Position Papers

Position Paper:

The Crisis in Higher Education Governance

     In my thirty-seven years as a faculty member, department chair, dean, provost, and president, I have never been more worried about the future of American higher education. Colleges and universities are facing very difficult decisions ahead on access and financial aid, at a time when stressed state and federal budgets and a leveling of the number of high school graduates will almost certainly force all colleges, public or private, to increase their percentage of financial aid to revenue simply to respond to the growing number of needy students coming into the college marketplace.

      There is another issue, however, that should concern colleges even more than access and aid: the accelerating crisis in college governance. Faculty, administrators, and trustees are increasingly confused about their respective roles on campus, as the recent developments at Harvard and American University suggest. If those roles are not clarified and protected by all parties, then the urgent issues that face colleges in the future will not be solved in a careful, thoughtful way. The confusion and tension I am referring to run deeper than the usual campus disputes over budgets, tenure, and new programs—or even the slowness with which decisions are often made--and go to the heart of what accountability should mean on campus and what American society itself understands by accountability.

     American culture today seems to have reached a point in its evolution where those with genuine power—that is, the ability to make final decisions—seem either not satisfied with that degree of power (the Republican Party?), or not convinced that what they have is real power (the Democratic Party?). In the academic arena, administrators at the senior level are losing respect for the long-standing responsibility of faculty for the core purpose of the institution, and even for the constant oversight trustees must provide on finances, mission, and fund-raising campaigns. On many campuses, faculty—often because they are underpaid—are determined not only to exercise their tried and true control over curriculum and program changes, but to join with trustees in trying to control administrators they deem incompetent. And for their part, trustees will frequently indulge faculty in those critiques and second-guess the decisions made by the very administrators the trustees hired and supported a short time before. As a result, administrators are increasingly loath to take a stand as the prime decision makers at any college; yet the more they automatically defer to faculty and trustee wishes—even when well-intentioned—the more they undermine their authority in everyone’s eyes, including their own.

      All three groups—faculty, administration, and trustees—have decision-making authority that should not, as a rule, be second-guessed by any other group.

     “Not second-guessed,” however, does not mean “not evaluated.” Indeed, the second-guessing that is increasingly evident on college campuses, especially when two constituent groups line up against the third, is often the result of a lack of regular, on-going performance evaluation. All levels of college governance need formally to establish goals and be evaluated on an annual basis, with or without outside consultants. Even when there is no money available for merit raises, such evaluations not only tell staff, faculty, and trustees where they stand in that year, they also serve continually to remind each constituency of its proper prerogatives and authority.

    Those prerogatives, in the history of American higher education, have been established, more or less, as follows:

- Faculty approve courses and programs, the hiring of specific colleagues, and the standards for tenure and promotion;

- Administrators determine the allocation of staff and their salaries; raise money; and make operating decisions that sustain the college’s mission, including the final word in tenure and promotion cases;

- Trustees decide on that mission and its general policies, the annual budget, construction, fund-raising campaigns, and presidential performance.

These functions, of course, regularly overlap. Trustees do vote on program changes and tenure for faculty; administrators establish the budget for approval, concur with faculty hiring, and have to be comfortable with all construction; and faculty must conscientiously to evaluate their colleagues for tenure and promotion to prevent ad hominem judgments by administrators or trustees.

     But appropriate prerogatives are weakening today as all three groups lose sight of the very real powers they already have, and Harvard is only the most recent and most glaring example. Part of the problem lies in a general minimizing of the importance of leadership on today’s campus. Non-profit organizations that do not produce a product for sale require especially skilled management to keep up with the academic competition. Quality of service and good morale, in particular, are the direct result of how well staffs at such institutions, including faculty, are managed. Yet faculty, administrators, and trustees at American colleges frequently overlook the difficulty of managing institutions that need strong enrollments without a loss in student quality, in a marketplace that is becoming more and more competitive. Time and again, for example, especially at less prestigious colleges than Harvard, stakeholders are caught in the contradiction of wanting a president who will do what they wish, yet make such a good impression on the public that donations will roll in. But a president and senior staff that are passive before faculty and trustees will not be strong enough to manage the college to the satisfaction of present and former students. Without the perception by alumni that the college is well-managed—with authority vested in the administration to make critical decisions within the institution’s mission and budget—those alumni will not be eager to give regularly to the annual fund of the college. And until annual fundraising is up to par, few outside agencies, private or public, will be inclined to give substantially to the institution.

     This is not an argument for an “imperial” presidency on American campuses or for abandoning shared governance. Senior administrators must want considerable input from, and sharing of information with, all constituents. But a friend of mine, a former president at a premier college, has correctly observed that the role of the president today is being “eviscerated.” That language is more forceful--and should be--than the language used ten years ago in “Renewing the Academic Presidency: Stronger Leadership for Tougher Times,” from the Association of Governing Board’s Commission on the Academic Presidency. The Commission’s primary concern in 1996 was impediments to the efficiency and speed with which presidents have to make decisions. Nor am I repeating Nan Keohane’s central concern in her 1998 consideration of a “Hamiltonian” presidency (“More Power to the President?” in The Presidency). She argued that all parties basically understood and endorsed the “present system” of governance in which “each of the major players brings something important to the table.” Thus “our goal [as presidents] should be to use the powers of our office in serious—not cosmetic—collaboration with others who have responsibilities and interests in our institutions and to bring partial views together in a vision of the common good.” That, surely, is necessary and possible, but only if all players know their roles.

     Even AGB’s latest, very thorough examination of the current confusion over campus governance— Competing Conceptions of Academic Governance, edited by William Tierney (2004)—still misses the forest for the trees. Tierney is right to question the need for structural changes on campuses that already manage with a great variety of governance systems; but one cannot jump to the importance of trust, as Tierney does, without acknowledging that today’s governance problems are more often based not on multiple, conflicting definitions of shared governance but on a failure to insure what James Duderstadt mentions in passing—“that all of the constituencies of shared governance—governing boards, administrations, and faculty—understand clearly their roles and responsibilities.” Even a recent suggestion from Richard Chait ( Chronicle, May 6, 2005) that administrators encourage trustees’ “macroengagement” on large issues in exchange for less “micromanagement” serves to minimize the importance of reaffirming the common-sense historic prerogatives of all parties.

      The issue I am raising is much less about administrative efficiency, campus collaboration, conflicting definitions of shared governance, or political trade-offs among parties, and much more about basic lines of authority: faculty, administrators, and trustees are increasingly unable to trust each other to do their customary jobs, and then formally and regularly evaluate themselves and each other. One partial solution to this crisis is for presidents to take a stronger lead in helping each other explain to faculty and trustees that their powers are already real and important and safe, and that no college is healthy and in balance if it has an administration that is afraid to make hard decisions based on the knowledge it has access to—knowledge that is usually greater, after all, than that available to faculty and trustees. Those same presidents, of course, will also need to embrace a thorough evaluation system that includes their own performance.

     Faculty still bear the greatest burden: the quality of what goes on in the classroom. And trustees, thank goodness, still hold the financial status of the college in their hands. But for college administrators, the pendulum has swung too far toward ineffectuality, and they are finding it harder and harder to make important decisions that routinely fall within the College’s mission and budget constraints. The proper balance of powers on campus needs to be restored.

     If it isn’t, then American colleges are setting themselves up for a future of rash, short-sighted decisions that will undermine the deliberate, thoughtful process of addressing the issues of enrollments, financial aid, and access that loom dramatically in our future.

© 2006 by David C. Stinebeck