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.

I'm sure you're well aware of what happened to Poland, aren't you, DD?

At some institutions, the Board of Governors (or Trustees) pretty well followed the lead of the administrators. At others, such as my current administration, power was pretty much shared between the Board and the Administration who share a holy quest for the almighty balanced budget. Here, the faculty voice only reaches the higher level through committee work so our department has been careful to seed useful people in all of the relevant committees.
Try being a staff member in this equation. Power resides in three places at my institution: the cabinet, the faculty, and the board. Getting staff issues on the table with any of those bodies is quite difficult. Generally, what I've found is that if you get the faculty's attention, something gets done, which leads me to believe that at my institution, the faculty generally win. There's actually a faculty representative to the board, so that the administration isn't doing all the translating.
Board members at private universities are generally selected by the board. The primary qualification is being a big donor. Fortunately, most big donors got that way by being wealthy and interested in the university, and they got wealthy by being business owners which gives them transferrable skills. (Okay, sometimes it also gives them a prima donna attitude but you have to take the bad with the good.)

From my observation, the main job of the university president is to raise money and the main job of the university board is to give money.

A few years ago our board spent more time debating whether to flatten the crown in the football field than any other item of business during the year. The faculty didn't give a damn, so that was certainly a year without faculty-board conflict!
I need to take exception with one thing you've said, DD. In my CC system, faculty and staff do not hire other faculty and staff. We have search committees that are given the illusion of inclusion--we make recommendations to the president. On many occasions, the president of the college has ignored the recommendations of the search committee and hired whomever he has liked (or had a previous relationship with). The ultimate power always remains with the president.
Board activism varies dramatically over time. The curretn Board for my institution is much more activist than it has been in the past. That may change when we elect a new governor, whose appointment practices may be very different.

And for a really interesting system, look at Illinois, where the Trustees of the University of Illinois are elected.
Doc is right, of course. Board activism varies over time and place.

The experience I've had at my CA cc is that, generally, the Board merely rubber-stamps whatever the President says. In the thirty-odd years I've been at my institution, the President has been bullet-proof--until things get very, VERY bad.

"Micromanaging" is a usually a phrase that only administrators use--unless right-wing Board members get involved in the business of faculty members, who are generally liberal/progressive.

For an example of the latter, check out DISSENT the BLOG, which comes from Orange County: Goldwater/Reagan/Bush II territory.
The history you'll find there is absolutely hilarious, unless you work there (which I don't).
My experiences at Zenith argue that when the Board and the Faculty get into conflict no one wins: you get huge pissing contests that mean no substantive work goes forward, and evne the issue at hand does not come to a satisfactory conclusion. Both sides become mulish. One mark of an excellent Provost (forget the President at Zenith who has little academic authority, something more typical of the LAC than a university) is the capacity to mediate between the Board and Faculty, and to build anadministrative staff who also plays a good mediating role, so that such confrontations never happen.
I serve as a student trustee at my institution and I can tell you definitively the attitude about the president is this: the board sets goals for the president and we let the president set his own objectives. We basically rubber-stamp the objectives. Then we evaluate the president based on his/her progress toward the goals.

The thought is basically this: if we set goals for the president and then don't let him/her do whatever her/she deems appropriate to attempt to meet those goals then how can we fairly judge them? They could easily say, "well you won't let me succeed... because you won't let me do what I'm trying to."

I actually approve of this approach in general. I think at times certain objectivs can be to far out of line and then it becomes necessary to vote them down... but these are few and far between.
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