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.