Governance Isn’t Sexy But It’s Essential to Higher Ed Success

In How to Run a College: A Practical Guide for Trustees, Faculty, Administrators and Policymakers, Dr. Joey King and I make a case that colleges must begin to reimagine themselves by rethinking their operating models.

Colleges Must Reduce Dependence on Tuition Revenue

It no longer makes sense to depend so heavily on tuition as the principal source of revenue, especially if most colleges and universities face considerable consumer and political backlash when annual tuition increases rise much more than the rate of inflation.

Higher Ed Governance Model Hinders Creative Solutions

But higher education faces more than a financial problem. We also assert that the governance model is a principal driver behind the inability of colleges to manage their future.

Governance — an unusual mix of trustees, faculty, and administration by most business standards — is generally weak and inefficient.

Trustees are typically the least effective of the three stakeholder groups, with an unclear mandate, a poor understanding of how colleges work, and a scale too large to make nimble contributions on strategy and direction.

Sanctity of “Process” Limits Colleges and Universities

These concerns must be placed within the context of the campus climate. Any understanding of how colleges work begins with an inescapable fact: colleges and universities govern by process.

It’s sometimes how well the process plays out politically on campus that determines whether or not even the best ideas go forward. If the protocols are weak or not in place, it’s a recipe for disaster.

As we work with institutions across the country, one of the biggest concerns expressed, regardless of their size, is that colleges and universities are often a victim of their own internal design.

Governed by process, these institutions are places of campus cultural inertia where the process matters as much as the outcome.

At the weakest campuses, the codification and execution of strategy — a key to the institution’s future — can be a long committee-based effort, governed by an academic calendar that precludes the agility and nimbleness that colleges require to become sustainable in a fiercely competitive market.

Please don’t misinterpret these comments. They are not intended as an attack on process, clarity, or transparency. In fact, the protocol and timeliness must be clear, broadly and regularly communicated, and presented to all affected campus constituencies for their input.

Where Does Process End and Decision-making Begin?

Further, the right group within governance must assume the responsibility for any actions taken on a particular issue. But the process must also permit a timely “call of the question,” so that the policy can be shaped or shifted to shape the direction of the institution.

In an environment where the goal posts are not clearly identified or shift constantly with each new administration or board chair, the effect can be a kind of perpetual chaos exacerbated by a permeating cynicism on campus.

On these campuses, it’s better to take a conservative “wait-and-see” approach to major policy adjustments of people, programs and facilities than to lead the campus charge. In these circumstances, process protects against excesses or bad ideas that might take hold.

In this respect, the macro view is different from the “boots on the ground” reality. This is a point, for example, where the faculty make their best and most original contributions.

Only Faculty Can Lead Educational Enterprise

The faculty is the incubator of ideas, whether in teaching or research. Boards can empower faculty. Administrations can facilitate dialogue, identify funding, and mandate assessment. Presidents must shape the institutional agenda to permit these good ideas to go forward. But only the faculty can lead the educational enterprise effectively.

That’s why it’s so important to work through any deficiencies in governance.

Each governing group — faculty, trustees, administration — must understand its role clearly and be willing to accept its interrelated responsibility in shared campus governance.

The relationship can and should periodically exhibit a healthy skepticism. But skepticism is different from cynicism. That’s where the process by which policy decisions are made is critical.

Good policy typically occurs when the loudest voices don’t prevail.

The best policy comes from an understanding of its need, a transparent and timely discussion with clear deadlines, and a willingness of a campus to accept change broadly supported.

The colleges and universities best positioned to survive in the 21st century will be those that have a collective “clear head” about the marketplace and challenges they face.

They won’t necessarily be the oldest or best endowed institutions. Some of these will atrophy while others will merge or be acquired.

But the way to a sustainable future is to call the question on why colleges should continue to operate in a way that will not work for them going forward.

Those that prosper best will seek a campus community solution.

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