Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Boards Gone Wild

This story is both shocking, and not.

At one level, it's absurd. The Board of Trustees at the College of DuPage has decided to arrogate to itself all manner of decision-making powers, from abruptly imposing a thinly-veiled version of David Horowitz' Academic Bill of Rights to churning through multiple Presidents without explanation to muzzling the student newspaper.

And yet, on another level, the shocking part is that this sort of thing doesn't happen more often.

Boards of Trustees are peculiar institutions. They have a dangerous combination of tremendous power, limited knowledge, and almost no accountability. Given that combination, it's remarkable that most Boards work as well as they do.

The theory behind boards, as near as I can piece together, is twofold: Presidents have to report to (and by chosen by) somebody, and nonprofits need members of the community to keep them on track.

Both of those are fine, as far as they go. Yes, someone needs to have the power to choose Presidents, and a President chosen by the employees will have every reason to run the institution for the benefit of the employees, which is a category mistake. In the best case of a well-functioning Board, a group of respected people from the community who all care about higher education will tether a college to its mission. They can be objective, since they don't draw salaries from the college, so they can make the really tough calls when the tough calls need to be made. They can also leverage their connections in the worlds in which they've made their marks to raise money and attention for the college.

Good Boards do that, and then stop. They hold Presidents (or candidates) to high standards, set a few basic 'thou shalts' and 'thou shalt nots,' make connections, and leave it at that.

But some Boards just can't stop at that. Intoxicated by power, or insecure in their importance, or unclear on the concept, or for whatever reason, they stop trying to steward the college and start trying to manage it. BIG mistake.

Despite all sorts of myths to the contrary, managing a large and complicated organization is a full-time job. It requires lots of time and attention to detail, as well as an intuitive sense of the unique culture of higher ed and no small dollop of people skills. It's not something you can toss off in a few hours a month after skimming some executive summaries. Nor is it something you can do by just applying the same skills that brought you success in the private sector; the culture and mission of higher ed are just too different.

Worse, depending on the local political situation (and the mechanism by which the particular board is chosen), someone with a bee in her bonnet can linger for years, utterly unchecked. Get a few of those reinforcing each other, and it can only end in tears.

Although there's an argument for boards of trustees, I can't help but wonder if there isn't also an argument for a pretty solid set of rules by which they're bound. Boards gone wild can do untold damage, quickly, and with little consequence for themselves. When boards start thinking of themselves as administrators, everybody pays the price. The fact that the really hellacious mistakes are rare enough to be newsworthy is comforting, but not nearly as comforting as a competent board.

And, in the case of state IHEs, what role should the taxpayers play in governance? Does that primarily come through the actions of state legislatures or should it come from other directions?
Kelly, the problem is, as we see more and more "spreading the wealth" the "taxpayer" has less and less of a say.

Talk about pathologies. We are now entering an era (perhaps again) where the taxpayer makes up a minority of those exercising control over government (the voters.)

Just as it would be a "category mistake" to have the President chosen by the faculty, it seems we are moving towards the category mistake of government spending controlled by those who cash the check, and not contribue.
That last comment is uncalled for unless the writer is in Alaska. I know that, unlike my state, Alaska has no sales tax or property tax that might be paid (directly or indirectly) by every voter - whether employed, retired, or unemployed.

It might also be irrelevant to this specific discussion. I don't know about Illinois, but in my state the college board of trustees is not elected by anyone.
Where is the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation during all this?

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools has slapped some institutions with probation and threatened others with suspension for this type of board behavior. Hint at dropping accreditation (and all those delicious federal funds, grants, and transfer agreements that accompany it) and it's surprising how quickly everyone resumes their proper role.
"That last comment is uncalled for"

Really? Hmm So Kelly mentioning the role of "Taxpayer" is relevant but mentioning that "taxpayer" is no longer synonymous with voter is not?

I like the appeal to the property and sales tax argument, though. That one does work well when dealing with the state-funded community colleges. Presuming, of course, that the majority of voters are also property owners in that particular state, and that the "staples" "aren't exempt from sales tax (like food and clothing.)

Still, why is it uncalled for? I mean, I have seen all sorts of tangential threads in the comment stream....
"Shut up and pay the bills!"

Should the taxpayer have any representation in how tax money is (mis)spent?

Should the non-taxpayer have a voice in how tax money is "allocated?"

Thomas Sowell wrote a great book a few years back called "The Vision of the Anointed" that explains the line of thinking prevalent among the elitists today.

"Shut Up" is a compelling argument among the self-appointed elites.
Back to Kelly's question:

1) If we assume the "public" has no voice, then it doesn't matter (is irrelevant)

2) If we assume the "public" should have a voice, then we are left with the decision as to how taxpayers and non-taxpayers should be represented.

3) If we choose to allow the "public" to be represented, we aslo have the issue of how we would like that representation to take place. The default answer, of course, is through their elected representatives.

*All* of this, of course, is quite relevant to the question of the role of boards in higher ed.

The charter/mission/role of boards in higher education is determined by the state, correct? This is not a national-level issue?
Just as bad as a board gone wild is one that is too passive. I worked at a place where the Board refused to talk to the faculty -- we were represented to the Board by the President. If there was conflict between faculty and the president, they heard it through him. They just let him go on and on, long past the time his skills were good for the institution (which they had once been.)

So passive boards which "trust the president" are also a huge problem.

My word verification is "mucks" which seems incredibly appropriate.

"We are now entering an era (perhaps again) where the taxpayer makes up a minority of those exercising control over government (the voters."

"moving towards the category mistake of government spending controlled by those who cash the check..."

Perhaps again? Moving towards?

Good God, where have you been the last 8 years? Higher education, in terms of total expense, corruption, collusion, and nepotism, and of ability to inflict damage on every aspect of our society, can't even begin to match what has been done by Bush and friends.

Spreading the wealth under a democratic (yes, the small d is deliberate) administration--now there's something to be frightened of. Everyone knows that truly progressive taxation is meant to help poor defense contractors, insurance companies, hedge fund brokers, and credit card companies.

captcha: dingen (very close to the Indonesian word for "cold")
Comment #2 of YaCP at 8:34 -

We do not have to decide how the public should have a voice, it has been clearly spelled out in the US Constitution and a number of Supreme Court rulings backing the clear intent of the 14th, 15th, and 19th amendments, particularly as clarified by 24th amendment. Poll taxes or property ownership (landed gentry) can no longer be used to limit who can vote in national and (via equal protection) local elections.

By the way, renters generally pay (indirectly) more property tax in my state than persons who own their own home. I'm always shocked at how little I pay in property taxes. Sort of like Warren Buffet explaining how he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary, the reasons are obvious but seldom appreciated. Many people don't know about the hidden half of FICA, for example.

I'd be hard pressed to come up with a person who pays zero taxes. Maybe a retiree living on minimal Social Security in a very cheap house that is exempt from property taxes, who only buys tax exempt food (no prepared food) and does not buy clothing, use a car, or buy electricity from a for-profit company.
In WA the governor chooses the community college board members, who are then ratified by the state Senate. I'm sure it has its problems, but it seems like a fairly straightforward system to me.

(CCPhysicist, nice point on indirect taxation. That ultra-frugal retiree would also need to forgo a telephone.)
"Clearly spelled out in [the consititution] . . . "

So far so good

" . . . and numerous supreme court rulings . . .

Ouch! A different matter entirely.

I understand your points about taxation completely; and find them particularly (singularly?) "not compelling."

By your logic, we *all* pay taxes, as the government is completely funded by import tarrifs after all ...

Here's an idea you get the same number of votes (at each level of government) as the dollar value in taxes collected from you.

I pay over $30,000 at the federal level (direct taxes). Therefore, I should get 30,000 federal votes.

Now *that's* fair!

Claiming the indigent "pay taxes" is B.S. for obvious reasons.
I'll always remember my Board's infamous "Program Mix" resolution, where they determined the optimum ratio of pre-college:voc/tech:transfer students. They were particularly annoyed at how much we were spending on 'remedial' courses that should be the province of High Schools.
The issue of "stewardship" vs "management" goes well beyond academia. I see this problem even in things like my local "zoning board" and the professional society on which I am an elected member.

It takes to to calibrate a board to their role of setting policy and not dealing with day to day issues. Sometimes events require that policy issues be addressed, but the problems start when they start trying to micromanage whatever enterprise the board oversees.
I agree with yacf -- human life has no inherent value, so the state has no obligation to any person other than to its taxpayers, in direct proportion to the amount contributed.
Indeed, musing further, this model can be applied to our judicial system. Let all civil actions be decided by strict auction -- the side which pays the state the most gets the judgement desired. Or we could do a proportional system, where each side gets a percentage of a loaf contingent on their contribution.

The real benefit of this, however, comes in criminal law, where we can have the families of the victims bid against the murderers for a verdict.
Even in todays Modern Age of Enlightenment there are those who don't appreciate a good "Swifting!"

Oh well.

At aminimum, it would be nice to at least give apassing nod in the direction of "One Citizen, One Vote."

But that of course would disenfranchise at least half of Minnesota (apparently), most of Florida (obviously), and a critical chunk of "democratc party" [sic] ballots . . .
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