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University oversight boards: Something else in need of reform

by: Eric B.

Mon Dec 02, 2013 at 12:45:25 PM EST

Back in the 90s, when John Engler was governor, he had a decade's worth of appointments to various university and ag boards across the state. Perhaps nowhere was the touch of King John's hand felt more acutely than at Central Michigan University. Overnight, CMU transformed from what was traditionally a teacher-training school into the state's leading institution for charter schools. That was in large part thanks to the people appointed to oversee the school, and they acted not as stewards of a public resource but as political appointees who wanted to see the political agenda of the guy who appointed them turned into public policy. Watching it convinced me of one thing ... university boards need to be reformed.

It's no state secret that university board appointments are often patronage for campaign contributions or connections. People appointed to the boards have no real connection to the institution, so oversight is an absent thing.

I point to the current state of CMU, where the president has siphoned off tuition dollars to pay for a medical school created under dubious conditions (i.e. private fund raising fell flat, with major potential donors passing on what was referred to as a jackleg operation) and into an athletics program in pursuit of an unattainable goal of national prominence (the chief difference these days between the University of Phoenix and CMU is that the University of Phoenix has no pretensions to field a top-25 football team).

University boards need to do a better job at vetoing budgets filled with questionable spending and stop being so lavish with paying top executives (CMU's athletic director now takes, not earns, a salary of quarter million in taxpayer dollars and tuition dollars generated increasingly by student debt).

This is what you get with poorly functioning university boards.

Professors at Eastern Michigan University are fighting to end the school’s connection to a highly controversial state school takeover district created by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. The faculty members argue that they had no input in the way the Education Achievement Authority is run and that they oppose the way the EEA is being operated.

There is a good deal wrong with the shifting of purpose for our public universities to promoting the agenda of whatever governor happens to be in charge at the time. The reason why public universities were given special autonomy under the state constitution was to avoid this. It's just that the people who wrote it apparently didn't envision that meddling might also come from the governor.

The underlying problem here is that we've glorified university administrators, who fulfill a necessary but secondary mission of organizing a collection of disparate colleges, to the detriment of the faculty, who are supposed to be integral to a university's central mission of pursuing and disseminating knowledge through the act of teaching. University boards, as currently configured, don't do that. Trustees and regeants mostly show up once a quarter and rubber stamp whatever gets placed in front of them, and once a year rubber stamp additional compensation for said administrator with mindless banalities like, "You have to pay for this kind of talent." Then, individual board members go home, satisfied that they've performed a public serve and tell themselves that they've earned whatever perk they can squeeze from the public till (while conveniently ignoring that it will get paid for through someone else's crippling student debt).

Eric B. :: University oversight boards: Something else in need of reform
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I can see the problem (0.00 / 0)
As someone who went to EMU to earn a teaching certificate, which makes me an alum of sorts, it pains me to see what a mess EMU's administration has been the past decade.  I can empathize with your feelings about CMU, even about the athletic program.  I guess beating MSU back to back in the 1990s went to CMU's heads.

That written, what do you propose?  Adding faculty and student voting representatives to the boards?  Selecting appointees by the State Board of Education?  Unifying all the state schools other than U-M, MSU, and WSU under a single, popularly elected governing board?  The only idea would rule out would be popular election of all members of all boards.  Imagine the ballots then!

Greetings from Detroit, Ground Zero of the post-industrial future!

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