Document Type

Article

Publication Date

5-2016

Abstract

Message from President: With every change of regime comes a predictable if welcome discussion of the structure of higher education. In Louisiana, with its four systems and its Board of Regents, this “conversation,” as administrators like to call it, usually centers on either the rearrangement of campuses or the consolidation of administrative units or the reduction of overhead. Occasionally, the more optimistic among us hope that, during regime turnover, the membership of management boards might change (with the good effect of allowing current board members to resume their proper role, that of wealthy heirs ironically professing the gospel of the self-made man). By focusing on exchange—on whether campuses move across systems or whether Joe or Jane will replace Bob or Betty on Boards—this debate releases pent-up frustrations but avoids fundamentals. It glances about for visible change without considering the concealed causes of our problems. The system of public university governance in Louisiana as well as in many other states relies on non-academic lay-persons, whether supervisors or trustees or regents, to ensure that publicly funded institutions serve the public good and remain accountable to the people. Scholars of American history know that such an arrangement relies on an educated citizenry that possesses both the knowledge and the power to elect wise citizens as its representatives. The goal of this kind of representative system is inclusiveness: the non-chaotic inclusion, in governance, of a large cross-section of the people through the deputizing of leaders committed to full and fair consideration of ideas. The system now at play has “flipped” so as to promote exclusion rather than inclusion. Meeting for short times to vote their way through items on an abbreviated agenda about which all the decisions have already been privately made, the present system prevents participation. It limits public input to routinely ignored three-minute public comments. In Louisiana, membership on management boards correlates directly with level of gubernatorial campaign contributions, thus limiting participation to a wealthy subset of society (whether the 53% that Mitt Romney admires or the 1% that Bernie Sanders slams or some segment in-between). Examining the careers of management board members (chicken-wing magnate; post-colonial Nigerian oil field machinery supplier; chiropractic franchiser; tabloid publisher; hairdresser) leaves one wondering whether they live up to the Jeffersonian hope for the creation of learned leaders and the enlargement of membership in the Republic of Letters. Solutions are available, but they would require a new analysis of the relation of public education to a democratic society. An easy first step might be the introduction of requirements and qualifications for membership on supervisory Boards. A second, more profound approach might be the elimination of those Boards and, with them, the fiction that they express inclusiveness and representation. For example, Louisiana or any other state might junk the cliché, collusive, corporate model of the President-and-his-or-her-Board. A forward-looking state could create a panel of qualified experts to manage, cooperatively, portfolios within universities (finance; professional labor; research and development; whatever) and to consult with one another. To top it off, such a panel could be asked to secure both a faculty and a public mandate through periodic elections. Such a new model would eliminate the current non-productive arrangement, in which Presidents do only just enough to appear productive and therefore saleable to executive search firms but never so much as to frighten gubernatorial appointees on the Board. Another possibility would be the creation of faculty-public working groups who, again, could manage segments of modern, complex universities while also auditing the other panels. There are many other possibilities; the main point is that the present system is neither suitable for a university that promotes the public good nor is it inevitable.

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