How University Boards Work - News Stories About Alternatives to Traditional Colleges

Over the past year, I have issued brief discussions of selected topics covered in How University Boards Work: A Guide for Trustees, Officers, and Leaders in Higher Education. In this post, I comment on recent news stories about alternatives to college.

The article by Molly Worthen in The New York Times on Sunday, June 9th, “The Anti-College Is on the Rise", was interesting. It and other articles in The Times and elsewhere about alternative colleges and “work” colleges such as Berea in Kentucky are compelling. However, these reports, as welcome as they may be by those covered, do not help us understand why these colleges are appealing to students and families and what lessons can be learned by other institutions.

As president of two colleges for over 30 years, I think one of the causes of our current crisis in higher education, a lack of focus on student learning leading to dismal graduation rates, results from the way campus presidents think of themselves and how boards reward them. Presidents seem to take seriously the title Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and all that it implies. The implications are more attention to organizational size and structure, delegation of responsibilities, transactions, money and reputation, faculty as employees instead of professional colleagues, and high salaries.

At the same time, many boards seem to act as if their primary roles are fundraising and reputation management, with the president as chief external relations officer. They do not seem to acknowledge their duties of care, loyalty, and obedience to the institution’s mission and their responsibility to question assumptions in a collegial manner.

Other presidents think of themselves as Chief Mission Officers (CMOs) and focus on mission and purpose, on the transformational potential of teaching and learning, on nurturing faculty and students, and on involvement on campus. To be a CMO does not take one's attention away from financial viability; after all, mission requires money. However, it does inspire everyone to reflect on why there is a college in the first place: to think historically and imaginatively, to become reflective about oneself and others, and to learn compassion, all necessary for becoming active citizens and achieving a satisfying life.

Board members, collectively, should put the fulfillment of the institution’s mission first among all considerations. One approach is to use the algorithm of “mission-goals-strategies-alternatives-assumptions-resource allocation-rewards-results” when making decisions. For example, how does the proposed reward of release time from teaching align with the goals for student learning and improving the graduation rate? These goals are fostered by full-time faculty members who serve as advisors and guides to their students. As valuable as part-time faculty can be, they usually have neither the time nor the obligation to serve these roles. It is the board’s responsibility to see that goals and results are aligned.

So, I am all for experimentation, something we have had in abundance in higher education throughout history. But let us not allow traditional institutions off the hook. Their boards and presidents need to be challenged and helped.

This and other topics of governance and leadership are discussed in How University Boards Work.

Robert A. Scott is the former president of Adelphi University and of Ramapo College of New Jersey. He is the author of How University Boards Work: A Guide for Trustees, Officers, and Leaders in Higher Education.