Thursday, April 17, 2008

Not Pretty in Pittsburgh

An alert reader sent me links to these articles from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review about a power struggle among the Westmoreland County commissioners, the Westmoreland CC Board of Trustees, and the President at WCCC, near Pittsburgh. According to the articles, the Board is likely to strip the President of the power to hire – under a threat from the county to lose funding if it doesn't -- since the county has lost faith that the President's hiring practices are valid.

From the outside, it looks like one of those cases in which the awfulness of the remedy may mask the awfulness of the underlying problem. There may or may not be a problem with hiring, but this is not the way to address it. Though my objection isn't about the introduction of politics.

It's easy to fear political manipulation of hiring, and there are good reasons to fear that. But it's not immediately obvious to me that college Presidents are immune to that, either, and it's also standard practice – as the articles indicate – for Boards to have final ratification power on hires. Obviously, power to ratify implies power to not ratify. So what's different here isn't so much the possibility of politics – that's there already – or Board involvement, but Board micromanagement. Rather than allowing the President to propose and the Board to dispose, the Board is being told to take both tasks on itself.

When all is working as it should, the only hiring decision the Board should make directly is of the President. It should take that very seriously, and also take seriously the criteria it sets for Presidential success and failure. Done right, that would involve serious and lengthy discussion of what success would look like, how to measure it, and what the boundaries (the 'thou shalt nots') are. That's no small thing. Those criteria and measures would need to be communicated clearly to the President, who would then know the boundaries of his authority. (I'll use 'his' here, since the President in this case is male.) Over time, the Board is either satisfied or not, and can keep the President or get a new one.

But what this Board is being asked to do pretty much guarantees failure. It's communicating to the college, and to the community at large, that the President is on a uniquely short leash. A President who has endured what amounts to a public vote of no-confidence by his own service area will have a hell of a time being effective as an advocate for his college, maintaining a high public profile, forming partnerships, lobbying, or fundraising. When the leader of the campus is, for all intents and purposes, a lame duck, good luck getting anything difficult done. Opponents can simply foot-drag and wait him out. When the opposition can win by passivity, you're done.

Worse, the Board is taking on itself more of the one thing it has clearly demonstrated it doesn't know how to do: hiring. Since it's taking on all salaried positions, that would (most likely) include everybody from Vice Presidents through deans and chairs and faculty. The Board will suddenly become the Promotion and Tenure committee for the entire college. If I were junior faculty there, I'd be nervous. Hell, if I were a dean there, I'd be nervous. I'd expect either a quick Presidential turnover and a reconsideration of this policy, or a mass exodus of employees who have other options. (Possibly both.)

Boards of Trustees are tricky creatures in the best of times. Ideally, you get a group of admitted amateurs who are passionate in their devotion to the college, who understand the boundaries of their own position, and who network well on the college's behalf. And sometimes that happens. But if you get a few trustees who don't quite get it, and nobody intervenes to ensure that they get it, things can go off the rails very quickly. Or, as in this case, if the folks who appoint the board don't get it, there's pretty much no end to the possible mischief.

Boards exist to answer the question of who hires (and sometimes fires) the President. That's an important task, and a hard one to do well. (It really can't be done by the college employees themselves, since they don't represent the entire community.) If the county commissioners don't understand the purpose of a board – and it looks like they don't – then things can get real ugly, real fast.

My advice to the Board in this case is to make a binary decision: either fire the President or stand up to the county. But don't let an undead President shuffle through the next few years, feeding on whatever is in his path. If the guy in charge isn't in charge, you'll have much uglier issues at hand in short order. A compromised President is certain to be a failed President.