University Governance Explained: Board of ‘Submissives’?


Why do higher education board members—even those who have solid conservative credentials on other issues—so quickly turn into the rubberstamping lapdogs of administrators? After all, it is usually the Trustees, Regents, Governors, or Visitors who have the upper hand in university governance, not the other way around.

This unnecessary submission to a higher education establishment that has long worked to increase the reach of government and forward a too-often-ideologically-driven agenda occurs even when university boards have a Republican majority.

In general, Republican statehouse political gains have brought about some market-oriented reform. One notable example is Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker fought—and won—a highly emotional battle to reduce protections for unions in a state with a strong union presence.

One would expect Republican higher education board members to eagerly initiate similar reforms of their own. But, other than some relatively minor tinkering, in the last couple of years reform of public higher education appears to have gone backward rather than forward, even in red states.

An “asymmetry of information” problem explains part of the situation. University system administrators have a staff of fulltime researchers and are inside the system—they know the real story and use it to their advantage, only feeding the part-time board members information that supports the goals of the administration.

But that doesn’t fully explain why so many public university board members are so quick to become little more than lobbyists and fundraisers. If reform was truly a high priority for most board members, they generally have enough power to change the procedures that give administrators such advantages.

There is, unfortunately, another dynamic at play: Republican board members see higher education as they do the corporate environment from which they most often come. As such, academia’s waste and political correctness are perceived to be acceptable “costs” that must be borne to achieve greater “goods,” in the same way that a variety of costs must be borne to achieve profit in the business world.

In public higher education, these perceived goods are economic development and an abundance of skilled labor. Radical professors indoctrinating and confusing some students becomes a bearable cost as long as the university or university system also produce a sufficient number of accounting and engineering graduates to fill the demands of the state economy. If the cost of educating public university students is double what it could be without any loss of quality, that’s okay as long as the university faculty attract stacks of federal research dollars.

The costs can appear particularly bearable since they are largely dispersed throughout the state population, or even throughout the entire nation, but the gains are a mirage. For the two sectors—business and academia—are not truly analogous. The distorting influence of public money is one major difference; the absence of incentives to cut costs is another. Perhaps even more important is a confusion of interests. Whereas a corporation has a single leadership that conducts a single-minded pursuit of profit, in higher education there are three factions that share governance, each of them with different goals.

These differing goals do not necessarily conflict. The administration’s main goal is aggrandizement: an increasing physical plant, an increasing endowment, an increasing enrollment, and, perhaps most of all, a rising reputation. The administration’s aggrandizement policies mesh quite neatly with the business-oriented board’s wishes for more graduates and more research; the result is that the board and the administration become partners rather than separate entities that balance each other out as they were intended to be.

The third party in university governance, the faculty, may sometimes grumble about the school’s increasingly economic focus, but they know that economic development and reputation are powerful selling points to legislators in the struggle to keep state money flowing into university system coffers. And in return for their compliance with the economic development and aggrandizement policies of the other two factions, they are handed the real keys to the university: control over the curriculum and self-control of faculty hiring.

To some, this “grand truce” may seem to be a ménage a trois made in heaven, but higher education’s three-part governance does not work properly without more active board involvement. In public university governance, in which the primary owners of the university are clearly the people of the state with the board representing their interests, the board is supposed to be first among equals and not the administration’s “go-fers.”

There are very good practical reasons why a public university system board accepting the role of junior partner in order to develop the economy is not the best of all possible worlds. For one, it is almost impossible to know higher education’s real relationship to the economy. The officially sanctioned economic impact studies don’t tell the real picture, eschewing marginality and proper perspectives on opportunity costs as they do. And in such a system, with lots of public money and none of the profit motive’s pressure to cut costs and eliminate waste, inefficiency and corruption abound. The board’s failure to serve as the cost-cutting agent in this arrangement permits this to happen.

But the economic benefits and costs pale in comparison to the cultural, moral, and intellectual devastation wrought by the board members’ abdication of their oversight of the course content. Without the board’s moderating influence, the Ivory Tower has developed a tendency toward intellectual inbreeding that has produced excessive conformity, insularity, and politicization. As a result, the twin intellectual errors of the age, multiculturalism and postmodernism, now dominate the American campus with impunity, damaging the entire nation.

If such things are to be seen as “costs,” it is time business-oriented board members understood just how expensive they are. There is little profit in them.

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