Friday, March 20, 2009

CEOs, Meritocracy, and Values in Higher Education: The Witness of Mary McLeod Bethune

CNBC telejournalist Mark Haines made an interesting comment yesterday about the big men and women on top of the corporate world, and what they think they are owed for being on top (here). In an interview with Rep. Charlie Rangel, Haines stated,

But you can’t really, it seems to me, expect that these Wall Street companies are going to be run well by a bunch of people who don’t make more than $250,000.

As I have noted, this myth of “pay-for-performance meritocracy” has also invaded American higher education, with disastrous results (here). As in corporate culture, increasingly in American higher education, there is the presupposition that the big woman or man on top deserves big bucks because she/he merits them—works harder, achieves more, is more ruthless about decision-making than anyone beneath her or him. This presupposition enters American higher education through governing boards, which are dominated by those imbued with the mentality of corporate culture.

As my numerous postings about this problem have noted (see, e.g., here), the adoption of a corporate model of pay-for-performance meritocracy in university leadership has assured that universities today are sometimes run by ruthless, power-hungry, egotists who do not understand or value academic life. When those academic big women or big men on top lead church-owned universities, they often sell out the core values of the faith-based university as they apply their business model to education. Their attitudes towards co-workers, their respect for the human rights of their employees, their commitment to collaboration, to mission, to empowering others: these often shockingly contradict the core values of the institutions they claim to serve, and of the social principles of the churches that own these universities.

The imposition of a top-down meritocratic model of management in universities—a model totally unsuited to the mission of a university—threatens academic freedom, since the control techniques employed by corporate managers prioritize conformity to the imperatives of the big woman or man on top, rather than pursuit of the truth. The top-down meritocratic management model is also inimical to collegiality, to the formation of communities of free, shared discourse of colleagues seeking the truth together. By their very existence, such collegial communities of discourse—which are the lifeblood of academic life—are a threat to the big woman or man on top who is intent on controlling others, in order to dominate and stay on top.

The damning faults of the grotesque hybrid created by the union of a corporate business model and the ideals of higher education are becoming increasingly apparent in this period of economic downturn, when many universities are reporting major losses in their endowments. Reports about the effects of this downturn on universities are everywhere: faculty workloads are increasing; salaries are being frozen and tenure put on hold; faculty are receiving imperatives from on high to teach ever-increasing numbers of students with ever dwindling resources.

And as these challenges to the pursuit of academic excellence face teachers in many universities—serious, fundamental challenges—the salaries of top administrators lincluding presidents and CFOs do not diminish, but in many cases, are even being augmented (see, e.g., here).

Something is wrong with this picture. Seriously wrong. As I think about Mark Haines’ absurd claim that you can’t really expect Wall Street companies to be well run by those who don’t make more than $250,000, I renew my call to President Obama and others with the ability to make constructive changes in American higher education to look critically at the negative effects of the top-down, meritocratic business model of leadership in American higher education.

As I note in my open letter to President Obama on the occasion of his public forum at Bethune-Cookman University last September (see, e.g., here), prophetic leaders of higher education such as the founder of that university, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, point the way to a viable future for American higher education by emphasizing the values on which higher education is based. In her “Spiritual Autobiography” Dr. Bethune notes, “In this atomic age, when one small materialistic possession has wrought fear among peoples of the world, I am convinced that leadership must strive hard to show the value of these spiritual tools which are as real as anything we touch or feel, and far more powerful.”

Dr. Bethune constantly insisted that higher education is foundational for American democracy, precisely because of its emphasis on values. She noted that universities play a premier role in assuring the success of democracy by imparting to students the values essential to a culture of civic virtue. And she recognized that those values have to be lived first and foremost by leaders in higher education, by faculty and presidents and CFOs and boards of trustees.

Pay-for-performance meritocracy betrays core values of academic life and undermines civic virtue. In this period when the excesses of corporate CEOs are being carefully considered by the public at large and when the bogus claims to meritocracy of the corporate elite are being exposed, it is high time for a similar reappraisal of the meritocratic claims of the CEOs of American higher education.