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Continuing our consideration of challenges facing higher education trustees, this week we deal with challenges of changes to the status quo. Regardless of how universities are organized and how one becomes a trustee, challenges exist. Why? Because people are involved and, where people are involved, challenge can rear its head in quite unexpected ways and it can be quite intense.

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, years ago someone shared with me the following quotation about higher education and attributed it to Henry Kissinger: the politics in higher education are so intense because the stakes are so small! However, when I asked Kissinger about the quotation, he said he didn’t recall saying it. Regardless of its origin, the quotation is at least half-correct, politics in higher education can be intense. As to whether the stakes are small, many would disagree, particularly given the shocking and disappointing approach taken by several parents to gain admission for their children in highly selective universities. The stakes were very high, not just monetarily, but in reputational risk for the universities and legal risks for parents and participants within the universities.

Reputational risk for universities is not limited to the admissions scandal. Reports of sexual assaults have impacted numerous universities, including but not limited to Michigan State, Ohio State, and Penn State. In addition, the death of an athlete at Maryland grabbed national headlines. More recently, an issue of hazing arose at Northwestern. Perhaps because each involved the athletics program in a Big 10 athletics conference organization, it made headlines nationally. However, don’t be misled—no higher education organization is immune from similar scandals.

Based on the news coverage, it appears that, in each situation, trustees were asleep at the switch. However, trustees are far removed from day-to-day activities within the athletics programs. So, it’s likely trustees were unaware of irregularities occurring until they learned about them from media reports.

How did the trustees react? In several instances, the initial responses of trustees were disappointing. Clearly, their noses were not in before the fact, but in some cases it appeared they tried to put their fingers in after the fact. Some trustees appeared to place winning athletic contests over everything else. If trustees don’t hold themselves to high standards and serve as role models for other organizational entities, to whom can we turn?

Because CEOs can’t know everything occurring at all levels of large organizations, it’s critically important for the organizational culture to support rapid, accurate information flow. If the CEO isn’t made aware of inappropriate behavior occurring in the organization, changes must occur. Why wasn’t the message delivered to the CEO? Indeed, depending on the answer, changes might need to begin with the CEO. Likewise, if the CEO doesn’t know, then how are trustees supposed to know?

In 2001, Cornell’s former president, Frank Rhodes, wrote, “The university as we know it is the product of the second millennium. It is one of the few institutions that span almost the whole of the millennium itself.”[i] Rhodes focused on several major changes he believed trustees and CEOs would face in the third millennium. At the time, most higher education CEOs believed change would occur, but at a glacial speed. Instead, two decades later, the challenges posited by Rhodes manifested themselves. COVID-19 accelerated the rate of change, bringing higher education leaders face-to-face with the challenges cited by Rhodes. It was a transformational moment for higher education.

In the same publication, while addressing decision-making in higher education during periods of rapid change, James J. Duderstadt, former president of the University of Michigan, emphasized the need for “experienced, responsible, and enlightened university leadership, governance, and management.” Preceding his introduction, he included the following translation to a quote from Machiavelli found in Chapter 6 of The Prince: “There is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful of success, than to step up as a leader in the introduction of change. For he who innovates will have for his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only lukewarm support in those who might be better off under the new.”[ii]


Next Week: Higher Education Boards—Part 5


[i] Frank H. T. Rhodes, “The University at the Millennium: Missions and Responsibilities of Research Universities,” Chapter 1, Governance in Higher Education: The University in a State of Flux, Werner Z. Nirsch and Luc E. Weber, editors, Economica, London, ENGLAND, 2001, p. 3.

[ii] The translation of Machiavelli’s writing is from James M. Duderstadt, “Fire, Ready, Aim! University Decision-Making During an Era of Rapid-Change,” Chapter 3, Governance in Higher Education: The University in a State of Flux, Werner Z. Nirsch and Luc E. Weber, editors, Economica, London, ENGLAND, 2001, p. 26.