Sunday, September 02, 2007

Problems in higher education governance, part n

I hope that you've been following the governance brouhaha at Dartmouth (see, e.g., here and here). Apparently, there's a tug-of-war between the trustees who got their jobs the "old-fashioned" way (election from a slate of names prepared by a committee) vs. the ones who were elected via a ballot initiative. As Joseph Rago said, in his article, Mr. Rodgers Goes to Dartmouth,

Until recently, though, Dartmouth's elections have been indifferent affairs, with the alumni choosing from a largely homogeneous slate handpicked by a committee closely aligned with the administration. In 2004, things got -- interesting. Mr. Rodgers bypassed the official nomination channels and was named to the ballot by collecting alumni signatures; he needed 500 and ended up acquiring more than 15 times that. He was dissatisfied with the college's direction and resolved to either "do something or stop griping about it." He was elected by 54% of the voters.

Rago's article triggered two reactions for me: the first is that, like many public boards, election of a slate of hand-picked nominees is almost a guarantee of a homogeneous board, which is the last thing that a healthy organization should want. Healthy organizations need people with different views and different experiences, and they need people who will question the status quo. Take a look at this passage, from the same article:

One of the main criticisms leveled at the petition trustee process is that it is polarizing, divisive and somehow detrimental to the college. Mr. Rodgers replies, "If 'divisive' means there are issues and we debate the issues and move forward according to a consensus, then divisive equals democracy, and democracy is good. The alternative, which I fear is what the administration and [Board of Trustees Chairman] Ed Haldeman are after right now, is a politburo -- one-party rule."

And so, after losing four consecutive democratic contests, the Dartmouth administration has evidently decided to do away with democracy altogether. "Now I'm working on the existence question," Mr. Rodgers notes mordantly.

Though he cannot say for sure -- "I'll be kept in the dark until a couple of days before the meeting on what they're planning on doing" -- a five-member subcommittee, which conducts its business in secret and includes the chair and the president, has embarked on a "governance review" that will consolidate power. "It looks like they're just going to abandon, or make ineffectual, the ability of alumni to elect half the trustees at Dartmouth," Mr. Rodgers says.

He believes that the model is the Harvard Corporation, where a small group "makes all the decisions. They elect themselves in secret. They elect themselves in secret for a life term. How's that for democracy?"

The rest of the Dartmouth trustees, Mr. Rodgers says, "will go to the board meetings to have a couple of banquets and meet a few students and feel good about ourselves and brag to our compatriots that we're indeed on the board of trustees of Dartmouth College."

This drastic action, he says, is unnecessary. "These are small problems that are fixable," Mr. Rodgers argues. "Instead of making them major political wars, we simply ought to go solve the problems and get on with it." The alternative remedy, he continues, is poor corporate governance, for one. "This is committees working in secret, which is a very bad way to run any organization." Besides transparency, it may also present conflicts of interest, in which the college president would dominate those who ultimately evaluate his performance.

Apparently, we've learned very little, post-Enron, about group decisionmaking. And we've managed to keep some people with useful skills off boards, because they don't fit the traditional paradigm of directors.

My second reaction to Rago's article relates to governance in higher education, and how difficult it is to change anything, given the balance of powers at most universities. But more on this later....

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