Until Michel Foucault mentioned him in passing in the first volume of his History of Sexuality (1976), the Viennese physician Heinrich Kaan’s role as the pioneer in medical research on paraphilias seems to have gone unnoticed. The title would have gone by default to Richard Krafft-Ebing, who published the first edition of his encyclopedic Psychopathia Sexualis in 1886. And the long disappearance of Kaan into that work’s shadow is even more unjust given that he was the first to use the title, more than 40 years earlier. (Kaan goes unnamed in the English rendering of Krafft-Ebing’s 12th edition -- whether the omission is the author’s or the translator’s I don’t know.)
As remedy to that neglect, Cornell University Press has publishedHeinrich Kaan’s “Psychopathia Sexualis” (1844): A Classic Text in the History of Sexuality, edited by Benjamin Kahan, an assistant professor of English and women’s and gender studies at Louisiana State University, in a translation by Melissa Haynes, a classicist at Bucknell University. Judging it “too dangerous to hand over to the general public” until “its utility and integrity can be proven,” Kaan wrote his treatise in Latin, but he hoped that it would meet with sufficient professional approval that he could arrange to have it “translated into a vernacular language such as French.”
The index contains reviews from medical journals of the day, which are decidedly mixed. One of Kaan’s peers vents his irritation that “people continue to belabor themselves and others” by writing in a dead language that is inadequate for modern purposes “even when it is masterfully employed!” The reviewer then strongly implies that Kaan is “among those who must still struggle with vocabulary and syntax” and “would do best to simply avoid it altogether.” Another critic praises it as “creditable to the author,” unlike most publications “on the revolting subjects of which it treats.”
Understandably, then, no clamor for a translation was heard in Kaan’s own day. “As far as I am aware,” Foucault said during his course of lectures for 1974-75 at the Collège de France, “it is the first treatise of psychiatry to speak only of sexual pathology but the last to speak of sexuality in Latin.” (Presumably Foucault meant that it was the last monograph to be composed solely in that language: Krafft-Ebing switched from German to Latin whenever it was necessary to describe deviant sexual behavior in potentially salacious detail.)
The liminal status of the first Psychopathia Sexualis -- its position near the end of a centuries-old mode of scholarly discourse and at the inauguration of a new disciplinary organization of knowledge -- render Kaan’s project interesting now in ways that it couldn’t be for its contemporary audience. The book’s structure and method now look peculiar. Kaan announces at the start that he was driven by “a desire to collect case studies, to examine them and from them to deduce general principles, and then to apply to them every kind of theoretical and practical knowledge and, thus, to derive from them rules useful to physicians.” But unlike Krafft-Ebing, much less Sigmund Freud, the author keeps those case histories (and his “deductions” from them) mostly to himself.
Instead, Kaan moves directly to a high level of generalization: plants, animals and humans alike are distinguished from the inorganic world by “the vital force [vis vitalis] by means of which the organism comes into being, is nourished and sustained.” This vital force subsists through two modes of reproduction, internal and external, corresponding to an organism’s nutrition and propagation, respectively. Kaan then gives an overview of the comparative anatomy of the sexual organs of plants, animals and (finally) humans.
What’s striking here -- especially given the text is written in a language with liturgical and theological associations -- is that Kaan begins and remains on a strictly naturalistic level of description and explanation. In discussing the stages of human sexual maturation, he notes that puberty “begins around the twelfth year in girls and the fourteenth in boys, at which age the Old Testament laws allow for marriage” -- but this, like Kaan’s few other scriptural citations, is given as historical background rather than divine revelation. He expresses a definite belief in “the absolute necessity for monogamy and marriage” without trying to demonstrate its necessity.
Insofar as customs in such matters differ around the world, Kaan implies that it can be explained as the product of variations in the intensity of the libido -- which are, in turn, the function of environmental, biological and psychological factors. The hotter the climate, the darker the skin and the closer to the land, as he posits it, the stronger the sexual drive.
The source of nutrition is also important: erotic gratification is experienced “most vigorously among cannibals, less so among carnivores and flesh eaters, and least of all among vegetarians.” Here we can only lament the author’s failure to disclose his research methods.
Kaan establishes (to his own satisfaction, at least) a scientific basis for taking the monogamous, heterosexual, procreative couple as normative. But medical experience has taught him that deviations are alarmingly frequent, even among European noncannibals. His treatise takes the initial steps toward understanding the range and etiology of sexual disorders and, ultimately, curing them. And in a way the title is his first contribution to the cause: he uses the expression “psychopathia sexualis” to subsume a few practices and preferences under a common heading.
“The types of these aberrations are numerous enough,” he writes, “but the most common are onanism or masturbation, the love of boys (paiderastia), lesbian love, the violation of cadavers, sex with animals, and the satisfaction of lust with statues.” He defines lesbianism as “an aberration that consists in the satisfaction of the sexual drive either between men or between women by means of tribadism, or rubbing” -- which, as definitions go, seems at once very broad and surprisingly unimaginative. Kaan does not elaborate on the statue kink, but Krafft-Ebing gives a number of examples.
The most remarkable thing about Kaan’s catalog is how brief and undetailed it is (even compared to Krafft-Ebing’s, less than half a century later). Furthermore, “these types of deviation are merely one and the same thing, and they cross into one another.” Having identified autoerotic activity as one form of psychopathia sexualis, Kaan soon informs the reader that it is not just the first on his list but the matrix of all the rest. Not that everyone who masturbates will go gay or interfere with public sculpture, to be sure, but it is a dangerous practice and should be discouraged in children. Among the availability modalities of treatment, Kaan especially recommends very cold water.
For reasons cultural historians continue to debate, masturbation was a topic of fierce public concern for more than a century before Kaan’s treatise and for just as long afterward. Self-satisfaction had been condemned on religious grounds before that, of course, but without generating anything like the alarm over its terrible effects on mind, body and soul that began in the early 18th century. One of Kaan’s reviewers grumbled about how he had added to what was already an enormous and very repetitious literature on the subject.
His Psychopathia Sexualis is far from the most hyperbolic or obsessive example of such discourse, but the 21st-century reader cannot help feeling that each medical warning -- every injunction to parents, teachers and other responsible adults to watch for and prevent autoerotic activity -- must have created the very disturbances they were supposed to prevent.
At the same time, the original Psychopathia Sexualis does more than repeat the old “thou shalt not” in nonreligious terms. As Foucault pointed out in his lectures, Kaan’s work had some important implications. It treated human sexuality as entirely explicable within nature -- with nonprocreative forms being, in effect, the accidental effect of a natural force being redirected via the brain: sexual deviations are caused by masturbation, which is, in turn, an activity engaging the imagination (i.e., an organic capacity of our species). Kind of obvious once you think about it, but not until then, and it was Kaan who, pardon the expression, mastered this domain.
As colleges and universities across the country grapple with challenges of access and affordability and worry about the sustainability of their business models, some institutions are considering whether or not to establish a program of work for all students.
Berea College, where I am president, has offered employment to all of its students for more than a century, and it was one of the founding members of the Work Colleges Consortium. This federally recognized organization includes eight residential liberal arts institutions that provide a universal work experience as part of their educational programing. The work program has become integral to the Berea experience, and it might well be worth consideration at other colleges and universities, too.
The Berea Program
We often say at Berea that we do not just admit students, we hire them. In consequence, we have 1,600 intelligent, motivated part-time employees. All of the WCC institutions receive federal grant funding; at Berea, we use a portion of that to pay students in the form of a nontaxable hourly wage, which increases with added experience and job responsibilities.
The students’ earnings can be used for general living expenses as well as to help contribute to the cost of their attendance. (Although no student pays tuition at Berea, they and their families are expected to contribute as determined by the FAFSA to fees and living expenses.) The compensation earned through the work program thus helps to minimize debt for our students. About a third of our students graduate entirely debt-free, with the rest borrowing an average of less than $7,000.
The students in the main are very capable workers. The majority start in positions involving working with their hands, in food service, as custodians, on our farm (one of the oldest continuously operating student educational farms in the United States), in our students crafts industries and the like. Starting with these assignments enables them to experience and value the dignity of manual labor well done. In fact, our founder, the Southern abolitionist Reverend John G. Fee, believed in the role education can play in promoting social mobility, and to that end, he saw work as necessary for blurring the distinctions of class. He believed as well that the values of independence, industry and innovation -- such crucial elements of the college learning experience -- are best built on a foundation of productive, necessary work. These beliefs still ring true at Berea.
Progressing through their college career, some students stay with assignments involving manual labor, usually taking on broadened responsibilities, including supervision of other students, while others shift to work that relates to their career interests. For example, future accounting professionals work in the college business office, graduate school-bound students often become teaching assistants, and students interested in education can work in the Child Development Lab, campus day care center and early childhood education facility. Students can explore the various options at our annual Labor Day celebration, which serves as a large collegewide job fair.
The WCC rules and the effectiveness of an educational work program require universal participation. All Berea students work at least 10 hours per week, and we have additional positions of up to five hours per week for those who desire to earn more money or wish to have additional learning experiences. For example, a student worker in my office spends five hours a week maintaining and updating the website but also holds a 10-hour position in our athletic facility.
A work program requires supervision by paid employees -- not only many staff but also teaching faculty. Since the work experience is an important part of each student’s learning, Berea staff are much more involved in the educational program than at institutions where only some of the students work and work is not intentionally integrated into the learning experience. That’s why we consider our staff to be members of the general faculty and support and reward their contributions to the education of students.
Additionally, the element of learning through work needs to be supported by an extensive infrastructure, including evaluations, a labor transcript (which graduates can submit when applying for jobs), the possibility of labor probation and even suspension for those students who are not progressing in meeting their responsibilities. Because it is so integral to the students’ learning at Berea, we also include the work program as part of our academic program in the decennial institutional reaccreditation process.
Along with work and educational benefits, our program teaches other life skills. For example, many of our students have not had paid work positions before, and most have not had a bank account. We require all student paychecks to be direct deposited so that every student learns to manage a checking account, a first step in our more comprehensive financial literacy program.
We also encourage philanthropy. We promote our payroll deduction program to the students, and more than half make small contributions from their biweekly checks to the college’s annual fund. In fact, their participation rate exceeds that of faculty, staff and alumni giving overall.
Casual observation also suggests that our campus and buildings seem to be better treated by students than at institutions where regular employees are responsible for upkeep. It’s a little different to make a mess or damage the facilities if one of your fellow students will be cleaning it up or fixing what you did.
The Berea education is a transformative one for our students, and the work program contributes to that in many ways. Close bonds develop between students and labor supervisors, whether faculty or staff, thus allowing for enhanced mentorship. Many alumni credit their work experiences as having been crucial to acquiring work skills, getting first jobs and advancing professionally. In fact, many have shared with me that it was their work experience on the campus that ended up having the greatest impact on their professional lives.
One older alumnus, for instance, told me about his work assignment in the restaurant of the Historic Boone Tavern Hotel, a campus inn that the college owns. At that time, we had a hotel management program overseen by Richard Haugen, a graduate of Cornell University’s program, who enjoys legendary status among the alumni who worked under him. He had introduced a signature dish, chicken flakes in a bird’s nest, on the restaurant menu. The eponymous nest, made of shredded potatoes, shaped appropriately and fried, needs to be made ahead of time, and this particular alum had the assignment of arriving in the kitchen at 4 a.m. to make the nests. One morning he overslept, and chicken flakes were off the menu for the rest of that day. Haugen made sure this was an experience never forgotten by the alum, who told me that in 40-some years of employment, he never again arrived late for work.
Perhaps one of the most important benefits of the program, however, is that it allows our students to become deeply engaged in their learning environment while encouraging pride, confidence and respect for all manner of work. I saw that four years ago, when I was being interviewed on campus for Berea’s presidency. On that visit, the questions I wanted to answer had to do with the claims the college makes about its mission and identity and whether they were genuine. A work program makes for good press, but it would be easy to imagine that it would be mostly about PR.
The visit included a campus tour. As we entered Presser Hall, the home of our music program, a young man was emerging from the first-floor restroom, pushing a cleaning cart and removing his rubber gloves. His demeanor, which I took in at a glance, was eloquent testimony. I am sure he had not enjoyed cleaning that bathroom, but his bearing was one of accomplishment and purpose. He had learned to clean bathrooms well and found satisfaction in doing a good job. That was the moment I decided that if offered the position I would be coming to Berea College.
Colleges and universities must do more than just bring in a speaker from the movement, only momentarily suspending the whiteness that pervades the everyday life and operations of the campus, argues Eric Anthony Grollman.
The benefits of higher education are well established: a significant boost in average earnings, a higher likelihood of employment, increased productivity, greater tax revenues, lower crime. But much debate continues on how best to encourage more students to make high-quality educational investments and how to ensure that a degree is affordable. As the Obama administration welcomes its final back-to-school season, the opportunity arises to look back and assess the impact of its higher education policies and next steps to build on that progress.
A new Council of Economic Advisers report released yesterday examines the administration’s record, finding that evidence-based policies implemented over the last seven years have already begun to pay off. Investments in greater financial aid, in particular, have had high returns. The Council of Economic Advisers estimates that the administration’s increase in the average Pell Grant award between 2008-09 and 2014-15 will lead to an additional $20 billion in aggregate earnings, a nearly two-to-one return on the investment.
But that is only one example. Without federal support, much of the potential benefit of higher education would go unrealized due to misalignments between individual and societal benefits, credit constraints, information failures, and procedural complexities. Since taking office, the Obama administration has worked to address each of these areas so that more students can attend a quality higher education institution, graduate and repay their loans on manageable terms.
From the very beginning of the college selection process, students can face obstacles; even determining which colleges will provide a good return on investment is a daunting challenge. That is why the administration unveiled a redesigned College Scorecard offering the most reliable and comprehensive data ever published on students’ outcomes at individual institutions, including data on cost, graduation rates, earnings, debt and repayment.
At the same time, even with solid information, procedural complexities may prevent some students from using the resources available to them. To help make it easier for them to apply for student aid, the administration has made the Free Application for Federal Student Aid simpler by reducing the number of questions it presents and making it easier for applicants to directly transfer data from the IRS. In addition, the FAFSA is available earlier this fall, improving the information students have about their financial aid packages when they make decisions about where to apply.
Once accepted, students must also determine how to pay for their education. Research shows that lower college costs can improve college access and success, and the administration has made it a priority since day one to help families finance investments in education. President Obama has worked aggressively to increase the maximum Pell Grant award by $1,000, and, for the first time, tied the maximum amount of the award to inflation. This investment will help an additional 250,000 students access or complete college. On average, Pell Grants reduce the cost of college by $3,700 for eight million students a year. In addition, this administration has also established the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which will cut taxes by over $1,800, on average, for nearly 10 million families in 2016, thus giving students and their families more discretionary income to invest in college.
Despite these successful investments, too many people still feel as if college is out of reach. That’s why President Obama announced his America’s College Promise proposal in January 2015 to create a new partnership with the states that would make two years of community college free for hardworking, responsible students. Since the president’s announcement, over 36 free community college initiatives have been launched in states, cities and communities nationwide. Altogether, these programs raise more than $150 million in new public and private investments, supporting at least 180,000 students.
President Obama has also signed key policies into law to maintain the accessibility and affordability of student loans. Research suggests that without access to federal student loans, financially constrained students would be less likely to attend college, more likely to work while in school, and less likely to complete a degree. In 2010, President Obama signed student loan reform into law, generating over $60 billion in savings and redirecting that money back to students and taxpayers. And in 2013, he signed into law further reforms to lower interest rates for nearly 11 million borrowers.
Additionally, the president’s Pay As You Earn and related income-driven repayment plans have allowed approximately 5.5 million student borrowers to cap their monthly student loan payments at rates as low as 10 percent of discretionary income, to ensure their debt is manageable. These plans better align the timing of loan payments with the timing of earnings benefits by allowing borrowers to make smaller payments when their earnings are low or during transitory periods of financial hardship and to adjust their payments as their earnings grow.
Finally, this administration has worked to protect students from unscrupulous institutions that do not deliver a quality education. The U.S. Department of Education’s gainful employment rules will hold career colleges accountable by removing poorly performing programs’ access to federal financial aid. Such rules build on a record of action by this administration to increase accountability in higher education. The department has also created a Student Aid Enforcement Unit to respond more quickly and efficiently to allegations of illegal actions by higher education institutions.
Though more work remains, these policies taken together represent a significant step forward in building an educational system that encourages all Americans who wish to invest in an affordable, high-quality college education to do so. Colleges and others in the higher education community can build on that progress by encouraging students to fill out the new early FAFSA so that they can learn about and access the student aid dollars that are so critical to their future.
Sandra Black is a member of the Council of Economic Advisers. Jason Furman is chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.
In the last half century, collegiality and shared governance have eroded, leaving a mess in their wake. Faculty members ruled the roost in the early 20th century, as they owned the curriculum and colleges operated essentially as a club for the well-heeled and highly educated. Committees of learned, similarly bred individuals developed general-education plans and rules for tenure and promotion and, in keeping with the clubbiness of such institutions, chose one of their own to ascend temporarily to leadership. It was not uncommon to find a president who had spent their entire career in one place. The pace was slow and the scale often small.
Today, many faculty members crave that mystical past. That day has passed. Colleges and universities are no longer small, insular and cloistered institutions. They are complex, multifaceted, quick-moving institutions that are immersed in the world’s social urgencies. While the environment in which we operate increases in complexity, it calls for a renewed collaboration to meet the challenges.
Unfortunately, however, the gulf between leaders and faculty has grown significantly. In the long march to becoming modern institutions, college presidents have become distinct from the faculty. Yes, most hold tenured professorships in departments. But many haven’t taught in years, simply because they don’t have time. They need to stay on top of myriad financial matters, handle enrollment worries, constantly fund-raise, manage scores of daily crises that erupt at odd moments, respond to student and parent concerns, maneuver amid internal as well as local and national politics, and keep up with the ever-present issue of accreditation and compliance with myriad state and national regulations -- all the while keeping an eye on educating the students. It’s exhausting. And earning a Ph.D. in a traditional discipline isn’t adequate training for the position. Presidents learn on the job, as they march from being chairs, deans, vice presidents for academic affairs and provosts -- or they have leadership experience in related areas and slide into higher education.
Moreover, presidents aren't given long contracts (just three years, typically) and have huge expectations placed on their shoulders. Many boards discount homegrown talent and hire externally, which adds the burden of learning a new culture and set of traditions on top of the mounting expectations. In short, presidents face a ticking clock, and the pressure mounts with each passing day. In many ways, it’s unfair. What presidents seem to need is less pressure and more time and space to gain perspective about the challenges and opportunities facing their campuses.
Such demanding circumstances and unreasonable expectations aren’t confined to the president’s office. Faculty members are also reeling from the shifting tides and are equally pressured. To be fair, faculty members at times can be insulated and cloistered, only knowing their own institution. They can miss the tip of the iceberg in the water admiring the view from the deck, unaware of the danger below the surface or just round the bend. Some don’t understand the need to change, and many don’t want to. For some, the case for change hasn’t been adequately addressed. They blame the administration for unnecessary corporatization. And, to be honest, sometimes they are right. But often, what is happening is time bumping up against another looming crisis.
But thankfully, many faculty members do see the issues clearly. They are smart, educated people who study complex issues. What they might not understand is the rush that academic leaders feel to produce results or the fear that comes with ultimate responsibility and stewardship. The realities of a quickly changing world, fiscal challenges, changing demographics, new technologies and hypercompetitive markets create a tension between, on the one hand, innovation and swiftness and, on the other, the slow-paced, reasoned and handcrafted nature of quality teaching. In response, faculty members shut down, resorting to a defensive stance and a historical glance. And in such an environment, each side can talk past the other.
Let’s be clear: it’s the circumstances that mostly put administrators and faculty members on a collision course -- circumstances beyond the control of either side. And under the pressure of a just-in-time, adaptive system of education that states and boards want and need, how can it be otherwise?
This paradigm is most apparent in those institutions most vulnerable to disruption: thinly resourced, tuition-driven private colleges and universities. Large research institutions, the Ivies, institutes of technology and elite liberal arts colleges aren’t immune but have more time to respond.
We can see this collision most clearly at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus. A history of faculty strikes and a tense and combative relationship between the faculty and administration dates back decades. By acting as adversaries rather than partners in a shared mission, the institution pushed the “us vs. them” scenario to a needlessly illogical extreme when the administration locked out their faculty members.
I profess no intimate knowledge of that institution, yet it is clear that the collision course I outline above has been plotted for many years now -- not only at LIU but also at other institutions across the nation. Too many institutions are locked in adversarial stances. We must remember that these aren't ends, but rather practices without end. They are paths walked each and every day, with each and every phrase uttered, and as such they can be changed before they become the default environment in which we educate our students.
Thankfully, most institutions aren’t on the ledge. There is time to avoid the collision.
Returning the focus to our students seems a logical first step. Students always suffer when administrators and faculty clash. That clash sucks the air out of the room, stops innovation and forces faculty members to tactically retreat rather than advance. It also makes administrators defensive, risk averse, narrows their perspective and vision, and leads to seeing the institution through institutional eyes. The tension is simply exhausting. An institution in perpetual tension has difficulty serving students effectively.
Higher education needs to find a middle ground to grapple with these issues, a space within the tension. Listening more and talking less seems a crucial step to opening up such a space. Such active listening requires discipline and empathy, a slowing down of the clock. It allows for understanding the issues from as many sides as possible.
Developing a meaningful strategic plan that pulls from the bottom up, that is tied to measurable results like assessment plans and budget processes, is also key. Last, we need to ensure the re-establishment of a culture of trust, transparency and respect; honesty and blunt truths are important.
Also, as much as we might not like to admit it, higher education shares many things with business. My old provost always said, “No margin, no mission,” and she was right. We can’t spend in the manner we want or have been used to. We need to better steward all our resources and be willing and able to justify the need to spend them. That said, we must also remember that to say our institutions are businesses, and to only apply the analytical tools of business, is shortsighted and can undermine the core value of what we do. Since when was the goal of education to produce the largest quantity at the lowest cost?
Colleges are schools, and schools are human institutions. Students aren’t products or units of production. We can’t lose sight of them in all our twisting and turning. Changing an institutional culture takes time and requires visionary leadership -- from the top and the bottom -- and a spirit of collaboration and teamwork between faculty, staff and administrators.
Recent events have made one thing abundantly clear: the heart of higher education lies in the spirit of inquiry, creating an inclusive dialogue that draws in knowledge of all forms and forges it into wisdom, burning away the impurities of ignorance and exclusivity. We in senior administration must not lose sight of this, for we are educators first and foremost. Our peers who seek to lock out voices of dissent undermine decades of precedent, ensure constant conflict and do a great disservice to both our callings and our students. And faculty members need to enter into full and active partnership as we steer through what are, and will remain, rough waters.
Richard A. Greenwald is professor of history and dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. His most recent book was Labor Rising: The Past and Future of American Workers (New Press, 2012). These views are his own.
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.
“Everyone is entitled to his own opinions,” the sociologist and politico Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “but not to his own facts.” He may have been improving upon a similar if less trenchant remark (“ …but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts”) attributed to the financier Bernard Baruch.
Until sitting down to write this I did not know about Baruch’s version. A certainty that my eagle-eyed editor would inquire about the source obliged me to vet the attribution to Moynihan; she requires more than my vague recollection of having read it somewhere. In checking my facts, she bolsters my conscience, enforcing Moynihan’s (and Baruch’s) point about accountability.
Lucas Graves, an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, uses the expression “internal fact-checking” to describe this kind of preventative, behind-the-scenes work. It tries “to eliminate untruth, not call attention to it” by catching and correcting mistakes in an article before it goes to press. In Deciding What’s True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism (Columbia University Press), Graves traces how internal fact-checking morphed into something almost antithetical: the very public evaluation of factual assertions made by politicians and other figures in the news.
News organizations such as PolitiFact, FactCheck.org and The Washington Post’s Fact Checker -- to name only the most nationally prominent -- intervene so frequently in American public discourse now that it seems counterintuitive to think they’ve only recently become a force in the world. Until the last two or three presidential election cycles, scrutiny of a candidate’s claims tended to be episodic and ad hoc -- and often enough conducted by the opposing campaign, bringing its own biases to the process. To the ethos of newspaper editors and reporters circa 1950, the idea of confirming or debunking a public figure’s statements of fact seemed perilously close to an expression of opinion, to be avoided at the risk of compromising one’s reputation for objectivity. Reporting that a fact was in dispute might be acceptable in some cases, but making a judgment call on it was best left to the pundits and thumb suckers.
The title Deciding What’s True is clearly an homage to Deciding What’s News by Herbert J. Gans, a classic study of newsroom culture, and Graves followed in his predecessor’s participant-observer footsteps by working for two major fact-checking organizations between 2010 and 2012. The book thus benefits from having two vantage points: the historical and sociological perspective available from media-studies scholarship, plus close ethnographic observation of how major fact-checking stories are discovered, investigated, debated in-house before being sent out to make their mark on the world.
His most striking insight, it seems to me, is how specific, self-defined and virtually self-contained the world of professionalized fact-checking tends to be. The naïve observer might think of fact-checking organizations as being akin to media watchdog groups such as the Media Research Center on the right and Media Matters for America to the left, with PolitiFact falling somewhere in between. But in reality the fact-checking milieu sees itself as unrelated to the partisan watchdog groups: it doesn’t work with or quote them, and Graves recounts one fact-checker as saying he almost decided to kill an investigation when he saw that Media Matters was already interested in it. Likewise, fact-checking journalists see a bright line between their work and blogging.
This is not just a matter of professional amour propre. The major fact-checking organizations have ties to established media institutions, including journalism schools, and retain a belief (which watchdogs and bloggers alike tend to reject) in old newsroom ideals of objectivity, impartiality and conscientious reporting.
The ’00s put confidence in those ideals under enormous strain from a number of catastrophically bad judgment calls (reporting war propaganda and Wall Street shilling without due diligence) as well as cases of plagiarism or outright fabrication in major news publications. Compounding those problems, even inducing some of them, was the growing array of new media competing for public attention while also driving up the pace of the news cycle.
In an email exchange with Graves, I indicated that PolitiFact, Fact Checker and so on seemed like a response, in part, to the 24-hour news cycle that emerged around the time of the first Gulf War and intensified still more once the internet started to permeate everyday life. Rumors, misinformation and bogus statistics could spread faster, and farther, than ever before.
Graves agreed, but added, “Another way to think about that is that the traditional model of objectivity, for all of its flaws, made some sense in a world where professional journalists acted as gatekeepers and could effectively police the borders of political discourse. Then wild rumors about the president’s birthplace didn’t have to be debunked because they could be denied coverage altogether. But the opening up of political discourse after the 1960s and the fragmentation of the media beginning in the 1990s -- both healthy developments in many ways, and both with echoes in the 19th century -- also effectively spelled the end of the journalist as gatekeeper. And especially with the rise of the internet, that fragmentation calls for a more critical style of political reporting that’s willing to directly challenge false claims.”
In principle, at least, systematic and high-quality fact-checking ought to make politicians and other public figures more careful about the claims they make while giving the public a running lesson in critical thought at the same time. At times, Deciding What’s True seems to encourage that hope. But I’ve been reading the book between rounds of binge-watching campaign coverage, and it is not an experience to recommend. The idea that fact-checking can impose some kind of restraint on a candidate, or influence public response, seems utterly negated by the candidacy of Donald Trump. His well-documented but unrelenting dishonesty -- his talent for lying without restraint or regard for evidence, outright and brazenly, even after the facts have been shown repeatedly -- never wavers yet makes no dent in his level of support. This seems really strange.
“This a large and complicated question,” Graves responded, “and people who study journalism and political communication are trying to approach it in many different ways. But one answer is that there have always been fairly wide slices of the American electorate that are deeply suspicious of establishment discourse, sometimes with good reason. If you listen to Trump supporters in interviews, they seem to accept that he doesn’t have the grasp of policy that other politicians do, and they don’t necessarily believe everything he says or subscribe to all of his views. He seems to say whatever he thinks and embrace a common-sense approach that many people find appealing. Beyond that, none of us makes political calculations in the detached, rational way that political theorists sometimes imagine.
“And at the same time, fact-checking has made a difference,” Graves continued. “It arguably has helped to solidify the ceiling over Trump’s support, giving ammunition to both voters and politicians who say they’ll never back him. And it has had a tremendous influence on coverage of his campaign, with front-page articles on Trump’s extraordinary disregard for the facts and constant references to his falsehoods even in straight news reports. We have nothing to compare this race to, and it’s impossible to say where this thing would be if more journalists had stuck to the traditional ‘he said, she said’ formula.”