Friday, March 16, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Boards vs. Faculty

A frustrated correspondent writes:

Who runs a college? Is it the Board, or the Faculty? And who generally wins, in Board v. Faculty disputes?

I like this question a lot.

The typical chain of command, at least on paper, is that the Board of Trustees (or a group with a similar title) is officially where the buck stops. The Board selects (and fires) the President of the college. The President selects the VP's, who select the deans, and so on. (The sequence comes to an abrupt halt at the faculty level, where the faculty choose each other, relying on the upper levels of administration to be no more than rubber stamps.)

Members of the Board generally don't involve themselves in the day-to-day operations of the college. They typically have full-time jobs elsewhere, or are retired. Their job is to keep an eye on the big picture, and to hold the President accountable for running the college effectively.

Board selection methods vary, depending on the nature of the college. At public colleges, most Board members are selected by various elected bodies or officials. This means that the stability of the Board will reflect the political stability of the jurisdiction. In my neck of the woods, one party rule has been firmly entrenched pretty much forever, so the Board has been remarkably stable. In areas where party control shifts regularly, I would expect to see more Board turnover. I honestly don't know how Board members are selected at private colleges. Anybody who can shed some light on this in the comments section is invited to do so.

(At Proprietary U, there was a Board of Directors that chose the CEO. It was a corporation, following a fairly traditional American corporate-governance model. The Board of Directors was elected by the stockholders, to the extent that these things are contested.)

The reason for that little digression was to lay the groundwork for a distinction between 'the administration' and 'the Board.' Broadly speaking, the Board sets goals and directions, and the administration is charged with making those happen. (Academic bloggers, and faculty generally, often conflate the administration with the Board.)

Of course, tenured faculty typically have their own goals and directions in mind, which may or may not gibe with the Board's. It's the enviable job of the administration to mediate between the two, though when push comes to shove, the real accountability is to the Board.

Boards are usually relatively small, and often dominated by a few strong personalities. Board members are typically not, um, experts in the innards of higher education, having earned their stripes in other fields of endeavor. Board service is usually only one of the obligations a Board member has, and usually not the primary one. The information the Board receives is necessarily partial and filtered, and will often be read through lenses that faculty would consider utterly bizarre. (In William Chace's memoir One Hundred Semesters, he recalls a Board member applying true corporate logic – as opposed to mere cost-consciousness - to argue for eliminating the social sciences altogether at one university. His argument was that you don't compete in fields you can't dominate, and the university was far from dominant in the social sciences. Chace had to at least appear to take him seriously, and gently introduce him to the notion of 'general education.') One of the most critical jobs for a President and/or Provost and/or VP is to translate the norms of higher ed to language that Board members can both understand and respect. Faculty who routinely bash administration have little clue how much effort is spent on this, and what would happen if it weren't.

The faculty, by contrast, spend their professional lives in the innards and folkways of higher education, but without serious exposure to budgets. So the goals that can come out of, say, a faculty senate, will reflect a very different set of facts, assumptions, and values, than the Board's.

In my limited observation, the administration is the buffer zone – Poland, if you will – between the faculty and the Board. This is very different from the American corporate model, in which Boards are typically lapdogs for Presidents. I haven't seen that happen in higher ed, though I'll admit to limited exposure at that level. In higher ed, to the extent that I've seen it, Boards are very much independent variables.

In terms of Board vs. faculty conflict, I'd say either could win, but the current administration will almost certainly lose. If the folks charged with mediating between an immovable object (the faculty) and an irresistible force (the Board) somehow, inexplicably, fail, then obviously they need to be replaced. After all, it couldn't be a structural problem! The smarter faculty organizers know this, and wield threats of “votes of no confidence” and the like in hopes of cowing administrators into lobbying Boards to cave.

Loyal readers – your thoughts?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.