Friday, July 24, 2009


Anne Neal, President of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, did a piece in yesterday's IHE that really requires a full post to answer.

As near as I can tell – and her piece is so scattered that it's honestly hard to tell – she seems to argue that boards of trustees have become captives of college presidents, and that the Association of Governing Boards implicitly endorses that role confusion in its latest survey. As she would have it, the proper role of the Board is to bring to bear “the solid financial acumen that many [board members] have developed in the real world,” the better to help colleges get past “the unsustainable economics of higher education.” In so doing, colleges would get past the destructive illusion that administration is governance – she'd rather identify governance with the board – and would bring much-needed fiscal discipline to colleges and universities.

This is one of those pieces that lumps together a couple of very real problems, then jumps off into solutions that are far worse.

It's true that the rate of tuition increase generally has outpaced inflation for a very long time. (Longtime readers have seen my theories on that plenty of times.) That's true in the public sector, the private non-profit sector, and the private for-profit sector, which pretty much rules out governance as the relevant variable, but never mind that. (Or, if you prefer, it's true at the two-year level, the four-year level, and the graduate level. It's true in the North, South, East, and West. Pick whatever vectors and sectors you want. What this says about the explanatory power of personality-based theories, I'll leave as an exercise for the reader.)

And it's true that some Presidents manage to dominate their Boards, at least some of the time. The rate of Presidential turnover suggests that this is the exception, rather than the rule, but I won't dispute that we can find examples of Boards that don't look closely or critically enough. (As Neal concedes in passing, we can also find examples of Boards micromanaging far beyond their proper jurisdiction, though she fails to explore the implications of that.)

Assuming goodwill, I think the root of the problem with Neal's analysis is a misunderstanding of the meaning of 'governance.' She seems to imply that it's all or nothing, which is a basic category mistake.

There's an old joke among college presidents that being a college president is like running a cemetery; you have a lot of people under you, but good luck getting any of them to do anything. Although that's sometimes taken as a slam on people's work ethic, it's actually a commentary on the decentralized structure of most colleges and universities. Rather than assuming that power runs in a straight line from the top down (or vice versa), it's far more accurate to see different parts of the college having different areas of jurisdiction.

Boards set overall budgets, define the institutional mission, choose/evaluate/fire the president, and set some basic ground rules. (They also fundraise, which sometimes raises issues about the other tasks.) Sometimes they set some institution-wide policies or goals. What they absolutely do not do, if they understand their job, is muck around in the implementation of those goals. They approve overall hiring policies, but other than the president, they don't hire. They don't hear grade appeals. They don't set curriculum. They don't manage sub-unit budgets, evaluate personnel (other than the president), or make academic decisions. Their job is something closer to “constitutional convention” than “government.”

Administrators manage budgets, hire/evaluate/fire personnel, implement board-set goals, manage conflict, fundraise, and manage day-to-day operations. We're the folks who package the financial aid, who make sure the clay gets to the art department and the computers to the lab, who keep the college in compliance with heaven-knows-how-many federal and state laws, who track the grants, who schedule the classes and rooms, who keep the records, and who generally attend to the day-to-day operations. We do those things in the service of institutional goals set by the Board, but we don't report directly to the Board (except for the president).

Meanwhile, the faculty teach the classes. They own the grading, the curriculum, and many of the academic policies (grading, add/drop policies, etc) that the administrators actually carry out. Although they may formally report to deans or chairs or whomever, they are largely free agents in their day-to-day work.

If everyone knows what they're doing, these areas don't overlap too much. Yes, there's some issue of the faculty owning curriculum while the administration has to balance the budget, since new programs usually come with costs. (This Spring the faculty approved a new course with staggering materials costs, then dropped it on my desk with a peremptory “find the money.” You're welcome.) Sometimes 'balancing budgets' involves saying 'no' to requests for some academically-valid ideas. That tension inheres in the structure of the college. And one of the cornerstones of faculty collegiality is the outsourcing of unpleasant decisions to administrators, with predictable effects on our popularity. It's annoying, but it comes with the gig. Border skirmishes among the various groups happen, but if everyone basically gets it, the skirmishes don't erupt into open warfare.

Neal's proposal, to the extent that I can make it out, takes a corporate model as normative. One chain of command in all things, with those on top having ultimate authority in everything. The idea is to enforce discipline.

The glaring and obvious flaw in that model for this setting is the different goal. A corporation exists to turn a profit. A non-profit college – public or private – exists to...? Focusing just on my own cc, it exists to provide both credit and noncredit opportunities, all the way from adult basic education to corporate training to university transfer, to anyone who wants it. It does so while adhering to the resource limits set by the government, the contracts with the unions, the norms of many and different disciplines, and the expressed and expected needs of the local community. In other words, it's a much more complex mission. Worse, the economics of it are such that we lose money on our core operations, by design. (That's because 'access' is part of the mission.)

Someone coming from the corporate world has been trained in a far more unified model, with a single goal and a more command-and-control structure and culture. Managing higher ed is closer to managing a small town than to managing a company. That's why there's so much focus on process, representation, consensus, collaboration, and acceptance of certain kinds of open conflict. (In the corporate world, much of the stuff I deal with on a daily basis would be considered insubordination, and would last about ten minutes.)

To the extent that Boards are an issue – and they are – it comes from members not really understanding what they're supposed to do. I've seen Board members treat their college as extensions of themselves, resulting in micromanagement and a basic violation of mission. Others have used Board service as bully pulpits for other agendas – understandable, and not entirely avoidable, but unhelpful. Some have attempted to bring a corporate orientation, only to find that the skills needed here are different. And yes, some fall under the sway of a charismatic or well-connected president.

A serious discussion of cost spirals should focus less on Boards than on the inexorable increases in costs for health insurance and technology, and on the productivity trap that comes from measuring education in units of time. If Boards were the main issue, the increases wouldn't be universal across all regions and sectors. Neal got some of the symptoms right, but the diagnosis wrong. “Governance” here is far more complicated than her model implies, since the mission is far more complicated than the role implies. If it were as easy as Neal implies, we would have handled it years ago.