Trustees | Trusteeship

Trustees and Professors Don’t Understand One Another’s Roles, Survey Finds

CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION   |  January 24, 2010 by Paul Fain

Trustees and professors are largely in the dark about one another’s roles in university governance, according to the results of a survey released on Friday by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

Faculty members themselves were not surveyed by the association, which received responses from presidents, chief academic officers, and board chairs. While the survey found that faculty-board relations are viewed as generally healthy and constructive, only 23 percent of respondents said trustees understand faculty contributions to governance either “well” or “very well”—the same percentage as said professors understand the role of governing boards.

“There’s definitely room for education on some very basic things,” said Merrill P. Schwartz, the association’s director of research and primary author of a report on the survey.

The vast majority of new trustees and professors receive orientation, according the report, but not all of those training sessions include a review of the other side of the faculty-board divide’s role in governance. For example, only 30 percent of faculty orientations cover the responsibilities of governing boards.

The report says that faculty members serve on governing-board committees at 56 percent of the surveyed institutions, although almost twice as often at private colleges than at public ones.

Gary Rhoades, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, said that while there is room for improvement, the fact that professors serve on boards at a majority of colleges is proof that the AAUP’s perspective on shared governance remains strong on campuses.

However, Mr. Rhoades stressed that faculty representatives on boards should not be “just hand-picked” by presidents and trustees, and should sometimes be selected from the growing ranks of non-tenure-track faculty members.

Unwelcome Intrusions

Boards of trustees have generally taken a more active role in recent years, a development welcomed by most governance experts. However, trustees must be taught the nuances of higher education to be effective. As a result, the survey’s finding on inadequate orientation for both new trustees and new professors is a red flag, said Ms. Schwartz.

“Presidents are concerned whenever you bring up the idea of boards’ getting more involved,” she said. But “avoiding it isn’t the answer.”

Mr. Rhoades agreed, saying that widespread financial pressures across higher education could lead to unwelcome intrusions by boards into tenure and promotion questions as well as threats to academic freedom.

“You can’t make educated decisions about an institution you don’t understand,” he said.

According to the survey, the top three issues faculty members and trustees address together are curricula, presidential searches, and budget matters. Roughly half of surveyed presidents said the interaction between their governing board and their faculty was good or positive, while 15 percent described bad or struggling relationships.

Among the common themes that emerged in comments from presidents who described negative interactions were faculty views of trustees through an adversarial, labor-versus-management lens, and trustees who see faculty members as privileged, too powerful, and overpaid.

The report, in its conclusion, notes the “often impossible position of presidents in mediating this contested turf.”

Underlying Respect

Acrimony notwithstanding, trustees and professors generally show respect, according to the survey results. About 97 percent of respondents said trustees, faculty members, and administrators typically demonstrate collegiality, respect, tolerance, and civility toward one another.

Mr. Rhoades said he had spoken with the governing boards’ group about the survey, and that the AAUP was interested in conducting similar research on faculty opinions about relations between boards and professors.

Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, criticized both the survey’s scope and the report’s conclusions.

“Nowhere does it point out that trustees are the ultimate fiduciaries and because they have that legal responsibility they also have the final say,” Ms. Neal said in a written statement.

The report, which was published as part of a project on faculty and institutional governance financed by the TIAA-CREF Institute, offered several recommendations. Among others, they urged colleges to:

  • Create opportunities for board members and faculty members to interact in meaningful ways in both informal and formal settings.
  • Include faculty members and trustees in strategic-planning, accreditation, and other key working groups.
  • Clarify the decision-making process and the roles of faculty members, administrators, the president, and the board.

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