Wednesday, March 07, 2018

A Missed Opportunity

The storm of the century of the week (thundersnow!) caused a snow day, so I had some unanticipated time for reading.  I devoured How to Run a College, by Brian Mitchell and W. Joseph King, in hopes that it would be useful.  

It wasn’t about what it said it was about.  Call it a missed opportunity.

Mitchell and King have both been presidents of private, residential, four-year universities.  Had the book been titled How to Run a Private, Residential, Four-Year College it might have fulfilled its goals fairly well.  Reading it from a community college perspective, it was a clear miss.

Mitchell and King start well, noting that “[t]he greatest challenge facing American higher education is how to professionalize governance.” (11)  They come down hard on trustees, whom they characterize as amateurs who often don’t understand the necessary ways of higher education. When shared governance fails, they argue, “the most likely cause is one group’s overstepping its boundary.” (13)  The board chair should be the border patrol: “the most important role of a board chair is to be a trusted, strategic partner of the president and senior staff. To do so, a chair must respect the lines of authority on a college campus.” (18)

All of which is true, as far as it goes.  A micromanaging Board can do untold damage, as can an arbitrary or vindictive chair.  But Mitchell and King stop there, as if the highest level of governance is the Board.

That’s where the private university backgrounds betray them.  Anyone in public higher education knows that Boards come from somewhere, whether from appointments by elected officials, or by direct election themselves.  In fact, in the age of performance-based funding, legislated curricular mandates, and an unprecedented level of prescriptiveness by legislatures, there’s an argument to be made that “shared” governance is now shared with elected officials, and, by extension, with the voters.  That requires a basic rethinking of shared governance which, in its classic form, assumes a self-contained institution within which decisionmaking is shared.

That may sound like a picky or technical distinction, but it makes a difference.  If a college is free to redefine its own mission, it has a certain amount of autonomy.  If it’s an arm of the state, or the county, it has much less. This week’s decisions by the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point to divest itself from the liberal arts can be seen as a time-release response to a direction set at the state level.  When a college is subject to the oversight not merely of trustees, but also of state (and sometimes county) politicians, its ability to control its own destiny is circumscribed.

The private university orientation of the authors also probably helps explain the complete absence of unions from the discussion of shared governance.  Unions can be good and bad, but they materially change the equation when it comes to decisionmaking. Eliding them from the analysis suggests that managers have far more agency than they often actually have.

The book’s public-college blind spot crops up repeatedly.  In a discussion of admissions -- in which I learned that students who don’t fall into the “athlete,” “legacy,” or “diversity” slots are called “over the transom,” which may be one of the more upsetting things I’ve seen in a while -- they claim that we’re seeing “a significant increase in attendance at community colleges” (39), which hasn’t been true since about 2010.  They follow with open concern-trolling, asking openly whether community colleges are capable of handling the “explosive growth possible with shifting demographics…” (40) To which I want to reply, bring on the explosive growth. Community college enrollments have been falling for years, and, as Nathan Grawe’s recent book suggests, are in danger of falling more in the next decade.  That isn’t a secret; you just have to check.

The book goes on to devote entire chapters, respectively, to intercollegiate athletics, residential life, and admissions as a form of marketing.  I’ll just say those made for quick reading.

In terms of solutions to the very real economic issues higher education faces, they come up with “collaboration,” giving the Five Colleges in Massachusetts and the Claremont Colleges in California as examples.  Both involve purchasing consortia and economies of scale across institutions. (The Claremont Colleges are all private; four of the Five Colleges are private, the fifth being UMass-Amherst.)

Which, again, is fine as far as it goes, but is a bit of old hat.  We know that. That has been part of the public college playbook for decades.  Some states -- Florida leaps to mind -- have knit together their public colleges into single systems for exactly that reason.  And nobody cites the Claremont Colleges or Amherst Colleges as exemplars of low cost. The proposed solution falls far short of the problem.

Whether Mitchell and King capture accurately the world from which they come, I’ll leave to readers who know that world better than I do.  But they don’t come close to fulfilling the promise of their title, or to helping us in the public sector handle the real and increasing challenges we face.  Yes, community colleges need good Boards that understand the boundaries of their jurisdiction. That’s true. But there’s so much more to discuss...