By Holden Thorp and Buck Goldstein
Introduction: Universities falling short?
We are honored to help introduce an ambitious series of articles on university governance and hopefully begin an important conversation that directly impacts the future of higher education in the United States. Over the last decade, we have been intimately involved in the subject as both authors and practitioners, writing two books on the subject and serving in leadership roles at our universities.
A conversation on university governance couldn’t come at a more opportune time. Faith in higher education is eroding at an alarming rate. Some of the reasons for this trend include the following:
Universities are falling short of public expectations. Some of the matters that have produced this impression include the headline-dominating Varsity Blues admissions scandal and the ongoing problems of sexual violence, financial compliance, foreign interference in research, athletic misconduct, and battles over free speech.
Less than 50% of young people believe that a college degree is worth it despite evidence to the contrary. Few schools have fully dealt with the expectation that a college degree should come with both a good education and a good job. Combined with rising debt levels, particularly for students who drop out, too many students and families feel like there is a disconnect between their needs and the college’s purpose.
And long-standing ideological differences continue. Colleges have traditionally embraced dissent and protest – which has led to many advances for American society. But as Democrats criticize colleges for the costs and debt levels and Republicans criticize them for campus politics, it is increasingly difficult for higher education to remind the public of its fundamental benefits to society.
The impacts of these trends have been devastating: The average tenure of presidents and provosts has continued to decrease and hardly a week goes by without a high-profile leader announcing their resignation, often in the midst of highly visible public acrimony.
These difficulties are nothing new. Bart Giamatti described his job as Yale President as “no way for an adult to make a living. It’s a nineteenth century ecclesiastical position on top of a 21st century corporation.” But what’s different now is the speed with which governing boards are forced to act and the greatly increased influence of electoral politics in the process.
Principles for reform of governing boards
Culture is always more important than structure. You can organize, rearrange, and re-engineer indefinitely, but if the underlying culture of an institution is inconsistent with its mission and aspirations, it will ultimately be dysfunctional. This is true for the internal workings of any college or university, but it is equally important when it comes to university governance.
Aligning culture and structure is difficult, even where there is a common understanding between the administrators and the board about how things work. But universities are far from simple, and the sheer diversity of stakeholders and missions makes it highly volatile.
With that in mind, we offer the following principles for reform for board members to consider when debating and creating university governance structures.
Recognize and Respect Expertise: Governing boards must recognize that higher education is a highly specialized endeavor requiring significant expertise, experience, and understanding. When we asked one long-serving trustee what it takes to understand how a university works, he stated, “I hope I live that long.”
The details of very specific areas, such as research compliance, information technology operations, technology transfer, export controls, health care finance, student affairs compliance, take years to master. Beyond that, the fundamental ideals of shared governance, tenure, and academic freedom are indispensable advantages of the American higher education system. Creating structures for educating and preparing trustees about the unique complexities of universities must be a priority.
Clarify the Public Partnership: We understand the fundamental partnership between American higher education and the public as follows: In exchange for extraordinary freedom to teach and conduct research, schools must prepare students for a productive and meaningful life and create new knowledge that benefits their communities, their countries, and the world.
This understanding is highly motivating – though seldom clearly articulated — for much of the campus community. If a governing board disagrees with this partnership, that must be discussed and debated. Without common agreement on the nature of this foundational partnership, it is impossible to build a high-performing culture that is required for colleges and universities to survive and prosper, and it is assured that major board-campus conflict will ensue.
Embrace Institutional Constituencies: University governance must reflect the constituencies the institution seeks to serve. The charter of the University of North Carolina called on us to “consult the happiness of a rising generation.” In today’s world, the rising generation is one that is no longer mostly white men.
Effective governing boards must therefore include a significant number of women and people of color if they expect to be treated with seriousness by the campus and the public at large. Governing boards themselves are aware of this problem but corrective action has not been forthcoming. Many of the divisive conflicts over identity politics on campus have been exacerbated by the lack of diversity on governing boards.
Appreciate System Complexity: Any approach to university governance must give attention to the complexity of the governance system. In North Carolina – as in Florida – campus leaders are responsible to two governing boards – one each for the campus and the system – and then to a system president and the elected officials who appoint these members. Simply calling on all of the relevant officials semi-regularly would leave no time for leading the campus.
There must be a clear understanding as to whether the campus leader is primarily responsible for leading the campus or working the political constituencies. All too often, exiting leaders depart with the support of the board and not the campus or vice versa. A remedy for this problem is to set clear and realistic expectations that recognize both internal and external demands. Ideally, the boards are helping the chancellor with external stakeholders rather than creating additional demands. This requires trust and trade-off that can’t be achieved if the board insists on micromanaging campus administrators.
Acknowledge Political Realities: Finally, it is vital for the trustees to create an environment where the high degree of difficulty caused by today’s political climate is acknowledged. Too often, a new leader comes in with fanfare and a honeymoon that precludes frank discussion of just how hard it is going to be to succeed in a world where the campus and board are likely to be far apart on many issues. Does the board always expect the chancellor to bring the campus around to their point of view? Is the board willing to defer to the chancellor’s expertise when there is an impasse? When the first trial emerges, it is too late to have these discussions. By then, the chancellor must spend all of their time working the phones in an attempt to build consensus. As a result, the crisis worsens. The chancellor must feel comfortable going to the board when a proposed action will be unmanageable with the campus.
Principles of reform for university leaders
The previous five principles are largely directed at university trustees, and the following are intended for consideration by campus leaders.
Prioritize Board Education: Teaching a governing board the details of how higher education operates is real work. It’s no different than teaching general chemistry or a foreign language. If someone doesn’t know the jargon or the vocabulary, they need to be given the opportunity to acquire these with a patient teacher. In most cases, this falls to the chancellor themselves to be the professor of higher education policy.
Define Indispensable Principles: We believe the indispensable principles are tenure, academic freedom, shared governance, and the idea that knowledge is a public good. Different leaders could conceivably have a different menu, but we would submit that most of the irreconcilable differences come down to a failure of governing boards to understand that these are ‘quitting issues’ for most academic leaders.
Recognize the Importance of Identity Politics: The leader needs to understand how important identity politics are and that many trustees will not come to their roles with the same perspective as most folks on the campus. There will be differences that are very hard to traverse and that are ultimately irreconcilable, but at least by acknowledging this divide up front there is an opportunity to develop principles for collaboration. The chancellor should prepare the board for the fact that there will be times when the chancellor is rightfully unwilling to take a given measure to the campus.
Confront Political Realities: Leaders needs to understand that political realities are unavoidable. Public universities are funded by the government and it is unchangeable that elected bodies will have an enormous influence over the operations of the university. The politicization of higher education has not been a good thing for colleges and universities, and even as the level of state funding has decreased, the level of state engagement has not. So, accept this as a fixed reality and try to govern effectively. We believe that it is better to identify the disconnects early rather than hope they don’t reveal themselves.
We continue to feel strongly that American higher education is the best in the world and its further weakening will lead to a loss of both competitiveness and engaged citizens. Rising above this will require cool heads, compromise, and a willingness to put the public good ahead of ideology.
Holden Thorp is a former Chancellor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Provost of Washington University in St. Louis. He is now Editor-in-Chief of Science Magazine. Buck Goldstein is Professor of the Practice in the School of Education and University Entrepreneur In Residence at UNC Chapel Hill.