Shared governance builds stronger colleges

New book also examines new wrinkles in enrollment, academics and student life

Lyon College President W. Joseph King and former university president Brian C. Mitchell have written a practical guide for new and veteran leaders.

How to Run a College (2018, Johns Hopkins) examines how colleges operate and how they can build on their fundamental strengths. More importantly, it corrects a number of commonly held misperceptions about enrollment, advancement, academic affairs, student life and more.

Key to the discussion is shared governance between trustees, administration and faculty, says Mitchell, who served as president at Bucknell University and Washington & Jefferson College, and with King as a principal at Academic Innovations consultancy.

“If shared governance works well, then it’s one of the unique and idiosyncratic aspects of higher education that made it what it is today,” says Mitchell. “Good governance presumes a commitment to know more about what you do not know, even when you don’t know that you don’t know it.”

What was your reason for writing this book?

First, there was space there for a book like this. There was a need for a primer that teaches or offers perspective to college and university presidents—and even to senior staff, frankly—on how colleges work.

Second, unlike, say, dentists or lawyers or nurses, there’s really no continuing education program once you become president. You can go to the Harvard school, for example, for four or five days of workshops. That’s very valuable. Or you can go to CIC’s President’s Institute, and that can be valuable, once a year.

But there’s really no way to say, “OK, if I’m dealing with athletics, what are the overarching themes of it I need to consider?” There is no ready reference to turn to.

My co-author Joseph King and I decided that we’d try to fill that space. The book is meant, in many respects, to take the perspective of someone who has been a college or university president for a long a time, or represented them as I have with Joe, who’s a new president with fresh perspective.

The combination of the two, we thought, would be pretty effective.

It has an “if I knew then what I know now” approach.

I wish I had known these things. I had the benefit of being trained by 92 private college presidents when I was head of the Association of Independent Colleges, the president of the President’s Council.

In many respects, I was not the brightest bulb on the tree. They were training me, and a lot of them were doing it intentionally, but I don’t think I realized that.

A college president was not something I ever aspired to be. I was going to be a high school history teacher like my dad.

The book would be useful for, if not the public, at least the media because it explains things so well. Higher ed often isn’t represented well by the media.

When I was thinking about the book, I remembered a question I got from a well-meaning but pointed faculty member at one of the institutions. The question was, with a bit of sarcasm, “What exactly do presidents do?”

First I thought, “What kind of question is that?” And then I realized it’s a perfectly fair question because the answer wasn’t clear. This person represented one of the three legs on the governance stool—trustees, administration and faculty.

For a bright, perceptive faculty member to ask that question was a devastating indictment of how colleges and universities do a terrible job of explaining what they do. And, as you argue, that extends to consumer and media perceptions.

You portray faculty as “the keepers of the flame” who create the actual character of a university.

The faculty also keep the university’s heart beating. They’re the ones who are there at the beginning institutionally, they’re the ones who’ll be there long after presidents leave, and long after boards change over. That gives them enormous perspective.

But as you point out, they are often overwhelmed by workloads and are increasingly being replaced by part-time faculty. How can they possibly share in the governance?

You have to look at how you handle faculty load. I would argue that the faculty need to have more power, and the people placed on the faculty committees that deal with the management of a university ought to be more senior.

Within the framework of trustees and administration, you have to ask yourself what advances a college or university the most. The answer is a commitment from seasoned veterans at all levels. But that is superseded by the importance of the faculty.

It’s just terribly important that you have seasoned faculty who know what is going on beyond the college gates.

You wrote, “There’s a cognitive dissonance between what America needs and what its future workforce will be trained to do.”

I feel strongly about that. I think you should double down on the defense of the liberal arts. I believe the argument that it produces an educated citizenry is a great argument, but it no longer resonates with the American public. That’s the plain, hard, cold fact.

The liberal arts trains you to think by developing the skills to articulate, to write, to apply quantitative methods, to use technology, and to work in a collaborative setting.

So, let me ask you a question. Which would you rather hire? An engineer who is narrowly, technically trained or an engineer who not only has the technical skills, but also the ability to write and to speak and to apply quantitative methods?

I would hire the second one because I know the value of a liberal arts education.

Yes, but the point is that value hasn’t been communicated in a way that resonates with the American public. If you want to link what the workforce needs and what society wants, society wants the second person because that person does a better job meeting the needs of the workforce than the first person.

The chapter on enrollment was enlightening. I’d wager most people—and probably many in higher education—don’t really know how incoming classes are created.

I think that’s true. You need to start with a predictive, analytical financial aid model.

You need to recognize that trying to attract kids from pricey ZIP codes to pay the freight for scholarship kids who can’t afford to pay is a limited strategy because the demographics and the birth rate in the country work against that.

And the number of international students who might be full-pay is more variable these days than it was even a year ago, both because of perceptions abroad and because of potentially restrictive legislation here at home.

So that means changing the way you do enrollment. It means placing much more emphasis on retention in student life than we have historically.

For example, a student decides to transfer out. Studies show that a student will transfer out because they don’t feel that they found a nest or a home. If that’s the case, then why? It’s because the student life programming isn’t working.

So you need to not only look at enrollment in terms of academic programs, but also the thousand teachable moments that exist outside the classroom.

Right. Then you can link the two together. It may be that your institution needs a marching band or a Frisbee club team or a gospel choir, because that’s what the students’ interests are, and that’s where they’ll find their home outside the classroom. That’s what helps retention more than anything else.

Your recruitment needs to be much more intentional because, in fact, you can find a much better student at the outset if you know that student is interested in, say, music. It may be that your institution needs a marching band or a Frisbee club team, or a gospel choir, because that’s what the students did.

We found at Bucknell that a lot of the engineering students also loved playing musical instruments. They joined Bucknell’s symphony or the jazz band. That gave them a home. It gave them some folks to hang around with beyond, say, fraternity orientation or biomedical engineering colleagues and peers they met in their classroom.

That made them much better connected to their institution. 

Tim Goral is senior editor of UB.

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