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.