U-Va. shows that what we have here is failure to communicate

August 15, 2012

This piece is part of an On Leadership round table on rethinking university governance, in the wake of the U-Va. and Penn State crises.

The recent crisis at the University of Virginia brings to mind the famous line from the movie “Cool Hand Luke”: What we’ve got here is failure to communicate. The prison-camp captain, who speaks the line to Luke, a feisty inmate, is in fact not interested in communication at all. His point is that Luke refuses to passively accept the captain’s commands.

In the U-Va. version, our Board of Visitors seemed to play the role of the prison captain with the faculty cast as Luke. Faculty resistance to board pronouncements fueled fantasies that faculty were inmates attempting to run the asylum.

The truth is, U-Va. really did suffer from failure of communication. We saw it firsthand when our board  abruptly forced the resignation of a popular and effective president, Teresa Sullivan, without adequately sharing their concerns with her or with those of us on the faculty. Board misperceptions about faculty may have blinded it to this reality, and led it to replace open communication with veiled assertions of authority.

While the crisis that resulted here was unique, this underlying state of affairs is not. Universities across the country are struggling with the communication gaps, and large institutional risks, that come when faculty have little interaction with the board and even less opportunity for substantive dialogue.

This needs to change. Effective leadership in higher education depends on it.

Yet before it can, we need to break down myths about faculty that board members hold. There are three ripe for busting.

Faculty seek a role in university governance primarily to support their own interests

All too often, board members keep their distance from the faculty out of fear that we are likely to act in our self-interest rather than in the university’s best interests. Of course faculty can be as self-interested as anyone else, but it seems odd to hold in particular suspicion professionals who deliberately forego more lucrative employment, dedicate themselves to seeking truth over profit, and put in countless hours despite the absence of strict supervision. In any case, when faculty do succumb to self-interest, we have presidents, provosts and deans who are quite capable of pointing out such behavior to governing boards.

Faculty would harm the relationship between boards and administrations

Both boards and university administrations appear to harbor this fear. The recent U-Va. experience, however, suggests that administrations may in fact benefit from board-faculty engagement because professors can offer additional support for the administration’s position. And even if the faculty opposes the administration, isn’t every university better off with an objective check on managerial authority by those best positioned to observe abuses? So long as faculty-board engagement is done openly and honestly, we should welcome it.

Faculty don’t have enough power to be worth the effort of engaging with them

Many boards seem to believe that the traditional university value of shared governance is an empty platitude, because faculty don’t have the type of power boards see as equal to theirs. After all, board members are often successful businesspeople used to dealing with those at the top within and outside an organization.

Now it is true that professors, acting through representative bodies such as our Faculty Senate, have little formal authority. But as recent events demonstrate, when the faculty feels passionately about an issue and unites in expressing its views, it can exert significant informal power, which the board ignores at its peril. Moreover, many faculty have connections with influential people in both the private and public sectors, which facilitate grants, academic-business partnerships and philanthropy for their schools.

Greater engagement between faculty and governing boards could help to further our mutual interests in improving the university. For one thing, a university’s faculty are a great source of expertise on many matters within the board’s purview. U-Va., for example, has plenty of experts on higher ed at our education and public policy schools. We have faculty with expertise in online learning, an area about which our board expressed concern. Our business schools have experts on strategic planning, crisis management and accounting. We have a law school with experts in corporate and non-profit governance. The list goes on.

I do not mean to suggest that faculty have the time, specialized knowledge or inclination to run the university completely. We long ago accepted the need for professional managers and administrators, as well as board oversight. Nevertheless, to ignore the vast pool of expertise at the board’s fingertips wastes a valuable resource.

Universities are not authoritative prisons and faculty are not unruly inmates. What university boards need is more conversation and collaboration with faculty, not command and control over them.

George M. Cohen is the faculty senate chairman at the University of Virginia and a professor of law.

The full On Leadership round table on university trustees:

A bruising summer for governing boards

Drawing back the curtain on our deeply flawed trustee system

Three warning signs that university leadership is on autopilot

What we have here is failure to communicate

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