Power and Competence

By Aaron Barlow

Last October, Matthew Goldstein, chancellor of the City University of New York, wrote a letter to CUNY faculty in which he claimed: “The authority for the governance of the University on all matters rests with the Board of Trustees. The Board of Trustees has delegated a significant role to the faculty on academic matters, and the faculty have the right to exercise their professional judgment in fulfilling that role. However, the faculty are not empowered to ignore or violate a policy established by the Board of Trustees or the implementation of that policy by the Chancellor.” From a narrow, legalistic standpoint, this statement may be true. In the broader context of actual events and necessities, however, it is impractical. It also ignores the responsibilities toward education that faculty members take on as part of their professional duties. And it raises further questions: Just what functions do these trustees have in making decisions regarding higher education? They may have the power, but do they have the competence?

 It is these questions that we need to be addressing today as American higher education enters a phase of change that may be as great as any it has ever seen. We are faced not only with digital possibilities that are altering the way education is offered but also with renewed and urgent questions concerning the very role of education—especially higher education—in society. If we cannot trust the judgment of those given oversight of our institutions of higher education, we are not going to be able to restructure effectively. If we cannot trust that they will refrain from using their power in areas beyond their competence (few of them are actual educators), our colleges and universities will not be able to develop programs and policies to meet new demands.

 Over the next year, Academe will consider the changing needs of higher education in a global and digital age and how the various constituencies of academic governance are meeting them. In this issue, we start with articles by people who have direct experience with boards of trustees. Hans-Joerg Tiede, a member of the AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance, discusses communication between boards and faculties in the context of AAUP policy; Ronald G. Ehrenberg, a faculty member who served on the Cornell University Board of Trustees, and coauthors Richard W. Patterson and Andrew V. Key present the results of a study of the roles of faculty members on boards; Brian C. Mitchell, former president of Bucknell University, describes how he sees the crisis boards are facing; Sandi Cooper, former chair of the CUNY faculty senate, reflects on her experiences with the CUNY board; Jeffrey L. Buller, a dean at Florida Atlantic University, provides what he hopes will be a starting point for effective reform; and three members of the Cabrini College academic community relate their college’s experience with a reevaluation of shared governance.

 In recent decades, the power to effect change in higher education seems to have slipped through the faculty’s fingers and come to rest, increasingly, in the hands of trustees. Some of these people (especially in public institutions) come from political backgrounds and respond primarily to forces in partisan politics. Others arrive from the corporate world and seek to apply the business model to education, no matter the circumstance. Quite a few are alumni, whose visions of their institutions are often based on nostalgia for their undergraduate days. Too few, unfortunately, are professionals in education themselves. This is unlikely to change. What can change, however, is how the other constituencies of academic governance interact with their boards.

 The way to start is to learn more about boards of trustees.

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