The Chronicle recently conducted a forum on presidential leadership that prominently featured the rapport between presidents and governing boards. A number of participants took the platitudinous road, urging openness, civility, proactive discussion, more socializing, etc. According to one such speaker, as paraphrased by The Chronicle: “Presidents and trustees need to learn how to agree to disagree….”
Such talk is sweet and good, but it obscures the real dynamic underlying today’s dysfunctional campus governance (and I focus my remarks on public governance): Neither trustees nor presidents–nor the governors who appointed the trustees–have learned how to disagree with the politically powerful and well-heeled special interests which in reality direct and control many colleges. Thus, the problem usually is less headstrong, secretive presidents in conflict with overbearing or distant trustees than exceedingly feeble combined presidential, trustee, and gubernatorial leadership.
One participant and university consultant, William A. Weary, touched on this dynamic in pronouncing amorphous, campus-wide surveys of presidential performances “garbage,” because they can readily be manipulated by campus constituencies.
From what another speaker, former trustee James A Martin Jr., said, one can infer how extremely difficult it will be to reform governance and put in place strong leaders who will hold these forces in check for the well-being of the campuses themselves as well as the public. “If you say the truth,” commented Martin, “you’re marginalized and told you’re not with the team.”
Presidents, trustees, and governors do too often join in as mere “team players” and cheerleaders, leaving our campuses rudderless, or, as one critic put it, in a state of “organized anarchy.” And opposition to this modus operandi is summarily quashed, for fear of roiling the political waters.
I suggest that The Chronicle hold another conference–on this lax, three-way, symbiotic “governance” arrangement and the havoc it is wreaking in our universities and society.