THE BLOG
09/24/2012 11:43 am ET Updated Nov 24, 2012

Governing Higher Ed Through Balance: Why Cultivating Collaboration Is Crucial, Now More Than Ever

The deep-seated vein of anti-intellectualism that runs through American culture has subtle effects as well as blatant ones -- and I think, could help explain the recent spate of dramatic failures in university governance.

Too often, the trustees who serve on university boards see little value to be gained from faculty input on many major decisions that affect the institution. They are influenced -- often unconsciously -- by the widespread erroneous view of university faculty as impractical specialists who have little to contribute to the "business" of the institution. These same faculty who manage large laboratories, analyze and forecast broad social and economic phenomena, cure diseases, and figure out how to put mobile vehicles on Mars are somehow perceived as incapable of discerning educational trends or recommending organizational changes to adapt to them.

As market pressures drive universities to adopt strategies focused on efficiency and the bottom line, conflicts can lead to suspicion and mistrust between faculty and trustees.

To enhance economic stability or reputational advantage, trustees often feel driven to act quickly and decisively. At times they do not even think of consulting the faculty on matters they consider to be the "business" of the university.

Faculty, for their part, may perceive trustees as having little knowledge of, or regard for, the values and standards of higher education. Often they suspect trustees may be too influenced by personal or political agendas.

Both of these views are unfortunate because the "business" of the university is not separable from its core mission, values, and standards. Two heads really are better than one in this instance, and trustees must ensure that full and meaningful consultation with the faculty occurs. For academic institutions to thrive, it is crucial that all voices be heard. We must commit to cultivating collaboration between the business leaders who sit on our boards, and the academic experts who serve in our classrooms.

This past year, a number of widely publicized university governance missteps have highlighted the danger of boards making decisions without consulting the larger university community. Such a lack of consultation is often a way of sidestepping the tensions in governing such complex institutions -- and the tensions are many. Universities exist in a market-driven economy, but their chief product -- educated global citizens -- does not have an easily determined market value.

Universities are often governed by boards heavy with business experience, but their core mission is not increased profit for shareholders. It is the less tangible ideal of providing students with the knowledge, skills, and values to make meaningful contributions to society. Boards most often contain loyal alumni whose cherished memories (athletics, fraternities, and other on-campus experiences) are seen by the faculty as peripheral and sometimes inimical to educational standards and values.

Most trustees do act in what they believe is the best interest of the university. But good intentions and partially relevant experience are not enough. Without faculty input, trustees risk proposing courses of action that conflict with the values and mission of the college. A good board should want faculty input, not for appearance's sake, but for the extensive information and creative insight available from the faculty.

There are little data to support the perception that academics resist change, as Robert Birnbaum has shown. In curricular matters, faculty are, in fact, the primary agents of change, consistently responding appropriately to changes in the society. Yes, faculty are sometimes maddeningly slow and deliberative, but this is not a problem -- it is a virtue. It helps universities avoid hopping on every passing bandwagon and embracing the ever-changing (and often costly and ineffective) popular fixes of the day. There is great value in being appropriately deliberative when dealing with something as important as the education of undergraduates.

Great boards recognize the difference that David Leslie has pointed out between a good governance structure (which properly gives them the ultimate authority over all aspects of the college) and good governing (in which boards defer some of that decision-making to internal groups or individuals that have far more expertise than they). Boards need an information-driven governing process that operates within a culture of collaboration -- among themselves, with the president, and with the faculty. Making decisions too quickly or in isolation often erodes core institutional values.

Boards of trustees and faculty have a common goal: ensuring the progress and best interests of the university. Rather than working at cross-purposes and conceiving the shared structure as a battle of the MBAs versus the PhDs, trustees and faculty must recognize that each brings great value to the table. Trustees bring important organizational, risk management, legal, and fiscal skills, while faculty members offer long-term institutional knowledge, expertise, intellectual creativity, and -- most importantly -- deep-seated educational values. We need to draw on the combined strengths of America's brightest in business and in academia. Great boards make sure that we do.

I am fortunate to have one of those great boards. If every college president did, innovation on campus would not only be more possible, but more sustainable, because change would incorporate the preservation of core values and mission.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.