Thursday, August 20, 2009

Higher Education and the Money Racket: Continued Abdication of Leadership

I’ve written frequently on this blog about the extremely destructive effects that the adoption of a corporate CEO style of leadership is having on academic life in the United States. Click on “higher education” and “leadership” at the end of this posting, and you’ll find a well-documented trail of postings dealing with these themes.

As the posting to which I’ve just linked states,

As I’ve noted repeatedly, my entrĂ©e point into discussions of overcompensated CEOs is my experience in academic life, where the adoption of a corporate leadership model has resulted in a trend to gross overcompensation of university presidents and CFOs, as faculty salaries remain flat or fall. This trend has been radically destructive of important values essential to the mission of universities.

The corporatizing trend in university leadership rewards big men and big women at the top who all too often lack any real understanding of what academic life is all about, and any profound commitment to academic excellence and collegial pursuit of the truth. Increasingly, the leadership structures of many universities is top-heavy and top-down, as the corporate model is imposed on academic life.

My essays on these themes note that university boards of trustees bear great responsibility for creating (and sustaining) a situation in which concerns about money are trumping (and even obliterating) concerns about academic integrity and values. More and more, trustees of universities come from the business sector rather than the academic world, and they have brought with them to the schools they serve a CEO model of leadership that is antithetical to what academic life is all about.

Since I have written extensively about this topic and have encouraged the new federal administration to monitor what is happening in American higher education, because colleges and universities are key to building democracy and sustaining its core values, I’m interested to read today an article in Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, which focuses on the responsibility of trustees to exercise more oversight in colleges and universities they govern.

The article begins by quoting Dr. Larry Handfield, chair of the board of trustees of Bethune-Cookman University, who notes that the responsibilities of trustees are growing more acute. Dr. Handfield notes that boards today are increasingly expected to oversee policies and their implementation in the schools they serve.

Good message. But, unfortunately, the article itself underscores precisely the problem I keep pinpointing—a problem which, as it grows more acute, spells trouble for the nation at large, given the role universities have historically played in producing leaders and transmitting values.

Search the article for the word “money,” and you’ll find it appears three times. Do a search for the word “fund,” and you’ll see it used seven times in the article. The word “dollar” shows up once, and the word “business” appears twice.

Guess what never gets mentioned even once? “Academic” and “values.”

Note that I’m not disagreeing with what Reginald Stuart, the article writer says. He’s clear that money is the bottom line in academic life today. He’s describing accurately what is there and what he sees.

But in doing so, he’s also exposing a very serious problem, one that needs much more attention than it’s getting in our society today. As long as money is the bottom line, and as long as boards of trustees think of their responsibilities largely in fiduciary terms, university trustees are doing a tremendous disservice to the institutions they lead.

Academic integrity and academic excellence are what it should be all about. And values. And boards that do not recognize this and take steps to assure that a school’s values are front and center, and that a school’s leadership promotes academic integrity and excellence first and foremost, are grossly abdicating their responsibility to lead.