SYMPOSIUM: Governing Boards: Raising Consciousness

Editor’s Note:“What Works in Higher Education Reform: A Report from the Front,” the twelfth annual national conference of the National Association of Scholars, took place November 17–19, 2006, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. One panel, “Governing Boards: Raising Consciousness,” examined the role governing boards do and can play in raising awareness on campus and among the public of the critical issues facing the academy today. Panelist Thomas J. Lucero discusses the lessons he’s learned as a regent of the University of Colorado about his responsibility to ensure the quality and value of the education of students, forge relationships with faculty, and make informed, effective budgetary and curricular decisions. Candace de Russy, a trustee of the State University of New York, examines the options governing boards have in addressing the critical decay in academic standards and disintegration of institutional financial discipline.

Castles Unguarded

 

Candace de Russy

My friends, as you here know well, our formerly lustrous ivory towers—which John Fund of the Wall Street Journal has dubbed “dark castles”—urgently need quality control and financial discipline. Yet for the most part the keepers of the towers cannot or will not take action. What passes for higher education governance remains, as former university president George Dennis O’Brien writes in All the Essential Half-Truths about Higher Education, an “amiable muddle…between [faculty] educational jurisdiction and [administrative] janitorial services.”

Although there are a growing number of reform-minded trustees—thanks largely to the efforts of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni—most trustees continue to bow to the forces-that-be. The long list of reasons for their inaction include: ignorance of higher education and boards’ statutory duties; cowardice in the face of powerful administrators, faculty unions, governors, lawmakers, and others who often benefit from the status quo; a misguided sense of institutional loyalty leading to avoidance and denial of even well-deserved criticism of their campuses; an uncritical understanding of academic freedom used as an excuse for the wholesale transfer of major decision-making to campus factions; manipulation by campus apparatchiks who control the information that is meter out to boards; and much overlooked out-and-out conflict of interest in an environment that is designed to coddle and flatter—as well as to honor and reward—pliant board members (that is, “team-players”).

But the failure of many trustees to serve as responsible guardians (Plato’s word) for the common good should come as no surprise. After all, trustee “culture” abides within the larger culture. In, or perhaps toward the end of, long periods of peace and plenty like the current one, trustees—like various other social groups—display what Gibbon called the “inexhaustible…desire of obtaining the advantages, and of escaping the burthens, of political society.” They also display what the contemporary philosopher John Haldane has described as a pervasive “insecurity,” which is a byproduct of the “seeping relativism” that has long filtered down from the towers and into the public mind. This insecurity consists in a loss of belief and confidence in “a common universal human nature by reference to which practices and policies may be judged good or bad.”

Many board members today are so steeped in this general soup of relativism that they accept as par for the course the scandalous double-standards and injustices involving traditionalist students and faculty. Mindless even of self-preservation, many have joined those elites that dismiss their own culture as unexceptional. Many are confused or indifferent to the need for passing on to future generations the astounding American story. As an example, certain trustees recently dismissed one such excellent history endeavor as “a right-wing project.”

For these reasons, one cannot say with confidence that a necessary critical mass of trustees still have the capacity to rise to the historic challenge of restoring the towers, despite the array of reformist policies and procedures at their disposal. Principal among these reforms are:

  • strategic planning based on institutional performance;

  • hiring and holding to account reform-minded campus CEOs;

  • eliminating inferior academic programs and redirecting the resources they waste into high quality education;

  • formally acknowledging, in the words of NAS president Stephen Balch, the importance of competing viewpoints “in adversarial fields” and increasing “the institutional sites in which [they] can flourish”;

  • assessing for “value-added” student learning;

  • adopting the statement by ACE and similar organizations on ensuring intellectual diversity and tolerance on campuses;

  • strengthening accountability in hiring and tenure procedures to ensure that quality of teaching and research, as opposed to political conformity and cronyism, is the standard for faculty employment;

  • lending their voices to the drive to end the present corrupt accreditation system;

  • stopping out-of-control grade inflation by banding together with other boards to require that college transcripts include a student’s grades along with the percentage of classmates awarded the same grade in a particular class.

In face of boards’ dithering about instituting such reforms, some of us have come to believe that trustees should face consequences when they fail to act in the common good. No less a figure than federal judge José Cabranes, for instance, has suggested that “potential board member liability [that is, possible “legal actions enforcing the duties of university fiduciaries”] will help ensure board members’ diligent performance of their duties.” In addition, it would help if reformist trustees more forcefully challenge their complacent peers. To gain a hearing, reformers will often need to have recourse to the media, however reluctantly. I have repeatedly felt bound to do so, as have the three Dartmouth trustees who recently waged a successful campaign to defend certain democratic procedures by which petition candidates can stand for board vacancies.

Moreover, we should ask why boards should be immune from expert and external performance evaluation. They lavishly dispense the public’s hard-earned money, and the public deserves to be apprised of their achievements and failures. So why not rate boards on such criteria as “success in instituting strong core curriculum requirements” and “success in measuring and rewarding quality of undergraduate teaching”? Why not issue regular “consumer-friendly” reports (Brooklyn College professor Mitchell Langbert’s phrase) on trustees’ performance—reports modeled, for example, on those of politicians’ performance provided by the American Conservative Union and Americans for Democratic Action?

Yet even if means were found to better hold trustees to account, it is possible that the moment for extensive internally-generated, so to speak “conventional,” reforms may have come and gone. As a trustee of another major public system recently remarked to me, much of the present higher education structures may “fall of their own weight,” due mainly to unsustainable financial trends. Other, more radical approaches to higher education may be in the offing.

I refer to free-market and other structural reforms that would bypass the encrusted educational bureaucracies and transform our colleges and universities (for instance, diminish their individual size) but likely better serve the nation as a whole. These solutions, which are problematic in varying ways, include the public provision of higher education vouchers and more scholarships and tax-credits—assuming that greater student choice would facilitate the demand for better education and that competition will lower costs. Another possibility is the creation of for-profit institutions dedicated to offering high-quality, student-focused, outcomes-oriented liberal arts education, like Founder’s College. (In this category, “Axis,” the University of Phoenix’s announced online program in the liberal arts, bears monitoring.) There is also the “EMO,” or Education Maintenance Organization, created in the image of the HMO because of “rage over the failure [of higher education] to cut costs.” (Here, I cite Charles Miller, chairman of the Department of Education’s recently established Commission on the Future of Higher Education.) Another solution, proposed recently by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, is to establish a powerful tax-deduction policy for private university contributions to ensure that 90 percent of U.S. residents, by the time they are twenty years old, can pass the English and statistics AP exams. Finally, as Mark Oppenheimer advocates, there is even the option—contingent on eliminating accreditation and instituting rigorous, objective student assessment—of having students band together (medieval-style) to hire the many brilliant and underemployed Ph.D.s to offer college-level courses in one’s living room!

Of course, some of these suggestions may initially seem quixotic, and probably none more so than Professor Haldane’s prescription for the moral renewal of civilization to which I’ve alluded. Referring to the European crisis, he writes: “The question…is whether [Europe] has the courage and the intellectual stamina to refound itself on the sort of objective humanism that was its glory in antiquity, in the Middle Ages, in the Renaissance and in the Enlightenment.” Similarly, the underlying question before this panel today is whether the nation’s trustees and other higher education leaders can muster the intellect and bravery to “refound” the academy, which in turn might disseminate a new understanding of our common universal human nature, and thus standards of good and bad. Without such an understanding, Haldane concludes grimly, we must “prepare for an age of darkness and suffering.”

Given such stakes, it is beyond obvious that the guardians of the castle towers should waste no time in fortifying them.

Candace de Russy has been a member of the board of trustees of the State University of New York since 1995. She serves on its Executive Committee, chairs its Academic Standards Committee, and is a member of its Ad Hoc Committee on Charter Schools. A former college professor, Dr. de Russy is a nationally recognized writer and lecturer on education and cultural issues; [email protected] This address was originally presented on 17 November 2006 during the panel “Governing Boards: Raising Consciousness,” at “What Works in Higher Education Reform: A Report from the Front,” the twelfth annual national conference of the National Association of Scholars, held 17–19 November 2006 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

A Regent’s Responsibility

 

Thomas J. Lucero, Jr.

Thank you everyone. It is a pleasure to be here with you today. Stephen Balch, many thanks to you for the opportunity to be here in Cambridge with the National Association of Scholars and with so many friends in the audience today.

One of my key allies on our faculty, and one to whom I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude, is Christian Kopff, who is also speaking today. Christian is an associate professor in the honors program at the University of Colorado. To open, I would like to relay a brief conversation that Christian and I had about two years ago. We were talking about the core curriculum and some of the issues related to that, when I said to Christian, “You know, it’s a good thing that the administration knows something about the core curriculum and graduation requirements at the undergraduate level, because they don’t know anything about budgets or anything related to fiduciary responsibility.” For those of you who know Christian, you are certainly aware how animated he is and that he is always quick with a comeback. I think it was the first time in the three years that I had known Christian that I saw him speechless. After a brief period of stunned silence, Christian said, “Well what we’ve always thought about the administration is that it’s a good thing they know something about budgets and numbers because they don’t know anything about curriculum.” Clearly we have a fundamental problem here.

What I’d like to do in my talk this afternoon is to relay to you two key lessons learned in my eight years serving on Colorado University’s governing board. The key hope will be that many of you can reach members of other governing boards across the county to help enable them to put their often very limited time on the board to more productive use. I struggled for many years to achieve limited impact on the policy objectives that I had, only to realize through the enlightenment of a few key individuals that: one, my objectives and overarching goal needed to be redefined somewhat; and two, some faculty did share my same objectives as well. Furthermore, they also possessed the institutional knowledge, resources, and tools to counter what are often one-sided arguments put forth by administrations to governing boards. Now armed with this knowledge—and with the great advantage of having such a dynamic leader in President Hank Brown—we are working on some exciting proposals at the University of Colorado that may have a chance of going somewhere. I will highlight a couple of those with you at the conclusion of my speech.

The first lesson regarding my objective and overarching goal came after almost seven and a half years on the board. I owe this one at least partially to another individual who is also with us today, who probably does not even realize the impact of his statements or have any idea that I am about to mention his name. For those of you who were in California last April at the California Association of Scholars meeting, you may recall an exchange that took place between Alan Charles Kors and me. After I had finished my talk in California, Dr. Kors came up to the microphone, much like he did today. I would like to thank Alan for taking the time again to ask some challenging and thought-provoking questions. In our exchange, after the brief pleasantries were exchanged, Alan directly stated his point, which was very clear. Emphatically and without caveat or exception, he stated that we have one responsibility as regents; that is it. One obligation. That is to ensure the quality and value of the education being provided to the students at the University of Colorado that we are entrusted to oversee.

Alan’s directness and forthrightness in the way that he talked about how to oversee the quality of education and the paramount importance of a governing board’s responsibility to ensure the quality of the overall education of students caused me to reflect. Too often, I believe, many board members start out like I did and leave much of the academic and curriculum oversight to the administration, thinking we should be focused more on the budgetary, financial, and nonacademic areas of the university. While I had some goals in the academic arena, and certainly saw first-hand as a student the lack of certain perspectives among the faculty and a lack of balance in the classroom, I did not fully appreciate the academic shortcomings. As I was flying back to Colorado after that meeting, I continued to reflect a lot on Alan’s comments and on many of the ideas that Hank talked about earlier today and had been bringing to the forefront at Colorado by this time: how to set public policy as a board member.

There is no shortage of work for a regent at the University of Colorado. In a given week, I could easily commit forty hours and feel very busy—but at the end of the day, the question is, what have I actually accomplished? Have I made any real difference? Alan was mostly right about having one paramount objective. But we do also have many obligations as governing board members—most notably budgetary oversight. The only entity that can put some curb on ever-increasing tuition and higher education budgets is the governing board. Of course, the administration will always be inclined to ask for more of everything; spending other people’s money with no oversight is far too tempting.

Upon reflection now, I realize that I was always trying to maneuver behind the scenes to bring about change, working many long hours with not much success, always feeling like I was hitting a brick wall. Working with Christian on the creation of the Center for Western Civilization is a perfect example. As I was flying back from California, I kept thinking about Alan’s words and how I was going adjust my strategies accordingly to put his words into action.

It is on the heels of these meetings and with this mindset that I attended our next board meeting, which happened to be the following week. To my surprise, the first item on our agenda was a proposal—a key example of what Hank referred to earlier as “busy work”—to spend 138 million dollars for a new science and technology building. We had no prior discussions at all about this proposal. Despite the magnitude of this expenditure, the Boulder administration needed a vote this same day in order to meet the timelines to issue bonds and raise the money to begin building. We were going to spend 138 million dollars on a new building, and the board was giving it a cursory review as a last-minute request. Nobody was talking about its strategic value, why it was really necessary, or any cost justification. I was just astounded.

As a regent who actually raises hard questions and votes no on many budget requests brought before us (despite almost every budget passing with little change), I began to think more about Alan’s comments in California. Part of the overall quality and fiduciary duty we have to Colorado taxpayers and our students is to carefully review key decisions to spend such large sums of money that directly impact students and the price they are going to pay. It all goes back to a concern for the student. As a side-note, this group proposing the 138 million dollar building is the same one that just two years ago needed to build three other buildings. Interestingly, the way they funded those projects was by adding $400 to all student fees for the next twenty years to build three buildings—one of which was a new law school that 98 percent of the students at the University of Colorado were never going to use. Undergraduates were charged a new annual fee to help pay the cost of a law school.

As governing board members, this is how we fulfill our obligations to students at the University of Colorado? Interestingly, a majority Republican board voted in favor of this proposal 7 to 2. One Democrat and I voted no. Even more disturbing was the way the administration slipped this fee increase through an assessment by the student government and bypassed the traditional process. Usually a student fee of this magnitude would require a vote of the entire student body. Realizing the likely backlash that might cause, the administration circumvented a vote of the entire student body (more than 24,000 students) to convince the twenty-two-member student government to vote for the fee.

Back to the new 138 million dollar building proposal. Having spent a number of years in real estate, I can look at these numbers fairly quickly and see that something is a little bit out of whack. Meanwhile, none of my colleagues on the board is questioning this proposal. Nobody seems to be the least bit concerned. So I ask, “Chancellor, if I am reading this correctly, your revenue projections are 52 million dollars short?” He doesn’t even hesitate, and responds, “Yes. You are right.” I then ask, “Okay. Am I the only one the least bit concerned about this? If we don’t take our fiduciary obligation seriously, the students—just as they were charged a $400 annual fee to build these three other buildings only two years ago—are now going to be called upon to fund this new science and technology building.” So I ask the next logical question: “Well, how exactly do you propose to bridge this 52 million dollar gap?”

To my surprise, the chancellor actually suggested that half of the funds would be sought from the legislature. Joining us today is state senator Sean Mitchell from Colorado. Now, I am certain, given our current budget challenges, he must be laughing back there at the idea of the University of Colorado Boulder campus approaching the state legislature next session to ask for an extra 26 million dollars to build a new building. President Hank Brown talked earlier about the difficulty of obtaining state funding in the state of Colorado. There is simply no way we were going to obtain 26 million dollars from the state legislature, and every member of the administration was well aware of this. Reminding the chancellor that we are probably not going to get 26 million dollars from the state legislature, and that we are 52 million dollars short of building this project, I ask again, “How do you actually intend to bridge this gap?” At this point, he says, “We are going to raise the money from outside donors.”

Now, I don’t know about your universities, but the next time the University of Colorado raises 52 million dollars to build a building will be the first time the University of Colorado has raised the funds to build such an expensive new building. Despite the shortcomings in financing their project, or any proof of necessity, and the likelihood that student fees would have to be raised again to pay for it, the board approved this request by a vote of 8 to 1. I probably don’t need to mention who voted no. In my experience, this is basically how most proposals and decisions made by the administration are reviewed by the governing board; they are essentially “rubberstamped” at the board level. Part of the reason, I believe, is that board members do not have sufficient insider knowledge, nor do they understand the internal university processes adequately, to feel they can intelligently challenge such proposals—and in some cases to even know when to challenge them. This leads me to my second lesson learned.

It is critical that governing board members and faculty build strong relationships. Governing boards today rely too heavily on what the administration brings to them; they need the assistance of faculty who possess the institutional knowledge and resources to counter the one-sided arguments often put forth by administrations. The analogy used earlier today regarding the “biology of a university” is fundamentally critical. I would not be able to stand in front of you and talk with the knowledge and understanding of the university had it not been for my relationship over the years with Christian and other faculty like him. Understanding the unique institutional history of the University of Colorado, the ways faculty and administration exert control, the way budgets are completed, and many other operational nuances all contribute to making a board member more effective. If I didn’t understand the operations, then it would be exactly what Candace referred to earlier: I would be receiving my information directly from administrators who have no ability to manage budgets and, much to my surprise, no ability to deal with issues like the core curriculum.

I will give you a perfect, recent example. Over the last two board meetings we’ve had discussions about grade inflation and academic rigor. Because of my relationship with Christian and others I was able to call upon them, because they were concerned about this issue—concerned enough and above all else willing to put their credibility and job security on the line to come and testify before the board of regents on a very controversial subject. Had Christian not shown up with three other faculty members, it would have been a completely skewed view that was presented to the board. The faculty senate sent four faculty members to testify about grade inflation and academic rigor. The essence of the testimony was: there is no such thing as grade inflation or academic rigor, and standards are alive and well at the University of Colorado. Students are coming to us smarter, better prepared, have higher SAT scores, and higher ACT scores. The care and concern in the classroom by the faculty members is far and above what it has been historically.

This is a perfect example whereby without the relationship, without those faculty members willing to come forward, we would have heard only one side of the story. Christian and some of the other faculty were able to come in and counter the position of the faculty senate with concrete examples and their own real experiences in a way that I as a board member could never have done with the same level of credence. Faculty and governing board members who share the objectives and mission of NAS need to work very closely together.

With those lessons learned, and still several years remaining on the board, what do we have on the horizon at Colorado? We will soon begin discussions on academic rigor and re-evaluation of our core curriculum. The University of Colorado seems to be following the Brown example of no core curriculum. We currently have over 665 classes in our core curriculum. How can that constitute a “core”? We are trying to focus the discussions at this point on two areas. One would be bringing the core curriculum down to a manageable 100 to 125 classes, as well as talking about real standards. Second, as President Brown referenced as well, we are trying to take this discussion in a direction that asks the fundamental question: what should every undergraduate know at the time of graduation? At what level should they be able to read? At what proficiency level should they be able to write? Surprisingly enough, one of my colleagues thinks we should shoot for a target number of 70 percent for our graduates. I guess standards have to start somewhere.

We really do have to find a way to bring more efficiency and cost control to higher education to deal with the incessant appetite to build more buildings, the auxiliaries, the little things, student services, bookstore monopolies, food services. However, we must be mindful that our paramount objective is a high-quality education and to ensure that governing boards are not distracted with the budgetary and fiscal matters to the detriment of the academic fundamentals. The message I would like to impart today to the faculty members, reflecting back again on Alan’s comments in California about the board’s key responsibility, is that a board member cannot fulfill that responsibility without your assistance. The relationship that I have had over the last three years with Christian and others has been key to making progress. I was well-intentioned during my initial years on the board, but without an understanding of the institutional history and without an appreciation of issues like the core curriculum, what a graduate should know, academic rigor, and academic standards. When the regents in Colorado have these discussions, it is faculty like Christian who come before the board, who bring me Donald Kagan’s and Derek Bok’s articles and books on academic rigor and grade inflation. But it is not enough. Other regents need to understand there is a wealth of knowledge at their disposal, more than the information that is provided them from the administration.

If we are trusting board members to fulfill their duty to students, we have to begin educating them further and providing them with the tools and information they need to focus on the critical issues. We cannot allow them to only hear from the administration. I guarantee you they are not reading Donald Kagan and Derek Bok’s thoughts when discussing core curriculum. I guarantee you they have no idea what Victor Davis Hanson has written on the subject. Because of my relationship with ISI we were able to have a presentation in front of our board from Admiral Ratliff and the ISI people, but I guarantee you that at other universities trustees have no idea who these individuals even are.

The point that I really want to come across is that board members, while they may be well-intentioned, in many cases need you to reach out to them. You have a responsibility, just as they do. Seek out and develop those relationships; begin to educate your governing boards on the critical issues. We are going to start to put those fundamental issues out there in Colorado publicly because our board members need to be required to take a position on these issues and defend—one way or another—why they support or don’t support a strong core curriculum, for example. But only when a board member has the confidence and has the understanding of the inner workings of the institution, and understands the “biology” of the institution, can he inject that syringe at the right place.

Only by working together and building these relationships can we begin to shine a light to help advance the ideas that we all want to see—and the board plays an integral role in it. Begin to utilize your board more and take advantage of them; help them and put these ideas out there on the table—only then will we be successful in moving this agenda forward.

Thomas J. Lucero, Jr., is a member of the board of regents of the University of Colorado, P.O. Box 921, Johnstown, CO 80534; [email protected] Mr. Lucero has been actively engaged in the struggle for academic freedom and meaningful reform, working on campus and off. He has been instrumental in founding the Center forWestern Civilization on the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus. He also speaks frequently in themedia about academic freedomand other stewardship priorities. This address was originally presented on 17 November 2006 during the panel “Governing Boards: Raising Consciousness,” at “What Works in Higher Education Reform: A Report from the Front,” the twelfth annual national conference of the National Association of Scholars, held 17–19 November 2006 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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