Forbes: The Road To Better Governance In American Higher Education

June 17, 2023

Managing Principal and President, Brian Mitchell published an article in Forbes on better governance in higher education. You can also view the article on Forbes here.

Higher education is the repository of America’s intellectual capital, an engine for its workforce development and a big business. In 2023, it employed over 2.9 million people., according to IBISWorld. 19.4 million students attended colleges and universities in 2020, down about 10% from its peak of 21.6 million in fall 2010. How its leadership handles the scale and size of higher education could have an enormous impact on the American economy and the ability of the American economy to adapt strategically to the demands of the second quarter of the 21st century.

Higher Education’s Governance Model
Governance is critical in higher education because few understand how it works. Colleges and universities are not corporations when measured by how they govern. Among numerous stakeholders, there are three time-honored participants—the board of trustees, the faculty and the senior administration. There is a natural tension among these groups that is meant to ensure a kind of checks-and-balances system to produce thoughtful outcomes. If an imbalance occurs, the institution suffers, especially during times when critical inflection points determine their direction—both locally and across higher education. I believe America has arrived at one of these inflection points, fueled by the Great Recession, Covid-19, persistent inflation and an upcoming demographic cliff as enrollments decline.

In our book, How to Run a College, Dr. Joseph King and I argue that in a system of shared governance, the board has three basic obligations. The first is to steward the policy of the college. The second is to pass a budget. And the third is to hire, support, nurture, retain and when necessary, fire and replace the president. Fairness and due process must always override naked political will. The board is often the most inclined among the three groups to overreach, mistakenly confusing its overarching stewardship responsibility for day-to-day management across the campus. The weakest boards often nominate committees that either try to fill new board seats by duplicating themselves or by overbalancing membership based on a set of shifting priorities. They are often also too large and cumbersome to be effective. The result can be debilitating, with the most deleterious effect on the role that they have to approve long-term strategy and direction.

The faculty contribute as “keepers of the flame” and, ideally, focus on the academic program and related issues, including occasionally offering their perspective on student life. There is always a pull-and-push going on with the administration and trustees who want them under the academic tent but typically not moving beyond their historic responsibilities and duties. Faculty often do not trust board members whom they consider too business-oriented and male-dominated or deeply rooted in past affiliations like athletics and Greek life. Further, faculty are keenly aware that trustees approve salaries and benefits.

The administration manages the campus, serves as the liaison between other stakeholders and the board, and maintains the public face and outreach beyond the campus gates. As Dr. King and I note in our most recent book, Leadership Matters, there are three types of presidents: presiders, change agents and strategic visionaries. Any of them can fit the “moment” when selected depending upon the needs of the institution. In my opinion, successful administrations work well only if the search produces candidates with good management skills who represent what the college needs rather than aspiring to what the campus community might want. Once selected, the administration must establish a basis of consensus, heightened levels of transparency, and arms-length distance from faculty, trustees and key stakeholders. Presidents share two risks. The first is to assume that they are cardinals among bishops, becoming more authoritarian over time. The second is to survive politically by allowing either trustees or faculty to overwhelm them.

Reviewing And Improving Governance Practices
The end game in good governance is strategy. If the trustees, faculty and administration can find common ground, a good strategic plan can provide a blueprint for growth and sustainability in a market now as competitive as any industry. With the looming crises facing higher education, governance practices are often unprepared and unexamined centers of cultural inertia.

Good governance is the foundation upon which a lasting strategic blueprint should rest. Colleges and universities are both academic centers and economic engines. Each institution should balance both features to find a solution to what they face. Yet American higher education has a long distinguished history to guide it upon which college leadership can draw. To do so, they should begin with a review of whether their governance practices serve them well.

To begin, those involved in shared governance must commit to a reasonably and regularly reviewed assessment plan, transparency and tactics tailored to build momentum for the institution’s strategic plan. l It is fundamental to ask both the right and the hard questions with a commitment to act on outcomes, however surprising or disheartening some aspects of these findings might be. Good institutions adopt best practices they develop from a working knowledge of their peers. Any commitment should start based on direction from the board chair, with the support of faculty leadership and the president. Institutional leadership should recognize at the outset that this is not a rationing exercise or an expense audit but an effort to become more responsive, creative and efficient.

In my experience, the only way to determine if an institution’s governance practices are effective is to challenge their rationale, the size and scope of governing bodies and the premise upon which they were built. In the end, it’s about whether the process that shapes decision-making works, and there is wide variation among institutions. Effective governance in a highly competitive higher education environment is one of the best ways to compete and be true to tradition, mission and strategy. Absent good governance practices that are regularly reviewed and driven down across all levels of the campus, colleges and universities may simmer in a kind of cultural inertia that can dramatically diminish their ability to compete. This could have negative effects on America and its intellectual capital.