Boards should ensure they are being accountable for their actions (essay)

As we read the current news about higher education and of failures of leadership by both administrators and boards, we can’t help but ask ourselves, “What the hell is going on?” Consider Antioch College, Cooper Union, Sweet Briar College, Temple University, the University of Louisville, the University of Missouri, the University of Virginia -- it seems that no institutional type is exempt from governance woes and sometimes the intervention of attorneys general, governors, alumni and more.

At the heart of many of these situations is the challenge of board accountability. Most people involved in higher education are familiar with some form of accountability. Accreditation addresses institutional accountability. The student learning movement has increased the emphasis on faculty accountability. But while accrediting agencies do call attention to board accountability, particularly when boards go off the rails, board accountability has yet to garner the same attention.

Governance accountability is difficult for a variety of reasons. First, it often includes high-stakes decisions that not everyone will agree with. Second, board deliberations often take place behind closed doors or, even if open, without much of an audience. Third, many stakeholders don’t understand governance and its role. These factors add up to a degree of skepticism about the board -- even if it is doing its work well and honorably. Because of this, boards must work extra hard to ensure they are accountable and viewed as being so.

Indeed, boards should be out ahead of the accountability curve. Doing so would greatly help them and their institutions. So what is accountability when it comes to governance? To whom are boards accountable and for what? And how can they improve their accountability?

For What Is the Board Accountable?

There are five essential areas of board responsibility and accountability:

  1. Upholding the institution’s mission;
  2. Selecting, compensating, evaluating and firing the president;
  3. Overseeing the fiscal health and integrity of the institution;
  4. Overseeing the quality of programs, services and other institutional offerings; and
  5. Ensuring the board’s own performance and conduct.

Of this list above, the final one tends to be the one that boards most often are least prepared to carry out well.

To Whom Is the Board Accountable?

First and foremost, because they hold their institutions in the public trust, boards of both independent and public colleges and universities are accountable for achieving public purposes. Boards that end up in the headlines for misbehavior often do not violate legal statutes. Instead, they and their institutions lose public trust.

Thus, board accountability has a public dimension to it. Boards need to behave in ways that make sure that the public trusts them and they are doing their collective best to move the institution or state system forward. While boards are often called upon to make difficult and controversial decisions, it often is the court of public opinion in which boards are judged.

At its most basic level, this public accountability is akin to government agencies answering to the electorate and businesses answering to stockholders. However, boards do not have stockholders or electorates who can readily demand greater accountability. Higher education’s stakeholders are a varied group, including policy makers, alumni, students, staff and faculty, and for public universities, the citizens of the state. And the expectations of these different constituencies may differ greatly from each other.

How, Legally, Is the Board Accountable?

Because the institutions they govern are supported by public contributions and enjoy favorable tax treatment, higher education boards are legally bound by the duties of care (exercising diligent oversight, being prepared for meetings), loyalty (placing organizational interest over self-interest, ensuring no conflicts of interest) and obedience (staying true to the institution’s mission, ensuring funds raised are used in support of the mission).

All academic institutions have articles of incorporation (bylaws) that describe the board as responsible for what the institution does and how it does it. Boards are also answerable to federal, state and local agencies, and they must file a Form 990 with the IRS that provides an overview of institutional governance, activities and programs, as well as discloses detailed financial information. In addition, regional accreditation keeps an eye on governance.

How Can Boards Ensure Governance Accountability?

So far, this all seems fairly straightforward. So, why so many train wrecks? We don’t believe they occur because laws, bylaws and articles of incorporation aren’t clear -- they are. We don’t believe they occur because of stupidity -- by and large, trustees are really smart, experienced people. We don’t believe they occur because of evil intention -- trustees generally want to do good work and serve faithfully.

Perhaps they occur because it’s easy to have words on paper, but more difficult to enact them. Some boards lack internal practices that help keep them aware of their accountability and that bring issues to light to help them avoid blind spots, potholes and sinkholes.

Further, boards of public universities and state systems govern in public, which certainly ups the ante. State sunshine laws are intended to increase transparency and, correspondingly, accountability. But there’s a downside, too: having to govern in public sometimes encourages individual trustees to create workarounds or to curtail dialogue, robust discussion, provocative questions and meaty deliberations.

Still despite the challenges of governing in public -- in the sunshine -- we believe that all boards can serve their organizations better by ensuring accountability. Here’s how.

  • Hold a discussion about accountability. Boards should periodically have a straightforward conversation about to whom they are accountable and how they might demonstrate it. Public boards may more easily have this conversation, given their appointment processes and the strong sense of priorities that exists in many states, while boards of independent colleges and universities may have a more complicated situation. Boards at religiously affiliated institutions may feel accountable to the sponsoring order, particularly regarding mission. Other boards may identify other stakeholders such as students, alumni, donors or the larger community. The ways in which boards demonstrate accountability to each group may vary. But the more boards can be intentional about this, the better they will govern.
  • Practice predecision accountability. In its simplest terms, this strategy means that boards should make decisions as if they -- not the president -- had to explain them to stakeholders. For example, for each board meeting, randomly select two trustees who will, in mock trial fashion, need to explain a board dialogue or decision to an unknown entity (a stakeholder group) waiting outside the door. Research shows that practicing predecisional accountability increases trustee engagement in the meeting discussions and encourages trustees to consider more stakeholder viewpoints (because they don’t know who’s waiting to hear the upshot), ask more questions and take more notes. Ultimately, they govern better.
  • Epitomize performance accountability for the institution. If the board holds itself up as an exemplar of performance accountability, it is better positioned to hold others accountable as well as themselves. That means being explicit about the board’s collective understanding of great governance, how it intends to execute it and how it will measure it. Periodically (every two to three years, although some boards undertake an annual review) you should conduct a comprehensive self-assessment of the board’s collective performance. It’s also a good idea to have trustees self-assess their own engagement and performance. While these assessments might be a bit inflated, the simple act of self-reflection is helpful. It’s also good practice to assess the work of committees and board meetings. Specific ideas for all of these types of assessment may be found in Trower’s book The Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership.
  • Create and uphold a statement of expectations. Another good practice is to have a written statement of trustee expectations, or a code of conduct, that spells out the responsibilities of board members and how the board will deal with violations. You should make this statement public and demonstrate that the board takes seriously the ways its members engage with one another and with the work of governance. Such a statement can also help boards to moderate potentially disruptive behavior by a few rogue trustees. Great boards do not tolerate renegades who violate agreed-upon terms of engagement and have consequences for misbehavior.
  • Seek management’s overall assessment annually. The best boards engage in dialogue with the president about how the board is performing. Such conversations can happen with the board chair or with the executive or governance committee, and overarching views should be discussed with the full board. Some boards ask the senior staff members to also complete the written board assessment survey and analyze results comparing board to staff members, in the aggregate (so as to not compromise anonymity). Boards provide presidents with feedback and assessment, so why not reverse the process?
  • Hold executive sessions for reflective practice. To learn and improve, boards should reflect on their performance, which can often best be done in executive session without senior leadership present. Such sessions are a time for trustees to open up with one another about how they see the board’s performance and talk about blind spots that may have been revealed in the assessments and how to overcome them. Another best practice of the best boards is to periodically take stock of the past year and discuss both contributions/successes and shortfalls in terms of the board’s governance function. Questions to ask: What did we do especially well? Where did we fall short? Why? What have we learned? How will we govern still better in the year ahead?
  • Avoid conflicts of interest. This point should not need to be reinforced, yet trustees too often find themselves in conflict. Board accountability is undermined quickly and deeply when conflicts of interest exist. While not all conflicts are avoidable, many are and should be.
  • Use the mission as a guidepost and touchstone. Too many boards get into difficulty when their actions are viewed as running counter to the mission and values of the university. For example, boards lose credibility when they offer presidents excessive compensation packages, yet leave students with a high debt load or come under scrutiny for not paying staff living wages. Boards can appoint trustees at each meeting to ask, “How does this decision reflect on our values and mission?” Hopefully such a capacity will become naturally ingrained over time. This is a type of values sniff test -- if the decision smells bad, it probably is.

In summary, a board can take many steps to ensure accountability for itself. Because boards are at the apex of the institutions they serve, the buck stops with them. They cannot and should not hide, as they should have nothing to hide. You may have noted an undercurrent of the concept of integrity running through all this. Ultimately, that is what board accountability boils down to: integrity. Without it, nothing good can happen. Once violated, it is difficult to overcome. With it, good work is possible.

Cathy Trower is president of Trower & Trower Inc., a board governance consulting firm; a board member at BoardSource in Washington, D.C.; and a trustee at Wheaton College, Mass. Peter Eckel is a senior fellow and the director of leadership 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.

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A board decides to give its president special security (essay)

When our Board of Trustees first heard about our president being sent some threatening communications, we weren’t too worried. The president is well liked, affable and easily recognized in the community. With 60,000 students enrolled, three campuses and a $300 million operating budget, she’s an astute, popular figure whose energy and goodwill are legendary. She has led efforts that have raised $23 million in scholarships for needy students during her tenure.

Her nonstop schedule, however, frequently takes her out late at night, often alone, sometimes a couple hours’ drive from our campus. It is no exaggeration to say that she will travel anywhere to promote our college: she delivered a GED graduation speech at a correctional facility and mentors college students who are also teen parents in the community. She has a reputation for searching out students who are isolated or discouraged, giving them her personal phone number and texting them several times a week to check in on class attendance. Having grown up herself on the south side of Chicago, she has earned what she calls a well-rooted sense of invincibility.

Our president is also African-American and openly gay, and she talks very publicly about closing the achievement gap for students of color. She writes often about making our institution more LGBTQ friendly and nurtures what she calls “radical inclusion.” She led the charge to allow Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals students -- undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children but are now college age -- to attend our institution at in-state tuition rates.

Any one of those elements could attract hostility from the unbalanced or the narrow-minded, but in a tight economy, and in the wake of a vitriolic presidential election, more folks have seemed to be looking for someone to blame. Some of the rhetoric of the campaigns encouraged those tendencies, making people the targets rather than ideas.

On top of those complexities, our president has made some gutsy -- and unpopular -- business decisions in her quest to expand opportunity to more students. When she determined that several auxiliary programs were running deficits for many years in a row, she took action -- including outsourcing the bookstores on our campuses. Some people lost their jobs, despite the college’s painstaking efforts to move them to new positions. She also closed three child care centers that were losing over a $400,000 a year -- a very unpopular decision. It was unequivocally the right decision for the college, though, given that fewer than 20 of our 60,000 students were using the facilities. We redirected the resources to address student needs, including ones in the Achieving the Promise Academy and our Achieving Collegiate Excellence and Success program, both focused on increasing retention, persistence and graduation rates for at-risk students.

At about that time, we hired a new director of safety and security, a retired police officer with three decades of law-enforcement experience. In the wake of the tragedy at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, we wanted to heighten security for our students and employees, so we sought her out for her expertise. She immediately made changes: stepping up patrols in some high-trafficked areas, implementing active-shooter trainings, putting our security staff in uniforms, taking our local law enforcement teams on walk-throughs of the campuses and installing communications screens in classrooms.

What we didn’t expect, however, was that she would present our president’s safety in a new light: “How would you feel if something happened to your president?” The threats, the controversial business decisions, the late-night travel -- our safety and security director’s decades of experience told her that those were red flags. She demanded to know why we hadn’t acted sooner.

Suddenly we were asking ourselves important questions. Perhaps we needed to change our perspective. With her characteristic nonchalance, the president had brushed off some very explicit threats. She had dismissed our board’s concerns that she might be too unguarded in her interactions with responses like “If my conversations with a student can keep them enrolled or focused or inspired, it’s worth it. If my meeting with a community member can soothe their angst about the child care centers, it’s worth it.”

But the new director was someone who knew about the realities of violence. She had seen stalking and mental illness escalate into violence countless times in her career. Some of the messages to our president had been ugly, racist and homophobic. A man unknown to the college tried to deliver a suspicious package to her office that he claimed had to be given directly to her. A person commenting on social media said she should be “taken out” in reaction to a commencement speech she delivered. It’s not a matter of when someone targets the president, our new director said -- she already is a target.

On the director’s urgent recommendation, we quickly contracted a security firm to provide an officer to accompany the president for a six-month pilot. We did so with the knowledge that we would probably receive pushback, that our judgment would be questioned and that those who were looking to criticize us would do so with impunity. Taxpayer dollars are going to protection for a college president? That’s the headline we will likely face, and we’ve already heard low-level grumblings about it. But to a person, our entire board was willing to take the heat about the decision to protect our president, because she had been willing -- even eager -- to risk much more for our students.

Maybe that’s the story, and the fundamental question, at the end of the day: How far should a president be expected to go for students? Our internal answer has been: a president with the passion and dedication that ours has shown over six years of leadership deserves our wholehearted support. And under these circumstances, that means security.

Marsha Suggs Smith is the chair of the Board of Trustees of Montgomery College.

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Advice for ensuring boards are prepared to deal with what's ahead (essay)

“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future,” said Niels Bohr, Nobel laureate in physics. While he wasn’t speaking specifically about governing boards, his quotation is apt. How well prepared is your board for the future, predictable or not?

Boards must work concurrently across three points of time: past, present and future. The oversight work of boards by definition is historical. Boards look to the past to understand how well the college, university or state system is performing against plans and goals. Events happen in the past that the board reviews. Did we meet our institutional objectives this past year? How accurate was the budget projection, or were there shortfalls or overages? Did the institution hit its enrollment goals?

Boards also live in the present. How is the university responding to a crisis, such as student protests, or how well is it addressing pressing issues, such as the employment conditions of adjunct faculty? What are the financial costs of a new tuition and aid policy?

Finally, boards must work in the future. They approve a five-year strategic plan, for example. But they also are stewards of the university and long-term guardians of its mission, looking well into the future. It is this third area that is most difficult, given the flux in which most colleges, universities and state systems find themselves.

While it is impossible to “futureproof” a board, assessing its strengths and potential vulnerabilities can go a long way toward ensuring that it is prepared for what’s ahead. Such assessments give board leaders and the administrators a sense of the board’s strengths and the areas where it is potentially vulnerable, and can provide a road map for improvement.

We know that boards vary in their level of functioning, in the scope of their work and in their level of sophistication. Governance is rarely uniform, and different boards will find some approaches resonate more with them than others. But here are some general ideas you might consider to help your board be prepared for the future.

Baseline Fundamentals

Certain key fundamentals support governance, and most boards should already have these in place. But some boards lack these elements and, without a firm foundation, will struggle to address future challenges.

The board chair and institutional president should easily answer the following questions, which are intended to help a board determine a baseline of its effectiveness.

  • Are there written expectations for trustees?
  • Are there mechanisms for orienting new board members?
  • Are board members asked to prepare for board meetings so they can contribute to the discourse? (For example, are key documents sent out 10 to 14 days in advance?) Do board members actually prepare for meetings?
  • Do board members physically attend all meetings, with rare exceptions? How many join by phone? And how many simply don’t show up?
  • Is it possible to tell what is most important for the institution by looking at the board agenda?
  • Does the board have a set agenda, and is it designed to promote discussion and debate about the most pressing issues?
  • Has the board (or a board subcommittee) reviewed the board bylaws within the last five years?


Boards need to know where they are performing well, where they have blind spots and where they might need to improve. As they discuss their ability to navigate the whitewater ahead, boards may wish to consider the following:

  • Time spent on meaningful issues. There are many complex issues to address and time is limited, so a board must spend it effectively and efficiently. Does the board have clear goals and objectives for each meeting? To what extent do discussions allow it to explore complicated topics? Is the meeting efficient? Does the board take the necessary time to deliberate important issues? Does it have the information it needs to govern well?
  • The use of board member talent and knowledge. Board members should be intentionally selected or invited to participate based on their talents, skill sets, knowledge and ability to work well together. To what extent is the board composed of diverse thinkers? Are the areas of expertise that the institution needs reflected in the various members of the board? How well does the board tap into the collective wisdom of its members? Does the board work together as a high-performing team? Does the board add value?
  • The relationship between the board and the president. The board-president relationship is complex, in part because of the multiple roles involved: the board oversees the president as boss, serves as a strategic thought partner and is also a coach. Does the board play these three roles well, or is it predisposed to one type of work over the others? Does the board regularly and effectively evaluate the president? Does the board listen to the president? Is there mutual trust, respect and accountability? Is there open, two-way communication and transparency?
  • Board integrity. The board should evaluate its sense of integrity as well as that of the president and college, university or system. Does the board have the capacity to ensure that both it and the institution or system it oversees are operating within the boundaries of applicable laws? Does the board have and uphold a conflict-of-interest policy? How transparent is the board in its decision making? Does the board maintain confidentiality?
  • Board member satisfaction. It is important to understand the extent to which board members believe their work has a positive impact, their level of overall satisfaction with the board, and the degree to which they find the experience rewarding. After all, these roles are voluntary. And boards want to ensure they are getting the most from their volunteers.

Other categories of possible assessment include the participation and engagement of board members, the effectiveness of board education, and the depth of board knowledge.

Furthermore, boards can assess performance in a number of ways. One approach is to look at simple yet potentially powerful questions as presented in a two-by-two matrix defined by frequency and value or impact.


Finally, to understand how well it is prepared for the future, the board should assess its culture. While it is important to understand if the board carries out its functions effectively, it is equally important to ask how the board does what it does. Its beliefs and ways of working and engaging are passed on to new trustees and can become deeply engrained, often without examination. The group itself becomes the “invisible director,” as Clayton Alderfer astutely noted 30 years ago (Harvard Business Review, Nov.-Dec. 1986) of the influence it can exert.

Effective governance demands that board members ask two questions: To what extent do we have the right board culture, given: 1) the work we have to do, and 2) the context in which we are working?

A board must also confront two challenges when assessing group culture. The first is to make something that is often invisible to those people immersed in it observable (“fish don’t know they’re in water”). The second is to find a shared language to describe culture in ways that can become actionable. This is difficult work and something with which boards and other groups have long struggled. We have designed a board culture self-assessment that accomplishes both of these. For more information, see the Penn AHEAD or Trower & Trower websites. Organizational culture is a complex phenomenon and difficult to describe succinctly and consistently. Without agreement about what one is seeking and a strategy to do that, boards will struggle on this dimension.

While it is important to assess the dimensions described here at the board level, board leaders should also identify variances within a board, because understanding the differences that exist across board members may be even more telling. How cohesive is the board and its culture? Do people have vastly different assessments of their experience, the board culture or how well the board is working? Do those differences vary by a trustee’s length of service, gender, race/ethnicity or membership on a specific committee?

Finally, boards can conduct the assessments themselves, but they may be better served by having outside experts help craft questions and make sense of the results. People with fresh eyes who are able to call things as they see them can help surface assumptions and keep blind spots in check. (Remember that reference to the fish and water?)

“The future ain’t what it used to be,” said Yogi Berra. Ensuring that your board is ready for that future begins with an understanding of where it is today.

Peter Eckel is a senior fellow and the director of leadership 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. Matt Hartley, associate dean and professor in Penn’s Graduate School of Education and a trustee at Widener University, also contributed to the ideas in this article.

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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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