Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Fun with Boards
Although some on campus like to talk about The Administration as a monolith, like The Borg, it's actually composed of two major parts which don't always work in perfect harmony.
This story made me laugh in recognition. Basically, the Board of Trustees at Palm Beach Community College decided not to extend health benefits to same-sex domestic partners of employees. However, the college subsequently extended group discounts for health insurance for pets. Some folks put the two next to each other to ask why the college is willing to cover, say, Fluffy, but not Fran. (I assume that some would say that Fluffy doesn't offend God, and Fran does. Whether that's the proper concern of the Board of Trustees at PBCC is another question.)
The key is in recognizing the difference between the administration and the Board. As the story states,
College administrators have endorsed the idea of extending benefits to the partners of employees, but have yet to persuade enough board members. While officials could not be reached, they told local reporters that it was unfair to compare the benefits offered and denied, because they are categorized in different ways, and that the pet benefit did not require board approval.
Aha! The administrators who work at the college -- who support coverage for both pets and people -- had the leeway to pursue the pet insurance on their own, but had to get -- and couldn't get -- Board approval for the same-sex partner benefits. Whether the administrators there are crafty political operatives forcing the Board's hand, or if these decisions were made entirely separately and only juxtaposed after the fact, I don't know. (I could believe either.) But I wouldn't be surprised to see the Board there cave in the face of otherwise having to explain why cats are more important than people. (I recall a similar juxtaposition when Viagra first came out, and some HMO's that didn't cover birth control pills said they would cover Viagra. Some of them changed their policy on birth control coverage once Viagra was on the scene, mostly out of a combination of embarrassment and public pressure.)
On the merits, covering pets but not people strikes me as somewhere between stupid and inhuman (in the most literal sense of the word). But the reason it made me smile in rueful recognition was the split between the managers and the Board.
The bane of the middle manager is having to communicate and/or enforce policies that run counter to your own instincts. Worse, it's not unusual to develop arrangements internally contingent on Board approval, only to have to go back later and explain why the Board didn't bite. Managers are invariably blamed for that, from both above and below, but it's often an unfair charge. Trying to predict how a Board will receive or interpret a given initiative is as much art as science, especially when the policy is meaningfully new. And any serious effort to address an important and long-standing problem will, almost by definition, involve a departure from past practice. If it didn't, the problem would have been solved by now.
Some colleges have adopted the Carver model, in which, as I understand it (and I could be wrong on this), any powers not specifically forbidden can be assumed to have been delegated. The charge to the Board is to find ways to measure performance. So the Board sets forth some “thou shalt nots,” then lets people work towards specified goals. I'll just say that the 'law and order liberal' in me considers that model very, very promising. Anyone with experience with it is invited to shed light in the comments. I hope to gain experience with it someday.
Kudos to the brave administrators at PBCC, who may or may not be employed for much longer. I hope for their sake that their Board is capable of recognizing a mistake, and is above shooting the messenger.
If not, I hope that other colleges will recognize forward thinking when they see it. And I hope the folks who are (rightly) offended at a college choosing pets over people will be able to distinguish the administration from its Board.
The president of the system likes to avoid saying no directly: "Well, of course, that's a decision for the Board."
But, unless someone very unusually mulish is on the board, it's basically just a rubber stamp cheerleading section. In other words, the old good cop/bad cop routine.
Of course, to be fair, during union negotiations, we play the same game: "We have to go back to our membership on that."
Carver's model works very well but because it's so different than the way most boards work, it takes a while to learn. Board members wonder what they're "supposed to be doing" if they are not making decisions about operations. What they're supposed to be doing is crafting policies that will guide the organization toward goals that are created as the board interacts purposefully with the stakeholders of the organization. (Sorry, that sounds like total bureaucratic doublespeak, but it's not.)
To make the model work best, you do have to have a fantastic manager. When that happens, the board is in fact less necessary -- but since very few managers are that fantastic, having a good board is necessary. They provide oversight and monitoring as well as boundaries so the good but not fantastic manager has support, and an actually bad manager will be identified (and fired) quickly.