The Rules of the Game in College Governance

One of the most vexing problems facing American higher education is how to evolve its governance structure to match the enormous changes sweeping across the college and university community today.

Governance is a three-legged stool comprised of trustees, faculty and administration. At most institutions, governance is the weakest link in the implementation of an ambitious strategic plan in part because the mechanisms that shape its practice are products of two centuries of tradition. Politics and process dominate governance, with each "seat of government" operating on a different set of timelines, priorities and sense of urgency.

At the most confident and mature institutions, the process can work reasonably well. At the weakest ones, governance is messy, procedurally driven, and breeds a healthy skepticism about motivation, ideology, and outcomes. It's an opportunity to take principled positions, or in the worst cases, simply to oppose on principle.

By design, governance is decentralized. The internal dynamics can be shaped over issues like transparency vs. privacy, with one governance group pitted against another - depending upon the group and institution - as "truth to power." There is seldom recognition that the checks-and-balance system built into college governance shares power, even if the perception is that one group is subordinate to the other.

The lack of well-educated trustees on college issues - part-time volunteers with full-time oversight - exacerbates this problem. For the most part, the board of trustees is too large, with much of the growth attributable to the need to find, keep and honor donors for a college's comprehensive campaign. Without an effective nominations process, colleges and universities sometimes reap what they sow.

In these cases, boards can become problematic, no matter how well they present a public face to acceditors and the college's stakeholders. In a large, unwieldy board, especially those with dominating trustees or weak chairs, factions can develop from within that can shape a college's direction. There are numerous examples of subgroups of "athletes," "finance wizards," "ideologues," "human relations/efficiency experts" and "Greeks" across American higher education that directly impact policy, sometimes detrimentally.

It makes the role of the board chair absolutely critical. Only a strong, effective board chair can mediate among these groups to keep the balance of power in check to support each group, without prejudicing one over the other.

If the board of trustees is the subject of political jockeying, all bets are off.

Beyond the governance group, there are additional stakeholders who impact governance, beginning with the students. At some institutions, traditions develop that place students on the board. At most, however, students play advisory roles.

The two other groups that most directly affect governance are parents and alumni. Both come at governance from a different vantage point.

Parents may be better educated than most trustees about how a college is doing. They pay the bills and have a vested interest in lining up behind change, timed to their child's attendance. They often know more about social conditions, for example, than most administrators and trustees.

Parents are especially interesting because most approach the college as investors and boosters. At the weakest institutions, boards see a need to "control" parents, and especially parents' boards, the way that a stern parent might with an unruly child. If the board's relationship with parents does not run directly through the president's office assume that the parents are appreciated for their wealth over their opinion, whatever the public message.

What to do with alumni can be an especially difficult problem to address. Alumni connections to the college are less direct and immediate than that of parents. They are often spread out globally. Many receive their information through some combination of the college's communications, the sports information director, social media and their informal networks of alumni friends. It's where rumors go to thrive.

Yet alumni can be an extremely valuable resource. They understand the college better than administrators, almost as well as faculty, and significantly better than trustees, most of whom are considerably older and more removed than younger alumni are from their college experience.

Alumni contribute - sometimes mightily at places like Wellesley and Washington & Lee - to annual funds and capital campaigns. But as with parents, they are the "loudest and proudest" proponents of an institution attempting to build momentum.

The governance problem must be addressed more directly given the growing pressures colleges and universities face. It's a tricky business because the new governance models will likely require all groups - including stakeholder advisors like parents and alumni - to "play up."

For boards of trustees, the key is education. They cannot manage final oversight if they are the least informed among the governing groups. The board chair must set the agenda. The best boards stand steadfastly and confidently behind the faculty and administration. A few of them will find a way to sharpen and differentiate the role of parents and alumni, welcoming both groups into the inner circle as thought partners.

For the rest of American colleges and universities, it's likely to be "same old . . . same old." You can't correct a governance problem, after all, if you don't know or won't accept that the problem exists.