Institutions require strong governance the most whenever they are stuck with mediocre or abusive leadership. On the other hand, institutions that are going through an era of sound leadership have a tendency to drop their guard, ignore, and eventually weaken their governance processes.
Leaders who project integrity and inspire trust can get away with anything. University Presidents who have the full confidence of their Boards can rely on their unconditional and sometimes blind support. They, of course, have to earn trust first, but when they do, they can rule supreme.
On the surface, there is no problem whatsoever with such a scenario. Good leadership that warrants minimal oversight seems to be an ideal situation. I claim however, that this route is fraught with risk.
Members of the Board of Governors are always facing decisions regarding issues of university governance. More often than not, we are motivated by a belief that “things are working just fine”, and so this or that “obsolete” set of bylaws are not needed anymore. And indeed, it is exactly when things are working well that we have tendency to start underestimating the values and reasoning behind previously established policies.
The first question I ask myself whenever I am faced with a decision on whether a certain policy should be canceled or altered is, “are we basing our decision on a current but temporary state of affairs, and how would I vote if we had a different administration in charge?” And even if you do have full confidence in a sitting president, it is important to keep asking yourself: what if he/she were not in charge?
For example, delegating all decisions regarding appointments to the President may seem like a good idea if you have full confidence in the intellect and integrity of the person at the helm. But what if the next President happens to have different values, ways and standards, while executing this type of “powers”? These include –by the way—the granting or denying of tenure to faculty members without having to abide by either the recommendations of the candidate’s department and Dean, or those of the Senior Appointment Committee.
Another case in point is the issue of faculty representation on various committees. We may be convinced that calamitous situations will not happen under the current administration, but I have seen enough “stacked committees” over the years that I have advocated for bylaws that guarantee spots for elected members of the rank-and-file.
There are ways to ensure checks and balances. In the first example, the Board has decided to revisit the amendment –on delegating authority for appointments to the President– on a yearly basis.
The Board has also approved by-laws that ensure independent faculty and staff representation on various key committees, such as those appointing the VPs and other members of the Executive.
Still, regardless of what you write in the bylaws, you can never legislate “independent thinking” nor regulate “profiles in courage”. There will never be a shortage of “yes people” to prevent good governance.