By Holden Thorp and Buck Goldstein
Culture is always more important than structure. You can organize, rearrange, and re-engineer indefinitely, but if the underlying culture of an institution is inconsistent with its mission and aspirations, it will ultimately be dysfunctional. This is true for the internal workings of any college or university, but it is equally important when it comes to university governance.
Aligning culture and structure is difficult, even where there is a common understanding between the administrators and the board about how things work. But universities are far from simple, and the sheer diversity of stakeholders and missions makes it highly volatile.
With that in mind, we offer the following principles for reform for board members to consider when debating and creating university governance structures.
Recognize and Respect Expertise: Governing boards must recognize that higher education is a highly specialized endeavor requiring significant expertise, experience, and understanding. When we asked one long-serving trustee what it takes to understand how a university works, he stated, ‚ÄúI hope I live that long.‚ÄĚ
The details of very specific areas, such as research compliance, information technology operations, technology transfer, export controls, health care finance, student affairs compliance, take years to master. Beyond that, the fundamental ideals of shared governance, tenure, and academic freedom are indispensable advantages of the American higher education system. Creating structures for educating and preparing trustees about the unique complexities of universities must be a priority.
Clarify the Public Partnership: We understand the fundamental partnership between American higher education and the public as follows: In exchange for extraordinary freedom to teach and conduct research, schools must prepare students for a productive and meaningful life and create new knowledge that benefits their communities, their countries, and the world.
This understanding is highly motivating ‚Äď though seldom clearly articulated — for much of the campus community. If a governing board disagrees with this partnership, that must be discussed and debated. Without common agreement on the nature of this foundational partnership, it is impossible to build a high-performing culture that is required for colleges and universities to survive and prosper, and it is assured that major board-campus conflict will ensue.
Embrace Institutional Constituencies: University governance must reflect the constituencies the institution seeks to serve. The charter of the University of North Carolina called on us to ‚Äúconsult the happiness of a rising generation.‚ÄĚ In today‚Äôs world, the rising generation is one that is no longer mostly white men.
Effective governing boards must therefore include a significant number of women and people of color if they expect to be treated with seriousness by the campus and the public at large. Governing boards themselves are aware of this problem but corrective action has not been forthcoming. Many of the divisive conflicts over identity politics on campus have been exacerbated by the lack of diversity on governing boards.
Appreciate System Complexity: Any approach to university governance must give attention to the complexity of the governance system. In North Carolina ‚Äď as in Florida ‚Äď campus leaders are responsible to two governing boards ‚Äď one each for the campus and the system ‚Äď and then to a system president and the elected officials who appoint these members. Simply calling on all of the relevant officials semi-regularly would leave no time for leading the campus.
There must be a clear understanding as to whether the campus leader is primarily responsible for leading the campus or working the political constituencies. All too often, exiting leaders depart with the support of the board and not the campus or vice versa. A remedy for this problem is to set clear and realistic expectations that recognize both internal and external demands. Ideally, the boards are helping the chancellor with external stakeholders rather than creating additional demands. This requires trust and trade-off that can‚Äôt be achieved if the board insists on micromanaging campus administrators.
Acknowledge Political Realities: Finally, it is vital for the trustees to create an environment where the high degree of difficulty caused by today‚Äôs political climate is acknowledged. Too often, a new leader comes in with fanfare and a honeymoon that precludes frank discussion of just how hard it is going to be to succeed in a world where the campus and board are likely to be far apart on many issues. Does the board always expect the chancellor to bring the campus around to their point of view? Is the board willing to defer to the chancellor‚Äôs expertise when there is an impasse? When the first trial emerges, it is too late to have these discussions. By then, the chancellor must spend all of their time working the phones in an attempt to build consensus. As a result, the crisis worsens. The chancellor must feel comfortable going to the board when a proposed action will be unmanageable with the campus.
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.