Saturday, August 01, 2015

Some reflections on governance and marketing at the U

In yesterday's Views column at Inside Higher Ed there are actually two pieces, a look back at the Salaita matter one year later.  In my reading of these essays, the first one was somewhat damning of the decision itself and the process behind the decision.  According to this argument, Campus administration was unduly swayed by powerful members of the Board of Trustees and well to do alumni, driven to exercise authority that really should reside with the disciplinary experts (the academics who first offered the appointment).  The second one, in contrast, was supportive of the decision, arguing that Professor Salaita had only limited expertise in Native American Studies and consequently by that unit extending an offer they invited the trouble that followed.

I will not make any attempt at resolving those arguments here.   Instead I want to treat them as potential symptoms of a larger issue, that the university is too corporatist in its approach and is too quick to overrule faculty governance when things get controversial.  Actually, I don't want to take that one head on either but rather something simpler and more straightforward - how the Board of Trustees members are selected now and what might be a more appropriate alternative.

The Web site that lists current Board members is one I had never visited before.  It gives the rudiments of the Board's structure.  One thing that jumped out at me immediately is how much power the Governor has in selecting members.  Each of the non-student members is appointed by the Governor (or by the prior Governor).  This structure might make sense if the bulk of the revenue for the university comes from tax dollars.  But we know the share of the university budget that comes from tax dollars has been declining and likely will continue to decline.  Other sources of revenue have become more prominent - tuition, grants and contracts, and gifts.   Further, given the land grant mission, there are people who benefit substantially from university activity but at best make meager cash contributions that don't match their benefit.  In other words, there are other stakeholders here than the taxpayers of Illinois and these other stakeholders should have fair representation on the Board, but currently the process doesn't deliver on that.  What might be done to improve matters?  I will sketch an alternative that makes sense to me.

Now it appears that the non-student Board members serve for terms of 6 years and that there are 9 of them.  (The governor is an ex officio member in addition to these 9 appointed members.)  I would keep the total number of members on the Board as is and the term length as well.  But I would only have the governor appointing 3 of the members, 1 every two years.  I would have the alumni association appoint 2 of the members, 1 every three years.  And then I would have the President of the University in consultation with the Chancellors from each campus appoint 4 of the members, 2 every three years.  This difference in authority of who appoints members is meant to reflect in the type of person who will get picked for the Board.  So let's consider that next.

Alumni have different interests than taxpayers.  For example, an alum who lives out of state who wanted a child to attend the University would have to pay out of state tuition were the child to enroll, at present. If the alum has given substantially to the University over the years, shouldn't the alum's children be entitled to the same tuition rate as the in-state rate?   Alumni may also be more sensitive to the lifetime funding model and tying it to campus function, where that provides some alumni benefit post graduation.  Now, rich alumni may have voice with high level administrators on campus directly via the fund raising activity.  But there are many more alumni who are successful if not well to do and lack these personal connections with campus leaders.  Voting for Board representation would help to tie these people closer to the University.  To me, this makes good business sense as to keep these stakeholders involved.

A different sort of person is altogether absent from the current Board.  This is the higher education expert.  For example, consider former provosts, chancellors, or presidents from other universities, people who have a good track record for what they've previously done in these jobs.  Or perhaps, consider others who currently have these roles at other public universities (or maybe even at private universities).  On corporate boards, doing this sort of thing would bring out accusations of interlocking directorates, and that might be viewed as foul play.  But higher education as a whole has some common interests and those should be well represented on the Board.  Right now that is not happening.  And I don't mean to restrict this population only to current or former campus level administrators.  People who represent one of the regional accreditors, or the National Endowment for the Humanities, or NSF, or researchers in policy for higher education, and possibly quite a few others could be part of a vanguard of professionals from within higher education who begin to populate university boards.  I really don't understand why these people aren't already there, except that political patronage blocks it.  Isn't this sort of change something that the situation demands?

Now let me switch to my rather idiosyncratic division of members in each of these categories.  I deliberately didn't opt for an equal division, but I also didn't allow any one group to have a majority in itself.  It might be most helpful in considering this to envision a contentious issue and that within each group of appointees preferences are not sufficiently homogenous that the group votes as a block, but the higher education professionals tend to be more like minded.  Then they would have it easier at getting a majority that agrees with them and would not prevail mainly when they could get at most one more vote from outside their group.  This is possible, so they wouldn't be dictators.  But it is not so likely, so their prudent judgement would be relied on much of the time.  That would be a good thing, in my view, and keep the Board from engaging in rash decisions, which it is prone to do under the current structure.

* * * * *

Now let me switch from governance via the Board of Trustees to marketing and in so doing I will also switch from the University to just my Campus.  This is the Campus homepage.  I encourage you to look at it for a few minutes and form your own general impression before reading further here.

Now I'd like you to answer the following questions.  Is there an implicit message on the homepage which speaks to the extent of corporatist influence on Campus?  Or, perhaps, is there a slightly different message being sent, namely that the Campus is very mercenary and wants some of your money, very much, regardless whether you're a big giver or a small one?  To me, the top of the page has the feel of an animated brochure.  The Give Now button starts out right there at the top and the moves to the right side but stays near the top as you scroll down the page.  And there are blurbs of interesting current accomplishments - good news all - brag points if you will.  This is just of the sort of thing you find in a brochure.

Where is the bad news? or controversial news?  or information useful to the public but that doesn't distinguish Illinois from its competitors yet is so important that it warrants placement on the homepage nonetheless?   The message I get from the page is that marketing the Campus trumps the land grant mission and it also trumps the free exchange of ideas, at least in this space.  There are many other spaces to be sure.  The domain is huge and a tremendous amount of information can be found there.  For example, in the controversial news department, consider this page from WILL, local public radio and TV, on a recent report about racial microagressions.  And there are also members of the Campus Community contributing to online media in many ways, shapes, and forms, such as the pieces at Inside Higher Ed I mentioned at the start of this essay.  The stuff is out there.  It is just not linked directly from the Campus homepage.  (It also should be said here that the marketing and fund raising also happens elsewhere, via various newsletters, for example.)

Does that matter?  I will answer based on my visceral reaction to the homepage.  It matters to me.  And I'm not all that happy with the implicit message we're sending.  I'd like to see more of the page devoted to mission and less to bragging.  I'd also like for the Give Now button to be absent at first, appearing perhaps only after a person has clicked on a link for bragging content.  Thus, a person looking only at mission content wouldn't see the Give Now button at all. Is this sort of thing do-able?  And if it were would it matter to anyone else but me? 

Let me close with what is even more idealistic, probably not feasible, and may be so naïve as to be laughable.  Nonetheless, I wish we were doing this regularly.  There should be a piece of the homepage devoted to reasoned argument on social issues.  As a society, we've lost our ability to have such argument.  People live in their own little universe and don't have to encounter evidence and argument that is counter to their position.  Reasoned argument, which features the occasional acknowledgement that the other side has made a good point, is something our students should witness and it something the broader community should witness as well.  The loudest voices have a tendency to drown out the more reasonable ones.  And the most volatile of issues tend to generate more loud responses.  So the question is whether one can carve out an area of topics to be discussed as well as a set of people who are reasonable, so there is disagreement and debate but that doesn't escalate into name calling and hostilities, and yet where the subject matter is sufficiently interesting to generate a wide audience.

If we could do this, then we definitely should.  How to get there remains a mystery.

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