Despite their affinity for the colleges and universities that they govern, too many boards have not found ways to add important and consistent value. As we wrote in a previous article for Inside Higher Ed, they are mired in mediocrity.
The good news is that we have seen a continued increase in the number of boards that recognize they can and should be better. To do this they must: (1) recognize how average they currently are (no small feat), (2) have the will or desire to improve and (3) chart a path forward. What follows are strategies that have proven successful for many boards with which we have worked.
Look in the mirror. The first step is recognition. Boards must focus attention on themselves and how they govern. Possibly because they are composed of volunteers, many boards don’t see themselves as sufficiently knowledgeable about governance or believe they lack the time or expertise. Thus, they are not prone to asking themselves questions in any intentional and systematic way about how well they are governing. Without a first step of looking in the metaphorical mirror, they’re stuck.
Gather some data and do something with it. Boards expect their college or university to make decisions based on data. They should demand the same of themselves. It’s important to ascertain how trustees view their experiences serving on the board. That can be done using short and simple surveys or full-blown assessments conducted internally or with outside experts. The key is to discuss the results of the data and act upon them.
Here is a simple strategy to get started: ask board members to (anonymously) provide a letter grade for the board’s overall performance. Calculate the GPA and display the range. Then ask, “If you could only do one thing to improve that grade, what would it be?” You can also ask, “What do you find most fulfilling about serving on this board?” and “What do you find most frustrating?” (Again, you should ask anonymously, so people can be forthright.) Discuss what trustees say and how to build on what’s fulfilling and fix what’s frustrating: “What would success look like? How might we close the gaps between where we are now and where we want to be?”
Talk about governance expectations. Boards can benefit tremendously by talking not only about their committee structures and the number and length of the meetings but also about the fundamental values that guide their work. How well does the board value participation, preparation, transparency, teamwork and accountability? What are the important and often unstated values that should shape its governance work? How closely do they match reality? For example, some boards say they value participation, yet they have a history of barely making a quorum.
A good practice is to create a Statement of Mutual Expectations for serving on the board: what the institution can expect from trustees, what trustees can expect from the institution and what trustees can expect from one another. Such a statement may list trustee guidelines for comportment, attendance, philanthropy and confidentiality. It may also include an institutional commitment to ensuring appropriate and timely information, as well as transparency about crucial incidents on the campus, the student and faculty experience, and financial documentation.
Intellectually engage the brains. A goal of all boards is to tap the collective brainpower sitting around the table. Those brains are best engaged when the work is intellectually challenging -- which might not be the case often enough. As one of us, Cathy Trower, wrote in the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges’ Trusteeship magazine (March-April 2015), “Send trustees a reading or two along with questions they should think about as they read. This way, trustees arrive at the meeting having done some critical thinking and prepared to discuss matters appropriately and thoughtfully.” Such work requires presidents and board leaders to think hard about the agenda and its content to ensure its relevance and level of engagement.
Good questions to go along with reading materials and reports might include: About what are you most optimistic? What has you most concerned? Are essential elements of the issue not addressed in the reading? What assumptions underlie the reading’s conclusions?
Good questions must be important and require thought. Posed in advance, they keep the focus on what matters most, help trustees think critically and ensure that they add value as thought partners with the administration.
Develop governance experiments. While boards share much in common, they also vary tremendously in size, structure and, more important, their cultures. Thus, boards should experiment with what practices work well for them given their current contexts and agendas.
Boards should develop experiments in good governance and see if they work. For example, you can increase the number and frequency of joint committee meetings on key topics (such as enrollment and finance or academic affairs and facilities or technology). Or you might develop new task forces on emerging strategic challenges or opportunities and invite nontrustees to participate. Start and end each session with an executive session to put key issues on the table. Disallow rote committee reports and instead have trustees read reports or meeting summaries prior to attending the board meeting. Set up the boardroom with round tables that seat six to eight trustees each instead of a huge table that doesn’t allow good line of sight.
In some instances, these strategies work well; in other situations, they have limited positive effects. Try something and test it; try something else and test that, too. Figure out what works for your board.
Ensure that board leaders lead. One of the contributors to mediocrity is when presidents believe they cannot invest the time in board improvement. Sometimes this happens when presidents feel they need to lead both the institution and the board because board leaders are overcommitted or don’t understand their leadership roles. Presidents cannot fulfill both roles effectively for very long. Board leaders need to demonstrate that they can and will lead the board and invest the time in doing so. Effective board leadership, particularly the chair, is essential to progress.
Create continuity and bridges between meetings. The episodic nature of board meetings significantly influences board performance. For many independent institutions, trustees show up on campus three times a year in order to “govern,” too often with little institutional contact in between.
A good practice is for the board chair, a committee chair or an administrator who is in front of the board to remind trustees of what happened at the last meeting and inform them of what’s happened since. Then toward the end of the meeting, the board chair should take a few minutes to summarize what occurred (and ask, “Did I get that right?”), discuss implications and describe what trustees can expect next.
Some boards are experimenting with having a conference call between regularly scheduled meetings for the purposes of updating trustees on what’s happening on the campus and to keep them engaged between meetings. In addition, many boards hold committee meetings via teleconference between regular board meetings to work on vital matters.
In conclusion, boards mired in mediocrity too often are satisfied and fall far short of effectiveness. In contrast, boards that add value continue to evolve. They grow tired of the status quo. They understand that governance as usual will not help propel their institutions forward. Boards should develop what management experts Jim Collins and Jerry Porras call a “positive restlessness” -- and be never quite satisfied with their performance.
After all, the world is complex and ever changing. Like the institutions that they serve, boards must ask questions, learn from experience, adapt to changing conditions and continually improve.
Cathy Trower is president of Trower & Trower, Inc., a board governance consulting firm. Peter Eckel is a senior fellow and the director of leadership programs at the University of Pennsylvania’s Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy.
Harvard Business School professor Dutch Leonard once said, “The central challenge for nonprofit leadership is that mediocrity is survivable.” His observation was sad, but true -- and one that could easily apply to many college and university governing boards. However, the difference today given the challenges facing higher education is that mediocrity might not be survivable. At a recent conference of presidents, the key thread of the conversation was about the dangers of mediocre governance.
We observe that too many boards seem to be mired in mediocrity. During numerous board assessments that we’ve conducted over the years, we’ve asked trustees to provide a letter grade to their board’s overall performance. On average, trustees give a C-plus grade. And when we ask why they give this grade, trustees say such things as:
“We’re a good, but not great, board.”
“I’ve been on worse boards.”
“I suspect we’re better in our own minds than in the minds of the senior staff.”
“We never discuss our performance; our focus is on the administration’s performance.”
“We love this institution, but I’m not sure we really know how to govern well.”
Not very encouraging responses.
Why do college and university boards underperform?
The boards in the headlines are often those that are dysfunctional (think Penn State or the University of Virginia). While they may well deserve their negative spotlight, most boards are not dysfunctional -- they simply can do more to add more value and be an asset to the institution they govern. Boards do not add as much value as they should for many reasons. Some of the more common ones that we have come across include:
The focus is on the “pretty ponies.” One trustee we know remarked, “Our board meetings are dog and pony shows, but the administration only trots out the pretty ponies.” If all the trustees hear is how great everything is going, they tend to assume that everything really is great, and they may become complacent. Similarly, too often boards only learn about issues after they have already been decided, either by an overly powerful executive committee or the administration.
Brainpower goes untapped. Too often trustees do not bring their A game when it comes to board work. In some instances, the administration does not involve the board in important and meaty matters. And other times, trustees do not do their homework prior to meetings that would allow them to engage fully. Regardless of cause, when trustees check out mentally, they provide no value.
That can lead to apathy that not only affects the board’s performance at meetings but also can result in lackluster philanthropic support. Furthermore, if the right people are on the board, the institution is missing a key opportunity for their input.
The one-issue trustee reigns. On one board that we worked with, the answer to every institutional problem was “women’s golf.” They didn’t have a team, and one trustee clearly wanted one. The institution needed to increase enrollment and posed that issue to the board. “Invest in women’s golf” came the solution from the often vocal trustee. The institution wanted to engage alumni more effectively. “Women’s golf,” that same trustee urged a few hours later in the meeting, contending, “Women golfers will be dedicated alumnae.” During discussions about increasing auxiliary revenue, he jumped in with, “Well, you know, we should consider improving the golf course and creating a women’s golf team.” And so it goes.
Congeniality is not collegiality. Many boards suffer from being overly polite and deferential -- both of which result in mediocrity. In contrast, the best colleagues take each other on, pushing each other’s thinking and debating ideas, all in the spirit of advancing the common good.
High-performing boards do not shy away from difficult conversations and conflicting views and ideas. Instead, they understand that such messy, if not uncomfortable, dialogues are essential to understanding complex issues and eventually lead to better decisions. And at the end of the day (or board meeting), those trustees are able to put aside their differences and move ahead.
Good (enough) is the enemy of great. Too often we hear that the board is pretty good -- in fact, good enough. Why push harder for more? Many boards believe that behaviors that worked sufficiently in the past will continue to serve the board and the institution today and into the future. But given the increasing and changing demands on higher education institutions and their leaders, governance that was once good enough no longer is.
Many boards do not take the time to assess themselves or their meetings meaningfully. And often those that do ask questions of themselves rarely yield constructive insights. Rather, they make comments such as, “I liked the pace of the meeting,” or “We had good attendance.”
Boards don’t know otherwise. Administrators and faculty members have deep and extensive professional networks to help them not only find solutions to problems but also provide a set of benchmarks. But the fact is that most trustees have neither, as they rarely see another academic institution’s board in action. They assume that as their board goes, so do all other boards. This is clearly not the case. Too often boards look only to their own histories and practices as a guide for the future rather than looking at the practices of high-performing boards.
Presidents perpetuate the problems. There are four reasons presidents may not lead boards away from mediocrity. First, some presidents simply believe that boards do not have the knowledge to help in meaningful ways. And depending on who sits on the board, that unfortunately might be true.
Second, some presidents worry that once trustees are invited to engage in more substantive work, they’ll never get out of the details. In this case, the potential downside of micromanagement is not worth the reward. Third, presidents may not believe they have the requisite time to devote to governance. The demands on time are great, and a board that is good enough (rather than great) allows for time to be spent elsewhere.
Finally, presidents simply are inexperienced working effectively with boards. A study of presidents that one of us conducted and that was summarized in the Association of Governing Boards’ magazine Trusteeship found that approximately 25 percent of presidents had no experience working with boards prior to ascending to the presidency.
Governance structure contributes. Boards get mired in mediocrity related to the work and structure of governance for three primary reasons. First, because board work is episodic -- with infrequent meetings -- boards do not benefit from repetition and practice or from an easy continuity between meetings.
Second, on many boards, the executive committee has undue influence. That imbalance of influence may cause the rest of the group to check out, leaving a lot of complex work in the hands of too few trustees.
Third, the mind-set of trustees matters. Some trustees feel that they serve on the board to be decisive, which means to make decisions -- not to explore and understand issues, regardless of uncertainty and ambiguity about various paths forward.
Board culture is misaligned. Finally, boards may not have the right cultures for the work that they are facing or the environment in which their institution finds itself. Does the board perpetuate divergent thinking or convergent thinking? Which is needed?
Do board leaders need to maximize efficiency or deliberation? Do they bring a corporate or academic mind-set to decisions? All of these points, and others, add up to shape board culture. But the real questions are: To what extent does board culture match what the institution needs, and how might that vary over time?
In a follow-up Inside Higher Ed article, we will provide recommendations for how boards can avoid becoming mired in mediocrity. Please don’t get us wrong. Many boards have dedicated and hardworking trustees. Our point is not to belittle governance or trusteeship, but to point out its all too common shortfalls. Given the pressures facing many (if not most) colleges and universities, they need to be able to draw on all of their assets, including effective boards. Many, if not most, boards could and should be doing much more to add value as partners in the leadership of very complex institutions.
Cathy Trower is president of Trower & Trower, Inc., a board governance consulting firm. Peter Eckel is a senior fellow and the director of leadership programs at the University of Pennsylvania’s Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy.
Following period of governance turmoil, new of U of Texas System chancellor -- after a decorated military career -- discusses the transition to higher ed, the roles of the system and chancellor, and "chain of command."
I remember well the meeting with a senior faculty leader. It was early in my Wesleyan University presidency, and I was excited about the many things I hoped to see accomplished. We were talking about the objectives for the year that the administration would be presenting to the board of trustees, and I asked what her goals were. Clearly surprised by my invitation to help set the agenda for the university, this faculty veteran -- well respected by her colleagues and a devoted mentor for her students -- explained to me that she would do what she could to ensure that not much would change. When I seemed incredulous, she emphasized that “preventing disaster is not the same as doing nothing.”
What to make of this exchange? Emblematic of the university’s disdain for innovation? Of higher education’s notorious inertia in the face of change? Certainly the conservative dimension of academic culture is real and important, protecting the university from merely echoing microtrends that may be irrelevant, even antithetical, to quality education. But in this age of increasingly rapid change fueled by technological innovation, we might find, to paraphrase Oscar Hammerstein, that we have been protected out of all we own.
In their Locus of Authority: The Evolution of Faculty Roles in Higher Education, William Bowen and Gene Tobin defend a contemporary model of shared governance, one that emphasizes robust consultation. In the end, however, they stress that if colleges and universities are to thrive in the current environment, the power to initiate changes and make them stick must be centralized. Although recognizing that new academic programs need faculty support, they underscore that the allocation of resources and even pedagogical initiatives are going to be most successful with leadership unbeholden to any existing constituency.
Successful change will emerge, Bowen and Tobin underscore, when leaders work for the good of the university as a whole and over time. Given that both authors were themselves presidents, it is unsurprising that when they look for people thinking of the good of the whole, they find them in the central administration.
Colleges and universities have been under enormous pressure to change, and change they have. Faculty authors of the Yale Report of 1828 defended their work against critics who claimed that colleges “are not adapted to the spirit and wants of the age; that they will soon be deserted, unless they are better accommodated to the business character of the nation.” Sound familiar? The 19th-century Yale faculty pointed out that they also had to deal with alumni who complained that the college was no longer teaching the way it had decades before, just as today college-educated parents often express surprise that their children aren’t learning the same things they were taught. The notion that professors have been teaching the same things in the same way for centuries is just false.
But modifications of the curriculum, even alterations in teaching style, may not be what the “disrupters” are looking for when they talk about the importance of transforming higher education. They want universities to be more nimble, capable of responding to the needs of students and to “just-in-time” research opportunities as these emerge. Critics rightly charge that the structures of universities insulate faculty, administrators and students from many stimuli (and incentives) for change. Sure, new kinds of colleges, like Minerva, and new platforms for taking classes, like Coursera, are putting pressure on some colleges to adjust, but according to higher education’s critics, most institutions just go along their merry way.
I served as president at the California College of the Arts before coming to Wesleyan, and I’ve seen some pretty big changes at those institutions. Some of these changes came from enterprising faculty, others from students, and some from administrators who saw real advantages to altering the traditional models we were using. A few came from my own initiatives. All of them eventually required the kind of consultation Bowen and Tobin describe, though none of them would have had consensus right off the bat. In higher education, the promise of consensus usually devolves into the threat of veto. Consensus kills innovation.
At California College of the Arts (CCA), I had a key role in the momentous decision to change the name of the institution, long known as the California College of Arts and Crafts. Although I was personally committed to many of the values of the arts and crafts movement out of which the college emerged, I came to see that the name was no longer helpful in designating a vibrant place where digital design, architecture, film, fine arts and writing often intermingled in powerfully creative ways. We could have embraced the name and made it work, I thought, but the leadership of the college hadn’t been doing that.
For at least 20 years much energy had been spent complaining about or defending the name. As president, I was able to guide a process involving faculty, students and board members that eventually led to the name being changed. My major contribution was just setting parameters for the discussion and saying that we would finish our decision-making process within a year. Either we would change the name or we would not talk about the issue for the duration of my presidency. In 2003, the board unanimously approved the name California College of the Arts, with the understanding that craft, design, architecture and writing were all part of our approach to learning through the arts.
After about three years or so at CCA, I introduced the idea of an M.B.A. with a focus on design. Lots of people laughed at the idea of a business degree at an art school. Having no business background myself, I hired a faculty member, designer Nathan Shedroff, to help plan a distinctive business program that would work in our creative context. The provost (now president), Steve Beal, and the CFO, David Kirshman, were enormously helpful in launching the program, which has now received international recognition from the design and business communities.
We brought the program for detailed discussion with more faculty members only after we had done quite a lot of planning -- and knew that we would not spend very much money in advance. Before launching the program, nobody else at the institution would have been invested in its success. If we had asked for a vote, we would have lost. Now, with allied programs, a larger faculty and successful alumni, the graduate Design Business program is an important part of the wonderfully eclectic CCA mix.
If these examples from CCA depict presidential initiative, two examples from Wesleyan shine a light on how individual faculty members can create broad institutional change. Over the past 30 years, Jeanine Basinger has taken film studies from the small interest area of a few colleagues to a fragile interdisciplinary program and on to a department with its own lines and facilities. As she has told me more than once, “They tried to kill it many times.” But through her indefatigable efforts together with her example as a teacher and scholar, she turned film studies into one of the university’s most widely recognized areas of excellence. And she’s still going. Two years ago, I asked her and her colleagues to make the interdisciplinary department, including an important historical archive, into the College of Film and the Moving Image. We are now building an endowment for C-Film as a permanent part of our academic offerings.
Biologist and environmental scientist Barry Chernoff was one of several faculty who responded to my call for new academic proposals when I began my tenure at Wesleyan. A radically interdisciplinary scientist, Barry wanted to bring more collaborative research and teaching under the environmental studies tent. In 2009 we created the College of the Environment, a program in which all students have both a major in environmental science and a linked major -- be it economics or biology, anthropology or dance. In addition, there is a think tank attached to the college in which faculty and undergraduates from very different departments work together on collaborative projects. A number of important publications have already emerged, and we have built a significant endowment for the program.
In both these cases, individual faculty were not only the instigators of new programs, they were also the builders. As president, I knew when to get out of the way and also when I could help them raise additional resources to make their enterprises sustainable. This last part is often important in gaining buy-in from the faculty more generally. Raising additional resources “expands the pie” so that older departments don’t block change out of fear that they themselves will receive less.
But the notion of expanding the pie also fosters illusions because it masks the trade-offs that should be visible with innovation. If new programs become more successful, according to transparent criteria, then resources should be reallocated. That often painful process of reallocation, as Bowen and Tobin argue, is the responsibility of the administration, and, ultimately of the board. It’s up to the president and provost to explain publicly the criteria for the distribution of resources.
The faculty rightly controls the kinds of courses offered for credit, and it has clear rules for approving promotions, new classes and different modes of teaching. At Wesleyan, though, students have often played an important role, instigating changes in the curriculum by bringing their intellectual interests to the fore (we want environmental design! we want more art classes! more labs!). Recently students, along with a group of faculty who wanted to experiment with intensive teaching, were instrumental in opening up the academic calendar. They made a strong pitch to faculty leadership to offer classes in the summer, and then in the winter break. The intensive courses award full academic credit and are offered at sharply discounted tuition, incentivizing breaking away from the conventional undergraduate calendar.
These proposals had strong administrative support, and it was crucial that there were faculty leaders who were willing to try the new modes of teaching. Our summer and winter terms are small, but they are growing. They offer all students more pathways to complete their degrees, often with substantial cost savings and evidence of deep learning.
My final example of change at Wesleyan is my decision to partner with Coursera in the summer of 2012. This was an unusual moment, a time when I was convinced that we at Wesleyan needed more experimentation with online learning, a time of both MOOC mania and backlash against MOOCs. I was very impressed with Coursera cofounder Daphne Koller’s approach to building a group of strong classes through an iterative process of running them and improving them.
Since these classes were not being offered for credit, I knew I did not need authorization from the faculty as a whole. We were going to produce the classes very economically, so money wasn’t the issue. I decided to join the first group of Wesleyan teachers online, inviting some of the most respected and celebrated faculty members to join me in the experiment. We were very fortunate to enlist five colleagues from very different departments. None of us knew precisely what we were getting into, but we all were curious about pedagogical innovation and eager to share our classes for free with students from around the world.
When I announced this partnership at the first faculty meeting of the year, there was real consternation. Did I actually have the authority to do this, I was asked by one of my senior colleagues. Yes, I did, at least according to the board chair and the general counsel. I knew that the ice on which we’d started skating was thin, but in the end the success of our efforts would be judged by the individual teachers involved and then on a strategy and policy level by the relevant faculty and board committees.
If I had asked a general faculty meeting for authorization, I doubt we would have ever gotten started. Instead, I asked the faculty committees to respond to our reports on the classes we taught, to refine the process of selecting teachers and subjects, and to help determine which lessons from our online classes were relevant to our work on campus.
Wesleyan is a small place. We have around 3,000 students, mostly undergraduates. In our work with Coursera over the last few years, we have worked with more than 1,000,000 students from over 120 countries. All of us who have taught in the program find it exciting and frustrating by turns -- and tremendously invigorating. We are taking lessons into flipped classrooms as well as into more traditional seminars. The partnership with Coursera continues. We are learning together. If in the end the faculty deems the experiment a failure, then will move onto other experiments.
Changes are happening at America’s colleges and universities as faculty, students and administrators grapple with making the education they offer more empowering beyond the university. Although the faculty as a whole may sometimes function as a guardian of mission and tradition, individual professors are often catalysts for innovations that can be put in the service of broad, strategic goals. As Bowen and Tobin emphasize, strong leadership recognizes the need for faculty as genuine participants rather than as adversaries.
And it’s not just faculty who can launch sustainable change. Sometimes initiatives come from students eager to try to modes of learning, or to delve more deeply into subjects not yet well represented in the curriculum. Deans, provosts and presidents learn to get out of the way when tailwinds can carry worthwhile initiatives to fruition, but they also can themselves initiate curricular experimentation in areas where there is of yet no campus constituency for new programs.
Bowen and Tobin’s main point is as simple as it is important: effective shared governance is not divided governance. Coordinated consultation and transparent decision making can ensure that universities aren’t just protecting themselves out of all they own, but are learning how to promote inquiry, learning and creative practice in ways that remain most empowering today.
Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent books are Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters and Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living With the Past.
Few people appear happy with the state of shared governance at American colleges and universities. Faculty members complain that they are being disempowered by administrators and trustees who are creating an increasingly "corporatized" academic environment and who are more concerned with budgets than with quality. Administrators lament the extent to which faculties seem oblivious to the fiscal realities threatening the status quo and to the need for significant or even radical change. Trustees struggle to find the appropriate balance between too much and too little involvement in the activities of both faculty members and administrators. And legislators seem baffled by the whole system -- though in my experience bafflement is actually one of the less dangerous states in which legislators might find themselves. It is when they think they understand things that I get worried.
I am inclined to believe that many of these concerns are overblown. Bad actors and bad decisions are unavoidable in any large and diverse system, but these still seem to me the exception and not the rule. Most faculty members and most administrators appear to me to want what they have always wanted: to create vibrant and supportive environments within which the work of teaching and learning can be carried out at a high level. Achieving this goal has become increasingly difficult as the economic model of higher education has come under more intense stress, and this has cast the long-present messiness of the shared governance model into sharper relief. It has never been easy to maintain equilibrium within such a complex system of institutional decision-making, but today the stakes seem higher and the cost of missteps or inaction much greater.
The interesting question is not whether the shared governance model is irrevocably broken, but whether it can be improved. I believe that it can and that improvement must begin with a better understanding of where the fault lines in the current system lie.
Imagine that two people are charged with the completion of two tasks. They can choose to "share" this responsibility in a couple of different ways: each can be assigned to the completion of one task, or both can work on both tasks together. Depending on the nature of the tasks — and the people — one or another of these approaches may be the more effective.
Shared governance at most colleges has evolved into a model that more closely resembles the first than the second of these approaches. It is common to find the faculty charged with the design, oversight, and teaching of the curriculum, with some minimal level of input from administrators. Virtually all other matters — co-curricular programming, student life, and, above all else, decisions about the spending of institutional dollars — are chiefly the purview of administrators, with some minimal level of input from faculty. We have, that is, a system of sharing through division more than a system of sharing through deep collaboration.
There is no denying that in some respects this division makes a good deal of sense: faculty members are the ones best-situated by training and position to make decisions about academic matters, and administrators in areas like student life and finance have both training and relevant experience that most faculty members lack. But there is also no denying that the absence of extensive collaboration between those charged with designing a complex and expensive service and those charged with creating a sustainable economic model for that service, especially when there are serious questions about its sustainability, is far from optimal. At the risk of appearing to trivialize our important enterprise — and we do take ourselves pretty seriously — I would liken many colleges to restaurants at which the chefs decide upon the menu items to be offered, the managers work on the business model, and neither group does much consulting with the other. Such an establishment is not likely to survive for very long.
While this particular system of what I would call divided governance has long been in place on college campuses, there is reason to believe that the division has in recent years gotten sharper and more absolute. Faculty members at selective institutions, both large and small, have over time been expected to become more fully and continuously engaged in scholarly activities and therefore have become less likely to carve out time to learn the ins and outs of college governance. Disciplinary training has become increasingly specialized, leaving faculty members less able or less inclined to think in institutional rather than departmental terms. Many more college leaders, especially at the presidential level, are now career administrators or are even being drawn from outside academe, and while this may or may not prepare them to be highly effective presidents, it certainly leaves the faculty concerned, with good reason, about their preparedness to speak to matters of the curriculum.
There is more. Academic administration has itself become both more professionalized and more specialized, as evidenced by the proliferation of graduate programs in the field and of "how to" seminars, conferences, and books for current or aspiring deans and presidents. Though some faculty members do persist in perceiving administrators as failed professors or, in the words of Professor Rob Jenkins, as "managers who just might be more concerned with the bottom line than with educational quality," the simple truth is that running a college has become an increasingly complex job that, like most such jobs, requires preparation, experience, and ongoing study, and that it is hard to do well in one's spare time.
As a faculty member I spent my time studying Dickens and honing my skills in the classroom. As a college president I spend my time learning about everything from admissions yield models to bond ratings to Title IX requirements and honing my skills in leadership. I have found both kinds of work to be demanding and rewarding, but would be incapable of doing the two simultaneously, at least at the level of excellence to which one should aspire.
In short, the days of faculty participating as a matter of course in admissions decisions or of presidents being drawn regularly from the ranks of the faculty at their own institutions are over.
Shared governance is not going away, nor is it clear, given the nature of college communities, that there is a preferable alternative. There are, however, a number of steps that can be taken to optimize the beneficial and minimize the deleterious effects of the system. The most important of these might be an attitudinal shift, on the part of both faculty members and administrators, away from a Manichean view of the academic world and toward a view more nuanced and accurate. So long as faculty members see administrators chiefly as "managers ... more concerned with the bottom line than with educational quality" — or worse — and so long as administrators see most faculty members as utterly indifferent to something as important as "the bottom line," the sharing of governance between the two groups will be fraught with conflict and distrust. I say this knowing that such changes in attitude are much easier to describe than to bring about but also out of a deep conviction that no change would do more to improve the quality of decision-making. I also believe that in this conversation, as in so many others, the loudest and most influential voices come from the extremes and that the majority of faculty members and administrators are not so far apart in priorities as the academic press would suggest.
My other recommendations are more concrete.
1. Rely more heavily for important decisions on representative rather than direct democracy.
All-faculty meetings are simply the wrong place to make decisions that have a serious strategic or financial impact on an institution. There is neither the time nor the base of information nor, at most colleges, the appropriate atmosphere necessary for careful and informed deliberation. Better outcomes are likely to come from elected faculty committees whose members have the time and willingness to study complex issues. These committees should be more fully empowered to make decisions and not just to offer recommendations to the full faculty. At most colleges, the one piece of deeply consequential business that is carried out wholly by an elected committee is the tenure and promotion process. Not surprisingly, it is also the piece of business that typically gets done most carefully and effectively.
2. Be sure that there is at least one body on campus whose members include both administrative leaders and elected faculty representatives and whose charge is to consider, in confidence, matters of strategic importance that cut across all areas of operations.
The remedy for the current weaknesses in shared governance lies not simply in taking authority away from the "full faculty." It also lies in providing more information to, and consulting more extensively with, the faculty in the form of their elected representatives — not only about curricular matters, but about all matters that affect their ability to carry out their work. This will not happen consistently unless it is built into the regular governance structure of the institution.
3. Include an elected faculty representative on the president's senior staff.
It is time that we stopped pretending that the faculty view the provost or the academic dean as "one of them" and therefore as their voice at the table during discussions among administrative leaders. The moment the provost becomes provost, she or he is viewed chiefly as an administrator, even if that individual is broadly respected and, indeed, even if that individual was drawn directly from the faculty ranks (a move that is becoming less common). The substantive and symbolic benefits of having an elected faculty voice in the room far outweigh the risks and drawbacks. This would not be a full-time position but rather the equivalent of chairing an important committee, since it is essential that this representative continue to be seen chiefly as a member of the faculty.
4. Provide as many opportunities as possible for faculty members who are interested in college governance to learn about all aspects of the college.
It has been my experience that those faculty members who are the finest teachers and most active scholars are only infrequently interested in administrative careers but are often interested in leadership more broadly understood. Such faculty members can best contribute to shared governance if they are as informed as possible about the operations, challenges, and strategic priorities of the institution. Administrators should be prepared to share with interested faculty members, honestly and fully, all pieces of information other that those that are, for one reason or another, necessarily confidential. They should offer seminars on areas such as financial operations, admissions, and fund-raising. Transparency and training do not eliminate disagreement, but over time they establish trust.
The most difficult of these changes to make is clearly the first. Almost never does a group with power relinquish it voluntarily, yet that is precisely what I am calling for in this instance: that is, for the full faculty to vote to relinquish some of its decision-making authority (any form of forced disempowerment would in my view be disastrous). The only chance for such a change to be approved would be, at the same time, to empower the faculty with more say, through elected representatives, in the decisions about which they presently have almost no say at all. Such a step might begin to move us at least minimally away from divided governance and toward a system in which tasks of great importance are more genuinely and regularly shared.
Brian Rosenberg is president of Macalester College.