The Mistrustees

Joel Shatzky is Professor Emeritus at SUNY-Cortland, where he taught from 1968-2005. He presently teaches at Kingsborough Community College.

The influence of big-time collegiate sports on the culture and priorities of universities has been a subject of considerable concern over the last few years.

According to a recent Knight Foundation report:

Presidents of universities with major football programs clearly recognize the need for change. In a 2009 Knight Commission survey, a large majority said that they believe today’s revenue and spending trends are not sustainable for athletics programs as a whole. Nearly half expressed concern about the proportion of institutional resources being used to support athletics programs, and a similar proportion said they feared that economic pressures might force them to discontinue a sport.

The recent sex scandal at Penn State and the revelation that a highly placed sexual predator was “covered up” for over a decade despite the fact that he was still engaged in these activities while using the athletic facilities at the University is an unhealthy sign of the power and influence of collegiate sports on the priorities of its programs.

Whether or not there is significant evidence that boards of trustees, often made up of people with little, if any, academic background, have a direct effect on the academic policies of their schools, it can be said that collegiate athletics, as exemplified by the Penn State scandal, should give rise for concern over their influence.  For instance, the following quote about the influence and lack of educational qualifications of the Boards of Trustees of the higher education system of the state of Florida might serve as an illustration:

Every state university in Florida has a board of trustees that makes all the big financial and academic policy decisions. But most of the trustees don’t have any background in education .That raises a question: Is management experience or a background in higher education more important to overseeing a state university? The powers and duties of boards of trustees include everything from handling school money to choosing its policies for student admissions.Two of the 13 members of each university board have close ties to the school — the faculty president and student body president.The rest are appointed by the Board of Governors or the governor’s office, and few of those appointments have university experience.Only three of the 121 appointed trustees at Florida’s 12 universities have worked in higher education.

The argument in defense of this practice was made that since many of the appointees to these boards have “business experience,” they are better qualified to manage the universities’ resources than someone who is an academic with little if any business experience. And this goes to the heart of the matter; an issue that has been raised often by Presidential candidate Mitt Romney: that running the public sector like a business would produce better results. This leads to the question of the legitimacy of unions in protecting public sector workers and if, in fact, the “efficiencies” made in privatizing the public realm are more beneficial to those they are supposed to serve or those who profit from it.

My own experience with a member of a board of trustees who, although she had some limited educational background, had an undue influence on policy in the State University of New York system was a Governor George Pataki appointee: Candace de Russy. She became controversial when she showed her hostility toward multi-cultural programs and regarded the need imperative to change curricula to reflect more “traditional” cultural values: “Two years into her term, she drew national attention over her criticism of a program called ‘Revolting Behavior: The Challenges of Women’s Sexual Freedom’ at SUNY New Paltz. She said the 1997 conference, which included the sale of sex toys and presentations on sadomasochism, was about pornography, not women’s studies or academic freedom. In 2001, the college president resigned and de Russy’s effort was considered a catalyst.”

I once had a brief conversation with De Russy and she seemed to me to regard higher education as a “classicist” who would emphasize Western Civilization as the center of curriculum and marginalize multi-cultural studies. I felt that although she was entitled to her view, as a member of the Board of  Trustees, by creating an issue over an admittedly controversial subject, she was causing publicity that was harmful to the reputation of the college since the program could be so easily misunderstood by the public. However, since Governor Pataki’s agenda was to diminish the size and costs of SUNY with annual budget cuts and increases in tuition—a trend that had begun by his predecessors, both Republican and Democrat after the Rockefeller Era—De Russy’s criticism of SUNY fit in as part of his plan. For her, academic issues in SUNY reflected  ” a civil cultural war and the radical, secular, `progressive’ left may well destroy our traditional principles and institutions, and notably our education institutions, which is seminal to the rest of the institutions … ”

Admittedly, there is room for criticism of some of the multi-cultural programs in the academic world when they become so politicized that substance is less significant than affect, but that is not the issue concerning the influence of boards of trustees on the governing of their institutions. It would be instructive to know how many boards of trustees’ decisions derived from politics or through alumni influence have had a negative effect on the academic and cultural life of colleges around the United States. When I first entered the SUNY system in the 1960’s, the Board of Trustees was very supportive of the new programs and innovations in curriculum that were being introduced by enthusiastic younger faculty. Our opponents were the “old guard” faculty who did not welcome new programs that challenged their traditions. Now, I wonder whether the “old guard” have been, among boards of trustees, the more traditional critics of educational innovation. It would be instructive if we knew more about how they were affecting public higher education.

2 thoughts on “The Mistrustees

  1. Lots to say about the point that’s getting made here, with which agree largely (I might quibble with the generalization about high-powered sports programs, but that’s not really the heart of the issue here).

    But for now… I served as our faculty union’s rep on a management search committee for each of the last two years. The first was for a Director of Social Equity, who handles EEOC compliance, discrimination complaints, diversity training, etc. The second was for an Associate Provost. The Assoc Provost position ad specified that we wouldn’t put anybody in a position to supervise faculty who didn’t have faculty experience, but we _still_ got dozens of applications from people who had, for example, been hired as administrators at for-profit institutions without any teaching experience whatsoever, and a slew of applications from people whose “faculty experience” was teaching one course as an adjunct (the way we used to imagine adjunct teaching–teaching a course as an expert outside resource once in a while). I wasn’t the only committee member who argued vocally to exclude from the pool anybody who hadn’t been in a tenure-track (I argued that nobody should be hired to make tenure evaluations if they hadn’t achieved it, but got voted down), but it became my cause celebre. How the hell is somebody supposed to evaluate my work towards tenure or promotion if they’ve never even sniffed the conditions under which we pursue them?

    My point is that this problem gets amplified by Boards of Trustees or, as in PA, a Board of Governors among which there’s little if any experience in higher ed. They make decisions that have gigantic effects on teaching and learning conditions without the least knowledge that they’re harming the institutions they’re charged with governing. Or, I fear, sometimes with full knowledge that they’re harming their charges, pursuing a privatization agenda or Norquist-style quest to kill anything public that they can rebrand as private.

  2. It should be noted that the New Paltz president whose ouster de Russy orchestrated because he refused to censor an event was Roger Bowen, who later became General Secretary of the AAUP. De Russy is no longer a SUNY trustee (but, amazingly, is on the Board of Advisors of FIRE, despite her opposition to free speech for those she opposes).

    I think the near-total dominance of Boards of Trustees by people with business backgrounds is a terrible idea. We ought to see more faculty (and retired faculty) on these boards. One example is Leo Welch, who is vice-chair of the Eastern Illinois University board of trustees, and who was a union leader at Southwestern Illinois College (the first AAUP union chapter) as well as president of the Illinois AAUP, where he is still active.

    The concern about the obsession with business trustees is three-fold: First, it creates too narrow of a range of experience on the board; I’d love to see more faculty and journalists as trustees, people who understand how colleges work and who can ask tough questions. Second, business-oriented trustees create the (often accurate) perception that trustees are appointed because of their wealth or political connections, rather than based on merit. Third, business-oriented trustees are often linked to a right-wing political bias and are sometimes picked for that purpose.

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