Sunday, August 10, 2008

Spin. Spin, Spin: Citizen Blogging and the Failure of American Higher Education

I’ve noted frequently on this blog, my work in higher education has given me an intent concern for the future of higher education in the United States. In my view, the shift to a corporate management model in higher education—a shift that has been going on for some time now—is yielding bitter fruits.

This shift all too often assures that presidents of colleges and universities today have little understanding of education itself, or of the central goals of liberal education. Far too many college and university presidents now either come to education out of the corporate world, or have adopted draconian management models from the corporate sector and applied them ruthlessly to institutions of higher learning and to the faculty of those institutions.

And as academic “leaders” move in this direction, they almost always do so with the active complicity of governing boards that are heavily skewed in the direction of the corporate world. Boards of most colleges and universities, including church-affiliated ones, are stacked with captains of industry and business who do not understand or value liberal education, but who value above all balanced budgets, glitzy image management campaigns, and beefed-up enrollment figures.

Because I lament how the move to a corporate leadership model is selling out the fundamental values of American higher education and is hindering the ability of our colleges and universities to produce leaders with strong values and the keen critical insight and integrity necessary to lead, I have been following a sordid little story in Arkansas with great interest lately. This story concerns Lu Hardin, the president of the University of Central Arkansas.

It is a story that would not be worth mentioning on this blog, except that it has now gained national attention, through a 16 July article in the Chronicle for Higher Education ( As this account and others indicate, among the elements of this sordid story are cushy augmentations to a president’s salary, awarded by the university board of trustees without the public notice required in a state institution; executive meetings of the board of trustees held without notice of their purpose in contravention of state law; memos prepared by the president to justify his salary increase, “signed” by employees who did not see or sign the memos before they were given to the governing board; misleading statements to the press; lavish special privileges provided by the president to friends and supporters; and a craven refusal on the part of the board of trustees to address these problems forthrightly, transparently, with accountability to the public (;;;;

The preceding sources (and others easily found on the internet) provide a detailed account of the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) story. The statewide free weekly Arkansas Times deserves high praise for pursuing this story vigorously, and for continuing to foster blog discussion of it, right up to the present. Because the details of the story are readily available in the articles I cite above and others accessible online, I want to focus here not on what has happened at UCA, but on its implications for higher education.

What is happening at UCA is a clear indicator of what’s wrong with many of our institutions of higher learning, at the most fundamental level possible—at the level of values. Increasingly, university presidents expect (and receive) big bucks for their success in mounting slick, empty impression-management campaigns, rather than for their success at inculcating values and producing leaders. Higher education is increasingly a numbers game—a game of showing (or giving the impression of) higher numbers of students enrolled, and a game of showing (or giving the impression of) more dollars flowing into the university coffers.

Sadly, amidst the glitz and crude, empty commercialism underlying these empty shows, the heart of higher education is being eviscerated: the core values of American higher education, the social contract universities once made to produce values-oriented leaders for the next generation of society, the humanistic focus of liberal education, are being undermined by the show-and-tell numbers game that drives higher education today. If the current generation of “leaders” who dominate higher education today represent what leadership is all about, we are in serious trouble, as a society.

We are in trouble because far too many leaders of higher education are, quite simply, willing to cut moral corners to make fast bucks. Far too many educational leaders are willing to put image and money above ethics—and are permitted, even encouraged, by governing boards to do this.

At an institution at which I once worked, I once had the unhappy duty of having to inform the president of the university that I found her/his leadership lacking in integrity. Because my input was explicitly solicited by the president and I was a member of the university’s leadership team, I asked that the board of trustees be given some data I had compiled about how the president’s lack of integrity had translated into mismanagement that threatened the future of the school over which he/she presided.

The president’s response was telling. It speaks volumes about what is wrong with American higher education today. The president informed me in no uncertain terms that boards of trustees don’t care about ethics or about the fidelity of a university to the values proclaimed in its mission statement (in this case, the school is church-affiliated). She/he laughed off my suggestion that the board would be interested in the data I had compiled.

Those data were never provided to the board. And why should they have been? Presidents alone customarily communicate with the board. This is all the more the case in many church-affiliated institutions where the college or university does not have to adhere to laws that require transparency and open meetings, as they do for public institutions.

Mere hirelings are presumptuous when they expect boards of trustees to listen to them. The adroit image management for which boards commonly reward presidents almost always extends to spin control when an employee who has the potential to reveal a president’s actions as morally dubious is peremptorily silenced and expelled by the president. No matter how draconian a president’s tactics in such situations, most boards willingly choose to believe the president rather than the whistle-blowing employee, to trust the spin control rather than to hear the truth.

Mind you, boards do know very well when something is not right at a school—as many board members did at UCA before the stuff hit the fan. The problem is, far too few boards are willing to bite the bullet and investigate, take clear action, uphold core values, discipline or fire leaders who have betrayed an institution’s core values. Faced with potential revelations that might undermine a school’s glitzy image, most boards behave precisely as the UCA board has been behaving: duck, dodge, support the leader at all cost, no matter how vacuous the values of that leader appear as the public gains insight into how she or he is actually leading.

Boards of trustees that permit presidents egregiously to betray core ethical values of institutions of higher learning are just as guilty as the presidents whose misbehavior they enable. Boards that do not create mechanisms by which the voice of faculty and of campus leaders may be heard—independently of manipulation and spin control on the part of the president—create the conditions by which a president can so spectacularly mismanage an institution, that the institution ends up with mud on its face in the media, as in the case of UCA.

Boards that have strong reason to suspect that critics with insight and integrity have been smeared by a president whose word they are willing to take when that word is clearly not trustworthy lay the groundwork for failure in the institutions they govern—for the failure of the institution to be what it is supposed to be about, producing broadly educated leaders with sound values.

When presidents and governing boards patently lack the strong commitment to values that the mission statements of our institutions of higher learning proclaim, is it any wonder that those institutions are so often failing to inculcate civic virtues and humanistic values in graduates? Students are not deaf; they are not blind. They see clearly the disparity between what institutional leaders say and what they actually do. They hear the tinny emptiness of the rhetoric about service, tolerance, respect for dialogue, concern to foster critical thinking and transformative leadership, and so on.

Fortunately, where our traditional institutions are refusing to provide venues for the kind of open values-laden exchange and critical discourse necessary to sustain a vibrant democracy, other new institutions are developing to provide such venues. As I’ve noted previously on this blog, I’m strongly impressed by the ability of citizen blogging to hold the feet of institutions and their leaders to the fire nowadays.

This certainly seems to be happening with the UCA story. As a poster on an Arkansas Times blog about UCA notes yesterday, the single most important factor in forcing the board of that university to reconsider the duck and dodge game it has been playing has been the ongoing discussion of the story on the Arkansas Times blog (

Citizen bloggers are now providing a service to our democratic society that universities used to provide, but have often stopped providing, insofar as they have bought into the ethos of the corporate world. The kind of open, free, dialogic discussion about civic virtue and the values underlying vibrant democracies that should be taking place in college classrooms is now taking place on internet blogs instead . . .

while far too many college presidents crunch numbers, spin data, and demand bigger salaries, and while far too many boards of trustees promote and protect these ethically vacuous leaders as they crush any attempt by mere hirelings to engage the board in critical discourse about the dubious directions in which leaders are taking their schools.

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