrollment committee? What about civic engagement? Should academic affairs and student affairs be combined or remain separate?

Our answer: committees matter only in light of the work you are doing. What are the strategic and fiduciary issues the board needs to address? Where will those issues be given attention? How can you ensure key issues do not fall through the gaps between committees or that multiple committees aren’t discussing the same issues, creating redundancy?

In addition, comparing boards is difficult, as many factors shape boards and board committees. Some boards at similar institutions look very different in their size and committee structures. Conversely, some very different institutions have similar boards. A complex university with a larger board may function at a higher level than a similarly complex university with a smaller board. Given all of the factors that shape board effectiveness, the committee structure might actually contribute little.

Should faculty or students serve on the board? It’s important to ensure that many perspectives are voiced in the boardroom. Boards make better decisions with more complete information, and sometimes students and faculty members can best provide that information directly.

However, voice should not equate with vote. Current employees of the institution as well as enrolled students (or even parents of students) can too easily adopt a stakeholder mind-set rather than a fiduciary one. We are reminded of a quotation attributed to Harvard sociologist David Riesman: “The role of the board is to protect the future from the demands of the present.” Stakeholders are often mostly concerned with the present.

You can ensure a larger number of voices, rather than allocate what might be a single board seat to a representative of one group or another, by having faculty leaders serve on select board committees. You can also organize open forums with faculty members or create ad hoc task forces that include key campus individuals.

These questions, although somewhat off target, are well intended. What we think these questions are really asking are the following, which are important:

  • How can boards develop robust formats to accomplish all of their work?
  • Through what approaches can boards ensure that time is well spent on meaningful issues that demand attention, even when the amount of meeting time is limited?
  • How can boards guarantee the right voices, perspectives and expertise exist on the board and are heard in the boardroom?
  • How should the board organize itself to accomplish meaningful governance?

At their heart, these questions are concerned with key elements of governance: Who governs, what are they governing and how should governance be conducted? How one frames the questions is essential to finding good answers. As iconic designer at General Motors, Charles Kettering, once said, “A problem well stated is a problem half solved.”

While boards should ask many questions about governance, they should prioritize four.

How well is the board performing? Great boards have the capacity to look in the collective mirror, understand with intentionality how well they are working and think critically about the value their efforts are bringing to the college, university or state system. Boards should put in place robust assessment processes, collect data about themselves as a group and about individual board member performance, and use the findings to continuously improve. That should be the responsibility of the governance or trusteeship committee, or it can be done through the executive committee. A small group of trustees must take ownership of board performance, make it regular board work, ensure that the board receives feedback, and develop strategies to act upon that feedback.

To whom is the board accountable, and how can it demonstrate its accountability? A criticism of too many boards is that they lack accountability. The board has the ultimate legal and fiduciary responsibility for the institution it holds in the public’s trust. Being transparent in its deliberations, using data well, engaging stakeholders and having high ethical standards are important to that greater sense of board accountability. Once a board loses trust with key stakeholders, it is difficult and time-consuming to recapture.

Bottom line: Accountability is ultimately a legal threshold, but boards are responsible for ensuring that the views of stakeholders are heard and considered, and that the board and administration act in the best interests of the institution.

To what extent is the board spending its time on the right issues? Given the numerous and complex issues facing higher education today, boards must understand and focus their work on the strategic priorities of their institutions and the fiduciary responsibilities of governance. Since those priorities, as well as the external environment, will change, what is important next year may be less important five years from now. Boards with the ability to adapt, respond and pivot will outperform those mired in nostalgic conversations about yesterday’s topics.

Relevant boards will need the structures and capacities to allow for flexibility and adaptation. That may mean fewer standing committees and more ad hoc task forces or a committee structure that can flex to align with the changing priorities of the institution or system. For example, a board might align its work around key issues such as financial sustainability; compliance, risk and accountability; the student experience; academic excellence; economic impact and relevance; and other issues specific to the university, such as academic health centers or mission. The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter how the board is organized or who sits on it if the board doesn’t know what it should be doing or where its primary focus should be.

To what extent does the board have the right culture? Too often boards that seek improvement focus on changing structures -- either the organizational structure or the meeting structure. However, what might be more meaningful to alter, and surely more challenging, is the culture of the board. Culture is that often invisible set of behaviors and beliefs that shapes board dynamics such as who speaks, about what issues, with what effect. It is taught to new generations of trustees, sometimes intentionally, but other times not.

A positive culture that promotes inclusivity of people and ideas, reflection and discussion, constructive disagreement and a strong sense of purpose can help boards leap ahead. At the same time, a dysfunctional culture of backroom decision making, poor engagement, fervent convictions and personal agendas, and incivility between board members or between the board and the administration can set governance back light-years. Poor culture is poor culture, and it prevents effective governance, period.

One of the essential traits of highly successful boards is that they learn how to ask meaningful and focused questions, a skill that can be difficult to master. But it is those boards and presidents who stop asking questions that worry us most. Boards can and should develop the capacity to ask good questions and to recognize when those questions add value rather than move the board in an unconstructive direction. Indeed, trustees should practice the art of asking questions rather than simply asserting opinions. Great questions lead to meaningful conversations, which in turn result in better governance.

Peter Eckel is a senior fellow and the director of leadership programs at the University of Pennsylvania’s Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy and a trustee at the University of La Verne. Cathy Trower is president of Trower & Trower Inc., a board governance consulting firm, and a trustee at Wheaton College in Massachusetts.

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Boards at HBCUs should not micromanage their presidents (essay)

I have been researching and writing about both the history and current trends of historically black colleges and universities since 1994. When I first started, very few black women were leading these important institutions. Now, in 2016, roughly 30 percent of HBCU presidents are black women.

At the end of August, the board of trustees of Florida A&M University told one of those women -- Elmira Mangum -- that her contract would not be renewed. Mangum came to the university after a distinguished career at several majority-white institutions. She had served as vice president for planning and budgeting at Cornell University as well as in leadership positions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Buffalo. By all accounts, Mangum had a very successful and uneventful career in higher education until becoming president of FAMU.

I have been watching the controversies surrounding Mangum’s presidency since she was hired and have noticed two things: sexism and board interference.

First, let’s deal with the sexism. Mangum is a strong and talented black woman and that fact seems to be threatening to many members of her board, some former leaders of the institution and some alumni. She has faced scrutiny and micromanagement by her board that most presidents would never have to endure. For example, her day-to-day actions are micromanaged. Research on women and leadership demonstrates that women leaders are much more likely to be micromanaged by their boards and supervisors.

When I have brought this sexism to the surface over the past year, I am often greeted with, “There can’t be sexism; FAMU hired a woman.” Wrong. In fact, more sexism is likely to surface because she is a woman. If you don’t believe me, think about the election of President Obama. One could say, “There can’t be racism because we elected a black president.” Wrong again. We know that racism has increased in the public eye as a result of people being angry because we elected a black president -- twice.

Second, from the beginning of Mangum’s tenure, the FAMU board has been interfering with her leadership and drumming up anything and everything to discredit her. In reality, she has had many successes as president. She has garnered much respect and attention for the institution, been masterful at fund-raising, inspired campus spirit among students and young alumni, and worked to give FAMU more of a global presence. Unfortunately, those efforts and nearly anything she has done have been criticized by the board, former leaders and a subset of alumni.

Most recently, she was critiqued by the board and local media for spending too much money on travel. Anyone who knows anything about higher education is aware that a university president has to travel in order to raise money and visibility for the college or university. Presidents in the 21st century often spend the majority of their time talking to people outside their institution, while provosts are more focused on the day-to-day academics of the campus. If an institution’s president isn’t traveling, it’s a problem. Moreover, compared to most presidents, Mangum’s travel expenses have been relatively low.

I am deeply concerned about the treatment of Mangum. However, I am even more worried about the sexism felt by black women in the role of the presidency at HBCUs (and elsewhere) and the meddling of board members in the day-to-day activities of the institutions. Having served on many boards of trustees, including two HBCU boards, I know that my role is to examine big-picture policy, to raise money, to support the president (regardless of gender) and hold that person accountable for negotiated goals, and to promote the institution. My role is not to meddle, nitpick or interfere with the president’s ability to do the job.

In recent years, HBCUs have experienced rapid turnover and controversy in the presidency; they have struggled in many cases to find leaders. These facts beg the question: How will HBCUs attract highly qualified aspiring leaders to head their institutions when those leaders are likely to encounter meddling boards and a lack of support from various constituencies? The FAMU board’s relationship with Elmira Mangum is not an aberration and, in fact, is becoming all too common on HBCU campuses. How will HBCUs, where the majority of students enrolled are women, attract black women to lead these institutions when such sexism exists? How can HBCUs recruit innovative leaders when board members and some HBCU community members fear innovation and change?

Rather than beating down such new, energetic, highly talented presidents committed to leading HBCUs, boards and disgruntled alumni should donate more funds, promote their institutions, spend some time reading about higher education and the specific roles of the president and the board, and focus on the needs of students over their own egos. FAMU has all the makings of a leading university, but it will not reach its potential until it embraces and empowers its leaders.

Marybeth Gasman is professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

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Florida A&M President Elmira Mangum at the President's Convocation

Faculty members play a role in the erosion of shared governance (essay)

Last July, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed into law a budget bill that, in addition to making it much easier to dismiss those in tenure-track positions, significantly attenuates the participation of faculty members in institutional governance. Doing so, he entered into a debate that has emerged as a hot topic in higher education circles and that is the subject of several recent books, including Locus of Authority by William Bowen and Eugene Tobin, Governance Reconsidered by Susan Resneck Pierce, and The Rise and Decline of Faculty Governance by Larry Gerber.

While all parties to this debate agree that higher education in the United States is now undergoing a profound transformation, opinions diverge on what this signifies for shared governance. The American Association of University Professors, for example, contends that a robust reaffirmation of the faculty’s role is in order, while the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, known as AGB, insists that meeting the imperatives of a new era requires acknowledgment and support of that role, but also considerable amplification of executive authority as well as enhanced trustee oversight.

The principal developments most often cited as causes of higher education’s contemporary transformation are familiar. These include major cutbacks in state funding for public universities; intensification of federal concern with student indebtedness, tuition levels and educational outcomes; displacement of tenure-track positions by contingent and most often part-time appointments; emergence of online and distance learning providers; proliferation of consumerist sensibilities among our students; and so forth and so on.

As I read the literature, more often than not, these forces are figured by friends as well as foes of vigorous faculty participation in institutional governance as external factors that now encroach on the internal affairs of colleges and universities. What, however, is obscured when this debate is informed by a metaphor that locates the causes of higher education’s transformation beyond its walls and then, as this trope connotes, suggests that erosion of the barriers that once secured the academy’s relative autonomy defines how we should think about the future of shared governance?

This construction, I believe, serves all too well the interests of those who contend that, if higher education is to adapt to the imperatives of the 21st century, the capacity of faculty members to obstruct urgently needed reforms must be diminished. But I worry that adoption of this representation by defenders of substantial faculty participation also masks the ways in which we faculty members, and especially those of us fortunate enough to hold tenure-track positions, are complicit in undermining the necessary conditions of that role.

Whether explicitly invoked or tacitly presumed, deployment of the distinction between external and internal is common in discussions of shared governance, and that is so regardless of the position advanced by parties to this debate. For example, this metaphor informs the title of the “AGB Statement on External Influences on Universities and Colleges,” and its import is apparent in the verbs employed to characterize the work performed by these influences: “Governors and legislators have attempted to direct governance actions, regulators have tried to redefine board independence, state laws have increasingly encroached upon independent decision making, donors and sponsors have sought to determine policy, and a broadening array of organizations has continually worked to influence board decision making” (emphasis added). As AGB notes, “many presidents, governing boards and faculty members believe that institutional governance is so cumbersome that timely and effective decision making is imperiled,” and a growing number of administrators now argue that reinvigorated presidential leadership is imperative if higher education is to address its most pressing challenges,

This same metaphorical binary is presupposed by those who bemoan the academy’s “corporatization,” which is often lamented as a principal cause of the faculty’s relegation to the sidelines of institutional governance. To illustrate the point, consider the title of Lawrence Soley’s Leasing the Ivory Tower: The Corporate Takeover of Academia or, alternatively, of Jennifer Washburn’s University Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education. Proponents of this thesis typically contend that corporations, often abetted by right-wing foundations, have seized control of the academy, replaced its once public values with those of the marketplace and -- often in cahoots with governing board members drawn from the for-profit sector -- imposed administrative techniques whose exercise is incompatible with extensive faculty participation in matters of institutional governance. True, this argument often affirms that the academy’s colonization is now expedited by the host of in-house lackeys who collectively comprise “the administration.” But this twist on the external-internal distinction does little to unsettle a characterization that effectively absolves faculty members of complicity in furthering the conditions of their own disempowerment.

I do not take issue with those who claim that today higher education is undergoing changes of a scope not witnessed since what is sometimes called its “massification,” principally via the GI Bill and subsequent enactments, following World War II. Nor do I contest the claim that institutions of higher education are increasingly beset by forms of intervention and regulation over which they have limited control at best. But I do contend that the present situation of higher education and hence the debate about shared governance is not exhaustively captured by a metaphor that implies that the once more or less well-bounded academic citadel is now overrun by alien intruders demanding capitulation to their terms. Instead, and drawing on recent scholarship that explores the penetration of neoliberal values within associational forms once predicated on very different normative foundations, I suggest that we think of higher education as one of many overlapping, networked and reciprocally constitutive spheres, the affairs of which are ever more fully figured as matters of commodified exchange governed by the logic of the marketplace.

At first blush, this perspective may appear indistinguishable from that invoked by the term “corporatization” (or by the kindred term “privatization”). The vantage point I am proposing differs, however, insofar as it posits that the borders that once more neatly demarcated government from the economy, and both from higher education, are now so permeable that any analysis that presupposes the adequacy of an external-internal bifurcation is almost certain to conceal more than it reveals.

To adopt this perspective is to open up the possibility of asking how infiltration of higher education by neoliberal rationality, however uneven and contested that process may be, has fostered the formation of faculty members who are ever less likely to appreciate and still more unlikely to do what needs to be done to arrest their declining role in institutional governance. This sort of fashioning occurs not because we are duped by an ideology that legitimates our subordination to a ruling class and its duplicitous agents within the university. Rather, neoliberal academic subjects are shaped via everyday experiences in multiple domains of conduct, each of which engenders a representation of conduct as so many instrumental efforts to maximize return on investments in the self, whether this return takes shape as income, status or some other good.

We are accustomed to spotting this form of reason at work when, for example, our students treat their education as a commodity whose value is to be determined by future earning capacity. Are we, however, equally adept at recognizing its operation when we upload our publications to (as I recently did), and then frequently check our “analytics snapshots” (as I now find myself doing)? To what extent does such conduct betray internalization of the neoliberal assessment techniques and productivity metrics that are now ubiquitous throughout higher education?

And what lessons do graduate students absorb when told they must become entrepreneurial agents if they are to succeed in what we continue to (mis)represent as a meritocratic competition for the ever rarer prize that is a tenure-track position? And what does it tell us when that forlorn term in the holy trinity of faculty evaluation, i.e., service, becomes a matter to be shunned whenever possible as a distraction from the “research productivity” that is key to our recognition within the disciplinary silos from which we derive our primary identities? For neoliberal subjects, I fear, investment in institutional governance is ever more likely to be deemed a speculative outlay of scarce resources whose payoff, because uncertain at best, is ill advised.

Careerism, of course, is nothing new within the academy. What is new is the inconspicuous but unrelenting disappearance of rival forms of professional identity whose persistence might trouble the figuration of individual conduct, as well as our relations with one another, in a neoliberal register. To illustrate, consider the sort of faculty member imagined by the social contract that was tacitly and sometimes expressly invoked, especially in early decades of the 20th century, to justify the distinguishing features of the academic vocation.

However idealized, the terms of this contract, sometimes labeled “social trustee professionalism,” portrayed the academic career as an ethical trust that entailed commitment to the disinterested pursuit of knowledge that is indispensable to the altruistic good that is progressive enlightenment. Achievement of that end required that the university be subject to neither intrusive political regulation nor marketplace imperatives. To secure such relative autonomy demanded institutionalization of its necessary conditions, including tenure, peer review, academic freedom and participation in organizational governance akin to that exercised by members of other self-regulating professions, especially law and medicine. Should faculty members fail to engage in such governance, this representation cautioned, they will endanger the profession’s claim to exemption from forms of regulation to which other enterprises, especially commercial, are appropriately subject.

If that account of the academic social contract now rings implausible or even quaint, that goes a long way toward affirming the accuracy of my claim about the insidious encroachment of neoliberal sensibilities within the academy. True, sometimes a colleague will characterize teaching as a calling. And, occasionally, if not in so many words, a colleague will commend academic inquiry because of its capacity to contribute to distinctively public goods. Finally, every so often, a colleague (typically senior) will bemoan the disinclination of others (typically junior) to assume their fair share of responsibility for collective governance. Rarely if ever, though, are these claims understood as mutually constitutive elements of a social contract whose terms must be resolutely safeguarded if the walls separating internal from external are to prove more real than not.

Absent that understanding, we should not be surprised when those within the academy find appeals to institutional loyalty or sacrifice on behalf of a collective good ever more incredible in the literal sense of the term. Nor should we be surprised when people outside the academy contend that contemporary defenses of the academy’s independence are little more than self-serving efforts to shield from encroachment a monopolistic enterprise that is indistinguishable from more prosaic occupations.

To close, let’s assume that I am correct to suggest that those who argue that faculty participation in shared governance must be curtailed if the academy is to adapt successfully in the 21st century are effectively facilitating the neoliberal transformation of higher education into an engine of capitalist growth. And let’s imagine that I am right to argue that a key element of the neoliberal project involves dismantling the walls that once secured higher education some measure of independence from government and economy. And, finally, let’s imagine that I am on the mark in contending that this project’s advance is now fashioning neoliberal forms of faculty subjectivity that render us less likely to recognize our part in reproducing the conditions of our own marginalization.

To say all of this is not to advocate return to a bygone era that perhaps never existed and, if it did, was certainly not all it was cracked up to be. Nor is it to assign blame, which is an unproductive temptation to which we are already too prone. But it is to take issue with arguments that represent us as victims whose present plight is entirely a function of forces beyond our control. And, correlatively, it is to say that a failure to acknowledge our complicity in the erosion of faculty participation in shared governance is an act of bad faith.

Timothy V. Kaufman-Osborn is a professor of politics and leadership at Whitman College.

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The importance of board culture in shaping behavior and decisions (essay)

Governing boards are dynamic groups of individuals where, sometimes, the whole does not equal the sum of its parts. Presidents want and need their boards to be active, productive and engaged assets for the college, university or state system that they govern. Yet too many boards underperform. We argue that it is not what boards do (or don’t do) but how they do their work that really matters.

Consider these examples of poor board behavior:

  • The perennially underengaged board asks few questions of the administration and fewer of themselves;
  • The overly powerful executive committee controls 85 percent of the agenda and excludes other trustees; and,
  • The impulsive board quickly moves to decisions without divergent or devil’s advocate thinking.

We think that educating boards on what they should do -- their roles and responsibilities -- while important, is insufficient. In actuality, underperforming boards may know their roles but have cultures that limit their effectiveness. Board culture, those patterns of behavior and ways of understanding that are deeply ingrained, reinforced and taught to new trustees, is what demands attention.

Rather than tinker with board structure, such as the size of the board (the large boards wishing they were smaller and the small boards thinking they should be larger), or the number and size of committees, board leaders and presidents should work to ensure a healthy board culture. It has been said that culture eats structure and strategy for lunch, and we agree. But culture is much more elusive and difficult to explain succinctly, making it challenging to expose and act upon.

We have been working with several boards to describe, measure and analyze their cultures and then ask if that culture fits the institution’s environment, current context and the work facing the board. Boards are complex social systems they have norms, expectations and preferred ways of working. Some of the norms are explicit (attendance), and others are implicit (comportment). Such normative elements are the building blocks of board culture. A proverbial fish in water syndrome, culture is difficult to see objectively for those immersed in it. By making the normative behaviors and interaction explicit, we can make culture actionable and create a road map for aligning culture with needs.

In our research, we’ve identified several important dimensions of board culture, such as the extent to which:

  • influence is consolidated in the hands of a few trustees or widely dispersed across the board,
  • the board sees itself more as a cheerleader or critic,
  • the board has an academic mind-set versus a corporate one, and,
  • the board seeks diverging and diverse views rather than preferring to move quickly to consensus.

These cultural dimensions are continuums with a matched partner at the other end.

Cultural factors such as these and others in our framework have both positive and negative aspects. Think about the classic Myers-Briggs introvert-extrovert scale as a parallel. Being introverted or extroverted, on its face, is neither good nor bad; rather, it depends on the context and the ways in which the strengths and blind spots play themselves out for an individual. Still, it is helpful for individuals to understand their natural tendencies and preferences. We believe that the same is true for boards as they rate themselves on dimensions of culture.

For example, think about a large board, in a highly dynamic situation, where it needs to make decisions quickly. This board, and its president, may be well served by a board culture that has consolidated influence. A few highly respected and good board leaders are able to respond quickly.

But on the flip side, a board that has consolidated influence and needs widespread input to understand novel and complex situations confronting the institution may exclude key members who have much to add. If a small group of trustees dominates all board work, takes up the most airtime during board meetings, shapes all agendas and even talks over other trustees, why would others participate? Consolidated influence may drive trustee disengagement for some boards.

At the same time, however, boards with distributed influence may micromanage. A larger board with a lot of trustees may not have enough substance in their board work, so hungry people are looking for more engagement and can easily cross the murky line into operations.

The one exception we are exploring to the notion of cultural continuums (again, think Myers-Briggs) relates to how board members treat each other, or what we call comportment. For instance, having more trust among board members is better than less, having more respect for one another and one another’s contributions is healthier than animosity, and being more openly deliberative in meetings is more desirable than having off-line conversations or “parking lot meetings” (that occur after the board meeting as trustees head to their cars).

Understanding the cultural explanations of common board problems can be helpful for board leaders and presidents. Some of those problems include:

  • overly inclusive processes in which boards cannot make decisions (death by discussion). For example, we know of a board that could not move on approval of the tuition increase recommended by the administration because they continued to debate the issue at a series of meeting, putting the tuition-dependent institution at a disadvantage when the freshman recruitment cycle began.
  • a board that is overly clubby and deferential to the president (the in-the-pocket board).One board found itself in difficulty when the president didn’t share all of the institution’s financial situation; instead some trustees eventually found out about it from faculty with whom they sang in the church choir.
  • a board that jumps to decisions too quickly (the knee-jerk board) One board found itself with a parcel of real estate in another state that became burdensome because it quickly accepted a gift from a longtime supporter even though there was neither a plan nor purpose for it.

In these cases, knowing better the roles and responsibilities of good governance might not have thwarted the problems. Instead, the culture of the board contributed, allowing these issues to snowball.

Here are some key questions that start to capture board culture:

  • To what extent does the board have a corporate mind-set or an academic one? Is it mission or market driven?
  • Is influence consolidated or distributed?
  • What is the level of trust within the board and between the administration and the board?
  • Does the board have a disposition toward efficiency or deliberation?

A cultural lens to the work of boards can explain many things. But the real benefit is having the language to make elements of culture visible and thus actionable. Once boards have the means to understand their own culture, the subsequent work should focus on the extent to which the board’s culture is aligned with the demands of the environment in which the institution and the board has to work and the nature of the challenges it faces. The cultural profiles of boards suggest that they may be well suited for some work and some situations but ill prepared for other situations. Knowing these can be extremely important to ensure ongoing board effectiveness. Too many boards get caught by the blind spots and shortcomings of their cultures.

Helping the board and the president understand the board’s strengths and potential vulnerabilities is essential to making culture actionable. They can then have meaningful conversations about the board culture they have and whether or not it is working well in the current (and future) context, think about what changes to culture might be helpful, and develop strategies to act on them. Changing the culture of a board may not be as problematic as changing the culture of an institution. The relatively small size of the board, the ability of the board chair to set new expectations and norms, and the infrequency with which boards meet mean that with attention and intention they can adopt new cultural norms and expectations. In addition, board turnover can be used to advantage, because institutions can cultivate and orient trustees who fit the desired culture.

A board culture profile provides a road map to align board dynamics with the work the board needs to accomplish, the president’s leadership style and the institution’s context. One sample profile from our pilot effort includes the following dimensions along the five continuums. The board:

  • Has distributed influence across the members of the board;
  • Seeks to maximize efficiency in how it conducts its work;
  • Has divergent thinking, prizing multiple perspectives and critical thinking;
  • Has an academic mind-set in that it understands the academy; and,
  • Views its role as partnering with the administration.

One potential vulnerability of this board is that for the sake of efficiency, time is not well organized to ensure both sufficient involvement and a breadth of issues. The concern may not be one of time management, but the way in which time is allocated to issues. Does the board address sufficient substance? Could it be covering more issues if it altered its culture and meeting structure? These questions seem to be on the minds of board and administrative leaders at this university as they seek to add substantive discussions to board meetings.

Board culture has been called “the invisible director” for the influence it creates, both positive and negative. The real goal of understanding board culture and its influence on how boards work can put governance on the pathway toward increased effectiveness. It is making sure that invisible director is moving the board in the right and positive direction.

Peter Eckel is a senior fellow and the director of leadership programs at the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy in the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and a trustee at the University of La Verne. Cathy Trower is president of Trower & Trower Inc., a board governance consulting firm, and a trustee at Wheaton College, Mass.

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The challenges and tensions of being a board member in difficult times (essay)

In the two short months since the New Year, headlines about college and university boards and governance have abounded. While the headlines paint one picture, those of us who try and keep a thoughtful eye on governance also read the comments sections of the stories reported here and elsewhere. Some of those comments are well formulated and advance the conversation about good governance; others are misinformed or just nasty.

Look at the comments on Inside Higher Ed about the board-president tension at Suffolk University, the actions and inactions at Mount St. Mary’s University, and what is happening at the University of Missouri. While the stories give renewed attention to the power and role of governance and call out some of the tensions, the comments suggest that much more understanding is needed about the role and function of lay boards of trustees, part of our historical structure since America’s first colonial college.

Governance can be arduous, as we will explain. Being a trustee is one difficult volunteer role, and boards often find themselves in “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situations. In the midst of the vitriol and mudslinging that occurs, our intent is not to play the metaphorical violin and feel sorry for trustees, but we do want to point out a few harsh realities. Boards today must cope with:

Responding to tricky, if not impossible, decisions thrust upon them. Boards do not get to choose the issues that come before them. Some problems and quandaries that end up on board agendas are conceivable -- student concerns (and in some places protests) regarding race and equity are a recent example. Yet, even if foreseeable, the board never knows how an issue will play out in real time, and there often are no right answers or simple paths forward.

Other issues simply cannot be predicted. It is not as if the boards in Louisiana planned for the $940 million budget deficit, or the Mount Saint Mary’s board anticipated the accreditation issues or other fallout from its president’s remarks, including picking up the pieces from his resignation, or the University of Missouri’s Board of Curators wanted to deal with the actions of a faculty member, acting on her own accord and captured on video, that resulted in criminal charges being brought against her and decisions about her employment.

Balancing both immediate and long-term concerns. Taking the long view sometimes seems nearly impossible in a culture obsessed with speed and desirous of instant gratification, especially on college campuses, which have: 1) students who are there for only a short time (in the scheme of things) and are not timid about issuing immediate demands, 2) four generations of faculty with competing interests and who have seen their jobs change a great deal over the years, and 3) administrators who must grapple with crises on a nearly daily basis. Boards find themselves at once caught up in the demands of the immediate while needing to never lose sight of the long term. But, as Harvard sociologist David Reisman said, the role of boards is to “protect the future from the present.”

Boards have three basic, yet sometimes difficult, responsibilities that require them to balance the needs of today with those of future generations:

  1. Duty of care: competence and diligence, the care that an ordinarily prudent person would exercise in a like position and under similar circumstances. Board members have the duty to exercise reasonable care when making decisions as stewards of the institution; they are expected to actively participate in organizational planning and decision making and to make sound and informed judgments.
  2. Duty of loyalty: allegiance. Board members must give undivided allegiance when making decisions. Board members may not use information obtained as a member for personal gain and must act in the best interests of the institution. When acting on behalf of the institution, board members must put institutional interests before any personal or professional concerns and avoid potential conflicts of interest.
  3. Duty of obedience: staying true to mission. Board members are not permitted to act in a way that is inconsistent with the central goals -- the mission -- of the institution. A basis for this rule lies in the public’s trust that the institution will oversee assets (financial, physical and otherwise) to fulfill its mission. Board members must ensure that the institution complies with all applicable federal, state and local laws and regulations.

While it is hoped that all individual members of the campus community would act in such ways, no other group has the same legal and ethical requirement to do so. Board members are not employees and have a fundamentally different relationship with the college, university or state system.

Deciding in the spotlight. Boards are governing in difficult times of heightened scrutiny; in fact, public boards need to govern in front of the public. Imagine trying to having a thoughtful, candid, difficult conversation about controversial issues with your spouse or entire family surrounded by invested onlookers -- and then covered by the press to boot. This is the experience of public boards.

For instance, we would bet that most, if not all, boards should be seriously grappling with how to best deal with the long-term financial health of their institutions. Even well-endowed institutions face economic issues. In January 2013, Moody’s downgraded the entire American higher education sector to negative, an outlook continued in 2014 and 2015. As one trustee put it, “We have a relatively undercapitalized institution, offering a largely undifferentiated product, into an increasingly price-sensitive market, characterized by declining demographics.” Who would be bullish on that? How can boards explore complex and contentious issues, engage in dialogue, and ponder and wonder out loud, when the news media may cover their every thought? Our next point is related.

Balancing competing interests. Because the board needs to take the long view (but also provide counsel and make decisions regarding immediate challenges), and because of its duties of care, loyalty and obedience, it must try to balance the competing interests of a range of stakeholders. They include, among others, faculty members from multiple disciplines, staff members, current students, future students, alumni, community and civic groups, neighborhood associations, policy makers, and boosters. In addition to long-term versus short-term views, on all of our campuses, other paradoxical issues are at hand. Should the board drive change or work to help maintain stability? Focus on core businesses or new businesses? Save and build the endowment or innovate and invest? And in the meantime, the public wants everything better, cheaper. Every single decision a board makes is going to please some and upset others. That’s reality.

Acting as a group. We all know how hard it is to make certain decisions alone, right? While some college and university boards are small, the average size of private university boards is 29. Boards must deliberate issues, hear all sides, seek optimal solutions and come to decisions that will be made public as a collective. Imagine that you have to come to a mutually acceptable decision with competing interests, fast, in a group and under the spotlight (and by the way, with interim leadership, as is often the case). We think we can all agree: this is a tough job.

Dealing with challenges of accountability. Board work is difficult because it lacks natural systems of accountability. Who is watching the board, and to what extent does the board see itself as accountable? Boards work well when they take their own accountability seriously, but too often they do not. Yes, the faculty can vote no confidence in the board, and the state attorney general can intervene, as was the recent case at Cooper Union. But for the most part, boards must develop the ability and conscientiousness to establish their own mechanisms for accountability.

Where Good Governance Reigns

Finally, we must not forget that board members are volunteers, the preponderance of whom are members of the general public, not of the academy. Board members are appointed (public boards), elected (alumni, faculty or student representatives, or by general election in some states), or they volunteer when asked. Most college and university boards are composed of influential individuals who care deeply about the institutions they serve. It’s true that some come with an agenda, but, by and large, that’s not the case. They want to do good work, and they want their institutions to succeed. These volunteer boards can and do add value to the institutions they govern by bringing collective expertise, insight and wisdom.

Strong boards share some important ways of thinking about governance that go beyond size and structure. They:

  • recognize that the stakes are high, and have perhaps never been higher, for the institutions they serve;
  • realize that all trustees and boards have room to improve -- and make a commitment to seeking feedback, reviewing their work and learning;
  • have a certain positive restlessness that keeps them always striving to do better;
  • are self-aware, think about their collective impact, are cognizant of complexity and the paradoxes surrounding them;
  • pay attention to substance, structure, culture, process and boardroom dynamics; and
  • can adapt to changing circumstances rather than get trapped in stale routines (however comfortable they may be). They have, as one president said recently, “the ability to pivot.”

Recommendations for Boards

This essay is not an apologist’s perspective on governance today. Given the complexity of the world in which boards must govern, we realize that we run the risk of ridicule for oversimplifying and making broad-brush statements (and fully expect comments below to those effects). And we realize that there are no panaceas, no right answers and no silver-bullet solutions to governance. Still, we offer here six ideas boards might consider to help ensure that they are ready when (not if) the messy issues arise.

  1. With the administration, and within the parameters set forth by your bylaws, develop an explicit understanding of good governance. Communicate it to the faculty.
  2. Practice (“scrimmage”), when times are good, on easier issues. Boards cannot predict what difficult issues will surface and must be well practiced to take on the most unexpected challenges.
  3. Review cases in the news and ask, “What can we learn? What if that were us?”
  4. Consider the perspectives of multiple stakeholders by asking, “Who are the stakeholders for this decision? What’s at stake for them, particularly the faculty and students? Why?”
  5. When appropriate, seek input from key stakeholders, being especially cognizant of your institution’s shared governance expectations.
  6. Communicate not just the decision outcomes but also the deliberations. Help those affected stakeholders understand the different viewpoints that were broached in the boardroom.

Boards will likely face the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” context for the foreseeable future. The better they are prepared to address the big challenges ahead, the better our institutions will be.

Cathy Trower is president of Trower & Trower Inc., a board governance consulting firm, and a trustee at Wheaton College, Mass. Peter Eckel is a senior fellow and the director of leadership programs in the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy in the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and a trustee at the University of La Verne.


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Recommendations for improving governing board performance (essay)

Despite their affinity for the colleges and universities that they govern, too many boards have not found ways to add important and consistent value. As we wrote in a previous article for Inside Higher Ed, they are mired in mediocrity.

The good news is that we have seen a continued increase in the number of boards that recognize they can and should be better. To do this they must: (1) recognize how average they currently are (no small feat), (2) have the will or desire to improve and (3) chart a path forward. What follows are strategies that have proven successful for many boards with which we have worked.

Look in the mirror. The first step is recognition. Boards must focus attention on themselves and how they govern. Possibly because they are composed of volunteers, many boards don’t see themselves as sufficiently knowledgeable about governance or believe they lack the time or expertise. Thus, they are not prone to asking themselves questions in any intentional and systematic way about how well they are governing. Without a first step of looking in the metaphorical mirror, they’re stuck.

Gather some data and do something with it. Boards expect their college or university to make decisions based on data. They should demand the same of themselves. It’s important to ascertain how trustees view their experiences serving on the board. That can be done using short and simple surveys or full-blown assessments conducted internally or with outside experts. The key is to discuss the results of the data and act upon them.

Here is a simple strategy to get started: ask board members to (anonymously) provide a letter grade for the board’s overall performance. Calculate the GPA and display the range. Then ask, “If you could only do one thing to improve that grade, what would it be?” You can also ask, “What do you find most fulfilling about serving on this board?” and “What do you find most frustrating?” (Again, you should ask anonymously, so people can be forthright.) Discuss what trustees say and how to build on what’s fulfilling and fix what’s frustrating: “What would success look like? How might we close the gaps between where we are now and where we want to be?”

Talk about governance expectations. Boards can benefit tremendously by talking not only about their committee structures and the number and length of the meetings but also about the fundamental values that guide their work. How well does the board value participation, preparation, transparency, teamwork and accountability? What are the important and often unstated values that should shape its governance work? How closely do they match reality? For example, some boards say they value participation, yet they have a history of barely making a quorum.

A good practice is to create a Statement of Mutual Expectations for serving on the board: what the institution can expect from trustees, what trustees can expect from the institution and what trustees can expect from one another. Such a statement may list trustee guidelines for comportment, attendance, philanthropy and confidentiality. It may also include an institutional commitment to ensuring appropriate and timely information, as well as transparency about crucial incidents on the campus, the student and faculty experience, and financial documentation.

Intellectually engage the brains. A goal of all boards is to tap the collective brainpower sitting around the table. Those brains are best engaged when the work is intellectually challenging -- which might not be the case often enough. As one of us, Cathy Trower, wrote in the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges’ Trusteeship magazine (March-April 2015), “Send trustees a reading or two along with questions they should think about as they read. This way, trustees arrive at the meeting having done some critical thinking and prepared to discuss matters appropriately and thoughtfully.” Such work requires presidents and board leaders to think hard about the agenda and its content to ensure its relevance and level of engagement.

Good questions to go along with reading materials and reports might include: About what are you most optimistic? What has you most concerned? Are essential elements of the issue not addressed in the reading? What assumptions underlie the reading’s conclusions?

Good questions must be important and require thought. Posed in advance, they keep the focus on what matters most, help trustees think critically and ensure that they add value as thought partners with the administration.

Develop governance experiments. While boards share much in common, they also vary tremendously in size, structure and, more important, their cultures. Thus, boards should experiment with what practices work well for them given their current contexts and agendas.

Boards should develop experiments in good governance and see if they work. For example, you can increase the number and frequency of joint committee meetings on key topics (such as enrollment and finance or academic affairs and facilities or technology). Or you might develop new task forces on emerging strategic challenges or opportunities and invite nontrustees to participate. Start and end each session with an executive session to put key issues on the table. Disallow rote committee reports and instead have trustees read reports or meeting summaries prior to attending the board meeting. Set up the boardroom with round tables that seat six to eight trustees each instead of a huge table that doesn’t allow good line of sight.

In some instances, these strategies work well; in other situations, they have limited positive effects. Try something and test it; try something else and test that, too. Figure out what works for your board.

Ensure that board leaders lead. One of the contributors to mediocrity is when presidents believe they cannot invest the time in board improvement. Sometimes this happens when presidents feel they need to lead both the institution and the board because board leaders are overcommitted or don’t understand their leadership roles. Presidents cannot fulfill both roles effectively for very long. Board leaders need to demonstrate that they can and will lead the board and invest the time in doing so. Effective board leadership, particularly the chair, is essential to progress.

Create continuity and bridges between meetings. The episodic nature of board meetings significantly influences board performance. For many independent institutions, trustees show up on campus three times a year in order to “govern,” too often with little institutional contact in between.

A good practice is for the board chair, a committee chair or an administrator who is in front of the board to remind trustees of what happened at the last meeting and inform them of what’s happened since. Then toward the end of the meeting, the board chair should take a few minutes to summarize what occurred (and ask, “Did I get that right?”), discuss implications and describe what trustees can expect next.

Some boards are experimenting with having a conference call between regularly scheduled meetings for the purposes of updating trustees on what’s happening on the campus and to keep them engaged between meetings. In addition, many boards hold committee meetings via teleconference between regular board meetings to work on vital matters.

In conclusion, boards mired in mediocrity too often are satisfied and fall far short of effectiveness. In contrast, boards that add value continue to evolve. They grow tired of the status quo. They understand that governance as usual will not help propel their institutions forward. Boards should develop what management experts Jim Collins and Jerry Porras call a “positive restlessness” -- and be never quite satisfied with their performance.

After all, the world is complex and ever changing. Like the institutions that they serve, boards must ask questions, learn from experience, adapt to changing conditions and continually improve.

Cathy Trower is president of Trower & Trower, Inc., a board governance consulting firm. Peter Eckel is a senior fellow and the director of leadership programs at the University of Pennsylvania’s Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy.

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Cornell alumni and faculty members protest proposed College of Business

A proposal to merge Cornell's three business schools into a unified College of Business raises faculty and alumni concerns about shared governance and institutional culture.

Governing boards are too often only mediocre in their performance (essay)

Harvard Business School professor Dutch Leonard once said, “The central challenge for nonprofit leadership is that mediocrity is survivable.” His observation was sad, but true -- and one that could easily apply to many college and university governing boards. However, the difference today given the challenges facing higher education is that mediocrity might not be survivable. At a recent conference of presidents, the key thread of the conversation was about the dangers of mediocre governance.

We observe that too many boards seem to be mired in mediocrity. During numerous board assessments that we’ve conducted over the years, we’ve asked trustees to provide a letter grade to their board’s overall performance. On average, trustees give a C-plus grade. And when we ask why they give this grade, trustees say such things as:

  • “We’re a good, but not great, board.”
  • “I’ve been on worse boards.”
  • “I suspect we’re better in our own minds than in the minds of the senior staff.”
  • “We never discuss our performance; our focus is on the administration’s performance.”
  • “We love this institution, but I’m not sure we really know how to govern well.”

Not very encouraging responses.

Why do college and university boards underperform?

The boards in the headlines are often those that are dysfunctional (think Penn State or the University of Virginia). While they may well deserve their negative spotlight, most boards are not dysfunctional -- they simply can do more to add more value and be an asset to the institution they govern. Boards do not add as much value as they should for many reasons. Some of the more common ones that we have come across include:

The focus is on the “pretty ponies.” One trustee we know remarked, “Our board meetings are dog and pony shows, but the administration only trots out the pretty ponies.” If all the trustees hear is how great everything is going, they tend to assume that everything really is great, and they may become complacent. Similarly, too often boards only learn about issues after they have already been decided, either by an overly powerful executive committee or the administration.

Brainpower goes untapped. Too often trustees do not bring their A game when it comes to board work. In some instances, the administration does not involve the board in important and meaty matters. And other times, trustees do not do their homework prior to meetings that would allow them to engage fully. Regardless of cause, when trustees check out mentally, they provide no value.

That can lead to apathy that not only affects the board’s performance at meetings but also can result in lackluster philanthropic support. Furthermore, if the right people are on the board, the institution is missing a key opportunity for their input.

The one-issue trustee reigns. On one board that we worked with, the answer to every institutional problem was “women’s golf.” They didn’t have a team, and one trustee clearly wanted one. The institution needed to increase enrollment and posed that issue to the board. “Invest in women’s golf” came the solution from the often vocal trustee. The institution wanted to engage alumni more effectively. “Women’s golf,” that same trustee urged a few hours later in the meeting, contending, “Women golfers will be dedicated alumnae.” During discussions about increasing auxiliary revenue, he jumped in with, “Well, you know, we should consider improving the golf course and creating a women’s golf team.” And so it goes.

Congeniality is not collegiality. Many boards suffer from being overly polite and deferential -- both of which result in mediocrity. In contrast, the best colleagues take each other on, pushing each other’s thinking and debating ideas, all in the spirit of advancing the common good.

High-performing boards do not shy away from difficult conversations and conflicting views and ideas. Instead, they understand that such messy, if not uncomfortable, dialogues are essential to understanding complex issues and eventually lead to better decisions. And at the end of the day (or board meeting), those trustees are able to put aside their differences and move ahead.

Good (enough) is the enemy of great. Too often we hear that the board is pretty good -- in fact, good enough. Why push harder for more? Many boards believe that behaviors that worked sufficiently in the past will continue to serve the board and the institution today and into the future. But given the increasing and changing demands on higher education institutions and their leaders, governance that was once good enough no longer is.

Many boards do not take the time to assess themselves or their meetings meaningfully. And often those that do ask questions of themselves rarely yield constructive insights. Rather, they make comments such as, “I liked the pace of the meeting,” or “We had good attendance.”

Boards don’t know otherwise. Administrators and faculty members have deep and extensive professional networks to help them not only find solutions to problems but also provide a set of benchmarks. But the fact is that most trustees have neither, as they rarely see another academic institution’s board in action. They assume that as their board goes, so do all other boards. This is clearly not the case. Too often boards look only to their own histories and practices as a guide for the future rather than looking at the practices of high-performing boards.

Presidents perpetuate the problems. There are four reasons presidents may not lead boards away from mediocrity. First, some presidents simply believe that boards do not have the knowledge to help in meaningful ways. And depending on who sits on the board, that unfortunately might be true.

Second, some presidents worry that once trustees are invited to engage in more substantive work, they’ll never get out of the details. In this case, the potential downside of micromanagement is not worth the reward. Third, presidents may not believe they have the requisite time to devote to governance. The demands on time are great, and a board that is good enough (rather than great) allows for time to be spent elsewhere.

Finally, presidents simply are inexperienced working effectively with boards. A study of presidents that one of us conducted and that was summarized in the Association of Governing Boards’ magazine Trusteeship found that approximately 25 percent of presidents had no experience working with boards prior to ascending to the presidency.

Governance structure contributes. Boards get mired in mediocrity related to the work and structure of governance for three primary reasons. First, because board work is episodic -- with infrequent meetings -- boards do not benefit from repetition and practice or from an easy continuity between meetings.

Second, on many boards, the executive committee has undue influence. That imbalance of influence may cause the rest of the group to check out, leaving a lot of complex work in the hands of too few trustees.

Third, the mind-set of trustees matters. Some trustees feel that they serve on the board to be decisive, which means to make decisions -- not to explore and understand issues, regardless of uncertainty and ambiguity about various paths forward.

Board culture is misaligned. Finally, boards may not have the right cultures for the work that they are facing or the environment in which their institution finds itself. Does the board perpetuate divergent thinking or convergent thinking? Which is needed?

Do board leaders need to maximize efficiency or deliberation? Do they bring a corporate or academic mind-set to decisions? All of these points, and others, add up to shape board culture. But the real questions are: To what extent does board culture match what the institution needs, and how might that vary over time?

In a follow-up Inside Higher Ed article, we will provide recommendations for how boards can avoid becoming mired in mediocrity. Please don’t get us wrong. Many boards have dedicated and hardworking trustees. Our point is not to belittle governance or trusteeship, but to point out its all too common shortfalls. Given the pressures facing many (if not most) colleges and universities, they need to be able to draw on all of their assets, including effective boards. Many, if not most, boards could and should be doing much more to add value as partners in the leadership of very complex institutions.

Cathy Trower is president of Trower & Trower, Inc., a board governance consulting firm. Peter Eckel is a senior fellow and the director of leadership programs at the University of Pennsylvania’s Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy.

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