The sensational headlines surrounding the recent scandal at Michigan State University (MSU) have overshadowed another problem that deserves the attention of governing boards: the lack of a respectful working relationship between MSU’s board of trustees and the university’s faculty. While both the board and faculty have roles to play in healing the community and restoring the university’s reputation, the two groups have not worked together constructively. The MSU board consulted with faculty representatives but ignored faculty advice when selecting an interim president for the university. In response, MSU faculty held campus demonstrations criticizing the board’s performance, and the faculty senate overwhelmingly passed a resolution of no confidence in the board of trustees. Throughout this unfortunate situation, the board and faculty have functioned quite independently and have missed opportunities to reap the benefits that could come from respectful relationships, regular communication, and collaboration to resolve challenging issues.
Faculty and board members are key players in today’s challenging higher education enterprise. Their work is critical to the performance, adaptability, and success of the college or university they serve. Institutions cannot perform effectively or adapt adequately to changing conditions if these important stakeholders do not communicate, understand each other’s roles, and find ways to work together in support of their institution’s larger mission.
One need not search far to see how dysfunctional board-faculty relationships contribute to situations where reputations are tarnished and institutional resources are diminished. In addition to the scandal at MSU (an institution where I have served as a faculty member for 16 years), events at the University of Virginia (UVA) and Hope College have brought into sharp relief the collateral damage that can ensue when boards and faculty fail to communicate, misunderstand the key role each group plays in the mission of the institution, or make decisions without sufficient consultation.
Healthy board-faculty relationships, while always important, are even more essential today. Higher education is moving at a fast pace, seeking to bring new innovation to educational delivery and create greater access, all in an environment where the very value of postsecondary education is under intense scrutiny. As institutions make rapid decisions about programs, policies, and the proper distribution of limited resources, respectful relationships, open lines of communication, and team problem-solving are essential.
This is not to say board-faculty relationships have ever been close or particularly easy despite the importance of these stakeholders valuing, communicating with, and understanding each other. As I wrote in a 2012 Trusteeship article, trustees and faculty members come from different worlds and have different experiences, areas of expertise, skills, and responsibilities. It is no surprise faculty and trustees see many issues differently and disagree, at least initially, on how best to address complex problems. In spite of the quite natural tension or conflict that occurs between trustees and faculty, it is imperative that these two important groups learn to communicate effectively and work together productively in support of their shared interests—their institution and its students.
Higher education developments and trends in recent years make board-faculty communication and collaboration more challenging at the same time they have become even more critical to the well-being of colleges and universities. The shift from predominantly tenure-track positions to a large percentage of part-time and full-time non-tenure-track appointments means fewer faculty have the longer-term institutional knowledge and presence to become acquainted with board members and develop the trusting relationships needed to resolve challenging problems that can torment institutions today.
Moreover, changes in the value and reward structure of the academic profession at many higher education institutions make interacting and working with board members or board committees a lower priority task for many faculty members. As Daniel Scott and Adrianna Kezar wrote in a January/February 2018 Trusteeship article, the dominant tenure-track faculty model puts heavy emphasis on research and publication while discounting the importance of other faculty roles such as teaching, institutional service, and civic engagement. The same is true for active involvement in the shared governance system that is such an important component of the decision-making system of colleges and universities. Many junior and midcareer faculty prioritize their scholarship, articles for publication, and grant applications because they know this is how they will be evaluated and rewarded when they come up for tenure, promotion, and salary increments. Time invested in governance, leadership, and even socializing with trustees is time diverted from these high-priority faculty tasks that can advance professors’ careers and burnish their reputations.
Contingent faculty, whether full- or part-time, lack incentives to engage with trustees. Often, their prescribed duties focus solely on teaching or research. And despite the vital roles contingent faculty play in higher education today, they are not expected to become involved with governance or engage with trustees at receptions, committee meetings, or other venues. Nor does their modest compensation recognize such engagement.
For their part, board members, particularly in the first few years of their service, can be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of issues that come before them and may not find faculty relationships among their highest priorities. In fact, the AGB 2017 Trustee Index, a nationwide survey of higher education governing board members conducted in partnership with Gallup, found that trustees considered faculty to be chief among the obstacles to innovation at their institutions.
GROUND RULES FOR COMMUNICATION AND COLLABORATION
Given the conditions that are testing and transforming higher education, it is especially important to have clear ground rules to facilitate good communication and effective collaboration between faculty members and their institution’s board of trustees. These ground rules include guidance on what to do and what not to do as these two important stakeholder groups endeavor to work together for the good of their institution, its students, and other constituents.
THINGS TO DO
Acknowledge that the board and faculty each has a legitimate role in the enterprise of a college or university. Legally, the board is the college or university it governs, and it has the fiduciary responsibility to make strategic decisions that can determine university operations. As a practical matter, however, a board must delegate some key operational roles to other players—administrators and faculty—who have the expertise, experience, and time to make important technical and educational decisions. This does not diminish a board’s ultimate responsibility for guiding an institution. But it does acknowledge that a board needs help to execute its duties effectively, especially in a rapidly changing educational environment.
The leadership crisis at UVA in 2012 showed how a board that discounted or was unaware of the importance of other constituencies like students and faculty can make deeply flawed decisions that can jeopardize the well-being of an institution. In this case, the UVA board fired the university’s popular president. In response, the UVA faculty, aware that they had a legitimate role in institutional governance and potent sources of power, launched a counter campaign to overrule the board’s hasty personnel decision. The negative national publicity that resulted from this poorly planned ouster, as well as intense pressure from faculty and student groups, led to the reinstatement of the president.
A similar situation unfolded at Hope College in 2016 when the board was preparing to dismiss the president. Swift negative reactions from faculty, students, and some alumni caused the board to slow down its dismissal process and take more time to make its decision. Eventually the president left to head up another private college. In the meantime, Hope was the focus of national publicity that did not reflect positively on the institution and especially its board of trustees.
Both of these unfortunate situations could have been avoided with closer communication between the board and the stakeholder groups a board is commissioned to serve. The lesson here is clear. By respecting the important roles of faculty and other interest groups, boards can ensure the shared governance system that is a defining attribute of higher education in the United States works effectively.
Recognize that trustees and faculty are allies, not adversaries. Trustees’ and professors’ differing roles and perspectives on their institution may foster occasional tension and conflict. However, acknowledging that both groups are key players on the same team can lead to better decisions. If managed properly, these differences can promote greater understanding of contemporary challenges as well as creative problem solving. For example, in the UVA case, focused dialogue between the board and faculty representatives could have provided a more nuanced and realistic understanding of the actions required to integrate more technology-based instruction into the university’s academic programs. With such meaningful discourse, the outcome might not have been the untimely termination of the president. Rather, the result could have been the collaborative development of a strategy to move a tradition-bound university more quickly to adopt new technologyassisted educational practices.
Hiram College, where I serve as a trustee, recently engaged in a challenging strategic academic realignment process that will result in some major program changes. Trustees strongly supported this process while some faculty vigorously opposed it. Fortunately, a tradition of regular board-faculty dinner discussions at each board meeting kept the lines of communication open, encouraged frank dialogue, and preserved a healthy board-faculty relationship that will be essential for the college to implement new program initiatives successfully. These regular meetings reinforce the common view at Hiram that trustees and faculty share a common cause even though we may not always agree on the best way to advance the college’s interests.
Ideally, thoughtful board-faculty dialogue can lead to more realistic policies and practices that do not ignore or overlook the complexities of difficult educational and organizational problems. Trustees and faculty members each have distinctive points of view that should be considered when a difficult problem such as tuition policy or student attrition is considered. When each group values the knowledge and insights of the other and engages it in dialogue, the institution they both serve is the principal beneficiary.
Get to know each other. Communication and collaboration are more likely to flourish when the parties involved know each other. However, to many professors, trustees are a vague presence that comes to campus periodically to set tuition policy or approve the annual budget. Similarly, trustees may regard faculty as an ill-defined collective. Many trustees have limited knowledge of the complex mix of variables that shape different professors’ resource needs and opinions on academic matters.
To help trustees and faculty get better acquainted, it is important to have opportunities throughout the year when board members and faculty can meet, get to know each other as individuals, and discuss common interests and concerns. Often, board members only see faculty when professors give formal presentations at board meetings. This kind of board-faculty interaction is important, but it should be supplemented by opportunities for board and faculty members to converse informally, learn more about each other, and discuss common concerns. Informal events such as public forums, receptions, or parties that bring board members and faculty together on a regular basis can facilitate communication and even inspire board-faculty collaboration around issues of common concern.
For example, at Hiram College, faculty members and a small number of trustees recently worked together to implement a groundbreaking new initiative to integrate mindful use of technology into the college’s curriculum and co-curricular programs. This initiative would not have been executed so quickly or proven so transformational without the close collaboration of the college’s faculty, trustees, and administrators.
Meet the faculty on their turf. Visiting with faculty members in their offices, departments, laboratories, or even in their field work settings will enhance board members’ appreciation and understanding of the work faculty members do. Visiting academic facilities on and off campus can better inform trustees of their institution’s diverse academic programs and the resources needed to sustain them. It also shows respect for the contributions professors make to advancing the institution’s mission. Essentially, it sends the message that trustees care, wish to learn more about diverse academic areas, and respect the work faculty members do.
Such visits also give faculty the opportunity to get better acquainted with trustees and their perspective on the institution. When trustees make the extra effort to meet faculty in their working environment, they help to nourish a healthy board-faculty relationship that can be an important part of a strong, vital institutional community.
Invite faculty to make presentations to the board. This is another way to promote meaningful board-faculty dialogue and cooperation. It also conveys the message the board places so much value on the work of faculty that it reserves time on its meeting agenda to hear from and converse with faculty members. Asking professors to share exciting new research findings or demonstrate how they use technology to promote learning in their field can help board members better appreciate the core work of their institution while also giving public recognition to some of its faculty members.
Identify common board-faculty concerns and collaborate. Many educational issues, such as student debt or low graduation rates, concern both boards and faculty. Coming together to work on a task force or ad hoc committee to study a problem, raise the visibility of an important issue, or locate needed resources can enlist trustees and faculty in a common cause that serves their shared interests, including students and the institution as a whole.
Incentivize and recognize faculty-board cooperation. Institutions can show they value board-faculty collaboration by providing release time or offering modest honoraria for substantial faculty investment in special projects the board views as high priority, giving award citations, and recognizing board-faculty collaboration in promotion and merit pay guidelines. As long as faculty members feel time communicating with board members is not valued by their departments and institutions, they will choose not to invest their time in activities that could help their institution work more effectively and adapt to a changing educational environment. Policies and practices that demonstrate an institution values board-faculty cooperation should help to reverse this pattern.
Keep the institution’s leadership in the loop. Trustees and faculty should work to support the efforts of their institution’s executive leadership, never apart from it or at cross purposes. It is important to keep senior leadership, especially the president and board chair, informed of boardfaculty communication on important issues and any joint projects of board members and faculty.
THINGS NOT TO DO
There are few negatives associated with board-faculty communication and collaboration. In most cases, interchange among professors and trustees will enhance mutual understanding and lead to better informed decisions and policies. For this reason, this list of things not to do is shorter than the list of things to do. Just the same, it is important to promote board-faculty relationships with discretion and avoid mistakes that can lead to unintended consequences.
Don’t assume your stakeholder group has a monopoly on insight or authority. Boards of trustees have authority to take nearly unilateral action on strategic institutional matters that pertain to their roles as fiduciaries. Similarly, faculty have often had free rein on academic matters such as curriculum content and graduation requirements. Despite their different spheres of influence, both trustees and faculty have important perspectives on many key issues facing higher education institutions today. Whether the subject is academic, financial, or strategic, both groups most likely have some valuable information to share that can enhance the quality of decisions or policies. The best, most workable decisions often emerge from open sharing of information and respectful dialogue. This does not mean that faculty and trustees must weigh in on every matter facing their college or university. However, it does mean that each group should be respectful of the other’s opinions and leave the door open for discussion when either faculty or board members want to communicate.
Don’t exclude the faculty from decisions where their input is vital. Faculty members have particularly valuable perspectives on educational issues, student life, co-curricular activities, and many other topics that are important to the effective operation of a college or university. Many of these topics have significant financial implications, an area where trustees usually have the last word. Often academic matters and finances cannot be addressed satisfactorily independent of each other. Boards would be remiss to make important financial or resource decisions or set policy without consulting faculty who have a key role in implementing academic initiatives and reforms.
Don’t overstep your authority. No board or faculty member represents his or her entire group. When interacting with other stakeholders, these individuals may gather information, hear opinions, and express their personal views. However, they should not speak for their colleagues as a whole. It is especially important for board members to understand they do not have independent authority. They may not make any commitments to faculty or other constituencies without the approval of the board as a whole or its executive committee.
STRATEGIES FOR LONG-TERM SUCCESS
As academic governance issues become more complex and the pace of change accelerates, pressures increase to move more decisions into the hands of a few senior executives and an institution’s board. This approach to decision making may be expedient in the short term. However, it can lead to long-term negative consequences if the resulting decisions overlook the complexities of educational problems or lack the information base required to make nuanced judgments or craft thoughtful policies.
Engaging trustees and faculty in dialogue, information exchange, and collaboration around common concerns is a better approach to addressing the complex problems that confront higher education institutions today. By following a few ground rules for communication and collaboration, boards and faculty can help to strengthen their relationship and enhance the wellbeing of the institutions they serve. The aftermath of the leadership crisis at UVA exemplifies this important synergy.
Six years have passed since the UVA board of visitors fired and reinstated President Teresa Sullivan. None of the current board members were part of the governing board in 2012, and as the university welcomed its ninth president, James E. Ryan, on Aug. 1 of this year, a new era of board engagement with faculty also has emerged. Under the leadership of former rectors William Goodwin and George Martin, the board of visitors in 2014 adopted a resolution providing faculty representation on the board—a first in the university’s modern history. According to the current rector, Frank “Rusty” Conner III, Goodwin and Martin were instrumental in implementing both formal and informal processes for outreach to the faculty, a tradition Conner says he has continued to foster in his nowcompleted first year as rector.
“You don’t even debate the merits of a decision if the process itself is flawed,” says Conner, who was appointed to the board in 2014. “After Terry’s reinstatement, the board was anxious to see how the process could be fixed. My sense now is that there is a level of trust being built, that people know one another and respect their appropriate roles.”
“It’s like a marriage. It always needs work,” says Margaret “Mimi” Riley, the current faculty representative to the board and a professor of law with appointments in UVA’s schools of law, medicine, and leadership and public policy. Reflecting on the non-voting status of the faculty representative, she says, “A voice is so much more important than a vote.”
While both Conner and Riley are cautious in their assessment of the new relationship and careful to avoid complacency, both agree: “We are stronger now.”