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Text Governing boards below string puppet hands

In concluding my coverage of challenges governing board members face in higher education organizations, I address the increasing role politicians are playing in public universities and the importance of trustees knowing and respecting boundaries.

Role of Politicians in Public Universities

In 2001, James M. Duderstadt, former president of the University of Michigan, noted, “The politics swirling about governing boards, particularly in public universities, not only distracts from their important responsibilities and stewardship, but also discourages many of our most experienced, talented, and dedicated citizens from serving on these bodies. The increasing intrusion of state and federal government in the affairs of the university, in the name of performance and public accountability, but all too frequently driven by political opportunism can trample on academic values and micromanage many institutions into mediocrity.”[i]

Addressing the challenges of decision-making in higher education Duderstadt observed, “The most difficult decisions are those concerning institutional transformation. Experience suggests that major change in higher education is usually driven by forces from outside the academy.”[ii]

When I read Duderstadt’s comments, I believed he was overstating the challenges. However, time has proven him to be correct and me to be wrong. In contemplating the future of higher education, I’ve realized that politicians have pushed Humpty Dumpty off the wall and I’m not convinced that “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” can “put Humpty together again.” If so, I believe Humpty will look quite different from the Humpty of old.

As challenging as it is to put toothpaste back in the tube, it’ll be more challenging for future politicians to distance themselves from governing higher education institutions by returning to a noses in, fingers out approach advocated by Cornell’s former president, Frank Rhodes. I anticipate the result will be a strengthening of private universities and a weakening of public universities as top-flight faculty members gravitate to private universities and, in doing so, attract the best and brightest students.

Knowing and Respecting Boundaries

Returning to Frank Rhodes’ noses in, fingers out advice, it’s important for governing board members to understand the limits of their authority and responsibility. While it’s challenging for directors to do so, it’s more challenging for trustees. Why? Because of fundamental differences in the governance of corporations and universities. For the latter, faculty governance has been the Holy Grail. Those outside the hallowed halls of academe don’t realize where real power resides in the university; it’s with members of the faculty, not administrators.

Within a university, a separation of powers exists. Administrators control many things, but when it comes to the curriculum and graduation requirements, faculty members have been in charge. My attempts to explain this to UA trustees, fell on deaf ears, as the following example demonstrates.

Following a losing football game, UA’s head coach told a trustee he couldn’t recruit several players on the winning team because they attended junior colleges and received grades of D. UA didn’t allow credit for a course to be transferred if a student received a grade of D in the course; the winning university allowed D-grades to transfer. Soon afterward, UA trustees were considering requiring D-grades to be accepted when a student transferred to our campus.

UA trustees met on our campus to obtain feedback regarding the transfer of D-grades. I spoke against the trustees’ requirement of a change in the academic requirements, because I believed trustees were over-stepping their authority. My argument was based on a separation of powers, not because I believed transferring D-grades would adversely affect the academic reputation of the university.

Having served on the Georgia Tech faculty for 22 years, I knew how widely respected it was for its academic rigor. I informed trustees that Georgia Tech allowed D-grades to transfer because faculty members believed if students aren’t capable of performing well in courses, they won’t graduate. Regardless, trustees passed a motion allowing D-grades to transfer.

Because academic requirements for athletes must be the same as requirements for other students, transfer credit for D-grades applied to all students transferring to the university. Following their action, trustees requested annual reports on the number of students admitted to the university and given transfer credit for grades of D.

For the years during which the report was prepared, hundreds of students were given transfer credit for D-grades. However, only three athletes received transfer credit for D-grades: one female basketball player and one male and one female track team member. Not a single football player transferred a D-grade.

Currently, as directed by the legislature, trustees in Florida are involved in determining what’s being taught and how it’s being taught. The faculty governance boundary has been breached. Faculty members are leaving universities and the recruitment of new faculty members has become more difficult for higher education organizations in Florida. Stay tuned to find out who prevails, politicians or educators. In the long run, I’m putting my money on educators.  

Next Week: Challenges for Nonprofit Boards—Part 1

[i] 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, pp. 26-27.

[ii] Ibid, p. 46.