By Holden Thorp and Buck Goldstein
We are honored to help introduce an ambitious series of articles on university governance and hopefully begin an important conversation that directly impacts the future of higher education in the United States. Over the last decade, we have been intimately involved in the subject as both authors and practitioners, writing two books on the subject and serving in leadership roles at our universities.
A conversation on university governance couldnāt come at a more opportune time. Faith in higher education is eroding at an alarming rate. Some of the reasons for this trend include the following:
Universities are falling short of public expectations. Some of the matters that have produced this impression include the headline-dominating Varsity Blues admissions scandal and the ongoing problems of sexual violence, financial compliance, foreign interference in research, athletic misconduct, and battles over free speech.
Less than 50% of young people believe that a college degree is worth it despite evidence to the contrary. Few schools have fully dealt with the expectation that a college degree should come with both a good education and a good job. Combined with rising debt levels, particularly for students who drop out, too many students and families feel like there is a disconnect between their needs and the collegeās purpose.
And long-standing ideological differences continue. Colleges have traditionally embraced dissent and protest ā which has led to many advances for American society. But as Democrats criticize colleges for the costs and debt levels and Republicans criticize them for campus politics, it is increasingly difficult for higher education to remind the public of its fundamental benefits to society.
The impacts of these trends have been devastating: The average tenure of presidents and provosts has continued to decrease and hardly a week goes by without a high-profile leader announcing their resignation, often in the midst of highly visible public acrimony.
These difficulties are nothing new. Bart Giamatti described his job as Yale President as āno way for an adult to make a living. Itās a nineteenth century ecclesiastical position on top of a 21st century corporation.ā But whatās different now is the speed with which governing boards are forced to act and the greatly increased influence of electoral politics in the process.
Holden Thorp is a former Chancellor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Provost of Washington University in St. Louis. He is now Editor-in-Chief of Science Magazine. Buck Goldstein is Professor of the Practice in the School of Education and University Entrepreneur In Residence at UNC Chapel Hill.