University governance: From UBC to the University of Virginia and back

 “What’s happening at the University of Virginia is surreal, a real estate developer is now running the place,” wrote Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at NYU. At the same time, UBC, normally at the receiving end of this kind of statement, was being commended by the editors of GlobalHigherEd on Twitter and in their magazine Coincidentally, the news of the Board-induced mess at the University of Virginia emerged as I was posting a –some say uncharacteristically– flattering report on the latest Board of Governors meeting at UBC. GlobalHigherEd was crediting the diversity of the representation at the UBC Board and comparing it to U. Virginia’s “patently unbalanced and inward-oriented board, drawing from a very narrow segment of society”. What really cracked open the system at UVa? and is the UBC model of shared governance an antidote to the current upheaval encountered by post-secondary institutions?

Teresa Sullivan is now back to her position as President of U. Virginia, but the debate on what caused the chain of events there continues. In any case, what occurred there is hardly an isolated phenomenon (Remember Concordia, Oregon, Madison, Illinois, Austin, etc … while awaiting for the news from Berkeley to come out soon).

A number of factors seem to be at play here. The reduction in financial support from the states in the US, and to a lesser extent from the provinces in Canada, is clearly making university administrators feel the heat. And there seem to be rising expectations that universities need to metamorphose overnight. The latest most publicized expectation –which is making many Boards nervous– is for universities to achieve dramatic improvement in learning productivity, while drastically reducing costs, supposedly by exploiting modern technology.

Some argue that the problems originated because “wealthy board members, echoing the politicians who appointed them (after massive campaign donations) too often believe that universities should be run like businesses, despite the poor record of most actual businesses in human history.”

Others believe that there is an even more global and sinister plot at play, one orchestrated on behalf of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), a nonprofit organization, “founded in 1995 as a counterbalance to perceived liberal leanings among faculty and college presidents,” which is spearheading a kind of “madrassas” for University Board members all over North America.

In a Washington Post article entitled, “Are Va. college trustees groomed for activism?” Daniel de Vise reported that Helen Dragas, the Chair of the University of Virginia Board behind the attempted sacking of Sullivan, had essentially been brainwashed during an orientation meeting led by Anne Neal, the President of ACTA.

“Neal and her group urge governing boards and alumni to get actively involved with their presidents and faculty, even if it means exercising their power to remove a president from the job.” She also “opposes listless, powerless, “potted plant” trustees who feel helpless to question the presidents they hire.”

For Melonie Fullick, the conflict at U. Virginia is primarily about transparency and agency in organizational change, about openness of the governance process, but also about inclusivity, i.e., who should be involved in making governance decisions in the university.

In their recent article describing, “The Precarious Profession of University President”, Gary C. Fethke and Andrew J. Policano seem to put the blame squarely on shared governance structures. “In public higher education, all claim to be the decision maker.” Only business deans –which Fethke and Policano are, or used to be– could sell the notion that “any criticism is immediately diverted to the governing process itself rather than to a discussion of the substantive issues. This is the expected response of the shared-governance structure, and conflict over control nearly always prevails.”  They never mention that the situation is inherently asymmetric, and that “criticism” seems to be always going in one direction: “Strong” Boards or/and sometimes “ideological” legislatures  having a go at prevalent academic cultures.

As mentioned above, Global HigherEd compared the composition of the Board of U. Virginia to UBC’s to try to extract some lessons for university governance. For its editor, Kris Olds, it is the lack of diversity on the Board of U. Virginia, which is behind the “fiasco”. “It is simply foolhardy to assume governance systems can and should exclude those being governed, not to mention those being served (including significant student representation given fast rising proportions of revenue via tuition fees). Like it or not, only shared governance and “a diversity of backgrounds” at the university board level, will enhance understandings of organizational dynamics in universities, and enable ideas floated in board contexts to be critically evaluated before decisions occur.”

In principle, Kris is of course right about the importance of including all university stakeholders in the decision making process, and Boards (not Senates) are definitely the places where the most important institutional decisions are made. However, my first hand experience on the UBC Board has taught me that Board dynamics are extremely complex; and come down to much more than simply the backgrounds of their membership.

To start with, I am not really sure whether Board members always know where exactly their duties start and where they end. They know, of course, that they are fiduciaries and stewards of the institution’s performance, but many are unaware that this is a minimal threshold of good governance and not the ultimate in good governance. Some of them over-reach and tend to wield power with more force and influence, but the majority is often less engaged.

Most of the non-academic members are used to function according to “business models”, exactly what Universities do not have. As was put eloquently by Siva Vaidhyanathan, many of them think of universities as a collection of market transactions, instead of “a dynamic tapestry of creativity, experimentation, rigorous thought, preservation, recreation, vision, critical debate, contemplative spaces, powerful information sources, invention, and immeasurable human capital.” 

Then there is the “human” factor – one I find frustratingly immeasurable as a mathematician. The efficiency, direction and overall atmosphere of any given board can at times come down to the sheer force of personalities – and for this reason no matter what kind of “balance” is sought out among sectors and fields when forming them, they will always be unpredictable. Individuals do not always fill their expected roles.

I have witnessed Boards where student representatives are “more royalists than the King,” even lobbying for tuition fee increases. I have seen faculty members who are as “neo-liberal” as one can get. I have seen politically appointed Board members who are as close to being “thought leaders” as the circumstances allow, and sometimes I have seen myself forcefully demanding a … business plan.

It is true that faculty representatives have the advantage of living the university experience, and their immersion in the academic life allows them a more thorough understanding of what are the university’s academic priorities. But appointed private sector members of the Board obviously have expertise that we academics lack and conversely when it comes to university issues.

The reality is that Boards perform as well as the members who serve them – be they from the business world, academia, the real estate industry or the public service sector. Considering what we’re seeing out there, I sure am fortunate to be serving on a Board such as UBC’s – one which seems to have enough room for all of us.

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