The Failure of University Governance

by James A. Bacon

In his new book co-authored with Richard J. Cebula, “Runaway College Costs,” James V. Koch goes beyond the usual lamentations about how out-of-control  costs are making colleges and universities increasingly unaffordable and inaccessible to millions of Americans. He describes how higher-ed governing boards have largely failed in their fiduciary duty to students to curtail the expensive ambitions of college administrators.

As alumni revolts gain momentum at the University of Virginia and Washington & Lee University, disgruntled graduates seeking to tame the politically correct enthusiasms of the current regimes would do well to read this book. It provides the best overview of higher-ed governance issues I have seen anywhere. If conservative alumni hope to exert influence on the direction their alma maters are going, they need to understand who holds power in the modern university and how they wield it.

Koch starts with the observation that the vast majority of college and university boards of visitors act as rubber stamps for spending and tuition proposals submitted by their institutions’ presidents. Dissenting voices are rare, and unanimous votes are the norm. Costs and tuition have increased relentlessly over the years because governing boards have allowed them to.

Koch, a former president of Old Dominion University who speaks from first-hand experience, describes how presidents manipulate boards through flattery, wining and dining, the dispensation of small favors such as football tickets, and above all the framing of issues and presentation of information. Universities are complex institutions, and it can take years for board members to understand them well enough to ask informed questions. And in the rare instances in which board members do challenge administrators, they are often shamed into silence.

But the problem runs even deeper. Few states have clearly articulated what their public colleges and universities are supposed to do. Teach undergraduates? Conduct research? Perform public service? And to what ends? To mold minds? To prepare students for jobs? To push back the frontiers of knowledge? To change society? To broaden opportunity? Often these goals conflict.

Priorities are set through the interaction of administrators, faculty, boards, politicians, students and parents. Koch draws a distinction between permanent interests and transient interests. Faculty and administrators have career-long interests in policy outcomes. By contrast the interest of students and families, and to a lesser degree politicians and board members, is more peripheral and shorter in duration.

“The interests of these long-term participants come to dominate as the years pass,” Koch writes. “It is a sophisticated form of regulatory capture — that is, the  takeover of a regulatory body by the very groups that it is supposed to be regulating. … Most faculty governance groups typically are interested in enrolling students with higher test scores; they advocate higher salaries and generous, fully funded fringe benefits; they support improved, up-to-date classrooms and laboratories; and they plump for more time for research.”

Although Koch does not mention the point, faculty and administrators also are driven by ideology. The prevailing ethos on college campuses ranges from moderate liberal to extreme leftist. As permanent interest groups, faculty and staff have the power to transform campus culture over the long term. The result is that the values that prevail on campuses are very different from the values in wider society. At UVa and W&L, alumni are trying to organize themselves as counterweights with long-term staying power. Such alumni rebellions are exceedingly rare, however, and it is too early to tell how successful they will be.

Koch argues that board members have a fiduciary relationship to students, in other words that they are obligated to act in the best interest of students. He goes as far as to suggest that every state adopt legislation that “unambiguously establishes a fiduciary relationship between governing boards on the one hand and citizens and students on the other hand.” As a corollary, he says states should clarify their expectations for what public higher-ed should strive to accomplish and how to measure institutional performance.

Given his background in Virginia higher-ed, Koch alludes frequently in the book to Virginia. He writes:

The Commonwealth of Virginia says little about the missions of its four-year institutions. The Virginia Constitution says merely, “The General Assembly may provide for the establishment, maintenance and operation of educational institutions which are desirable for the intellectual, cultural and occupational development of the people of this Commonwealth.”

This lack of detail constitutes license for Virginia’s four-year public campuses to do nearly anything that intrigues their ambitious administrators, faculty, and trustees, so long as they can fund it Virginia provides no guidance to its public university board members concerning what it means to have either a defined institutional mission or a fiduciary relationship to citizens and students.

Koch discusses the varied ways around the country in which higher-ed board members are selected. Like many states, Virginia gives its governor the power to appoint board members. Inevitably, appointments become rewards for political support and/or campaign contributions.

How does this work in the real world? The University of Virginia (UVA) provides a representative example. Over the past decade, UVA has been the scene of several board squabbles and an aborted sacking of a sitting president. Thus, board membership has been demanding. The UVA campus newspaper reported that ten of twelve voting members of the UVA board who were Virginians had made financial contributions to the political party of the governor, while only three had contributed to the other party. This is the way of the world and describes nearly every state, irrespective of which political party is in power.

Koch argues that new board members should undergo elementary training on their responsibilities to students and the public, and to gain some familiarity with major issues such as new technologies, demographic trends, teaching loads, space usage, sources of funding, mission creep, intercollegiate athletics, auxiliary enterprises, and the role of foundations and fund raising.

Under the spell of charismatic college presidents, who carefully orchestrate the board outcomes they want, most trustees buy into the narratives about what the institution is, how well it is managed, and what it is attempting to accomplish. Trustees (or “visitors”) should not endeavor to micro-manage their institutions. Instead, Koch suggests, they should develop their own performance metrics, in particular of educational value added. How much are students actually learning? “They should be wary of measures that do little more than repackage and rescale standardized entrance test scores and parental incomes.”

Koch argues that effective governance requires that the interests of presidents, administrators and faculty should be aligned with those of the students. Presidents and senior administrators tend to be more preoccupied with their remuneration and the prestige of the institution (which reflects well on them) than affordability and access. But basing bonuses and other incentives on naive measures can be a tricky business. Often these metrics can be easily gamed. “One should not underestimate,” Koch writes, “how [presidents’] fertile imaginations can over time render numeric goals meaningless.”

It has been interesting to watch the UVa and W&L alumni in action. They organized in reaction to what they regard as the trashing of valued traditions. Intuitively, they know they exercise power through their ability to give or withhold contributions. At UVa, the alumni unquestionably have caught the ear of President Jim Ryan and Rector James Murray. But most activists are new to the business of campus politics, and they’re still finding their way. For the most part their demands have been narrow — save the Jefferson statue, take down the “F— UVA” sign on the lawn, and the like. Some alumni have broached broader themes such as preserving intellectual diversity, but no one has presented clear ideas for how such a goal would be implemented.

Alumni have the potential to become a major force in university power structures. To be effective over the long run, they need to change the governance structure. “Runaway College Costs” will give them a valuable primer.

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19 responses to “The Failure of University Governance

  1. Koch has made a valuable contribution to the discussion on higher education in America. To anyone familiar with government, most of this is not surprising. I suspect that most of his observations would be applicable to boards of large corporations, as well.

    In the defense of the members of boards of visitors, serving on the board of visitors of a university is a part-time, unpaid job. It would be ideal if they gained “some familiarity with major issues such as new technologies, demographic trends, teaching loads, space usage, sources of funding, mission creep, intercollegiate athletics, auxiliary enterprises, and the role of foundations and fund raising.” Ideally, they would acquire this familiarity through some means other than being briefed by the president and his staff. However, to expect busy people with careers of their own to accomplish this is unrealistic. I don’t know what the answer is.

    As for alumni groups, it seems that they get riled up and excited about their university’s sports teams, but little else. If the basketball team consistently does not qualify for the NCAA tournament, there will be billboards on the major interstates calling for the coach’s head. I don’t see similar billboards or campaigns decrying high tuition, low graduation rates, or faculty teaching too few classes.

    • ” If the basketball team consistently does not qualify for the NCAA tournament, there will be billboards on the major interstates calling for the coach’s head. I don’t see similar billboards or campaigns decrying high tuition, low graduation rates, or faculty teaching too few classes.”


    • “As for alumni groups, it seems that they get riled up and excited about their university’s sports teams, but little else.”

      Well… not always.

    • A lot of people serve on nonprofit or similar boards, including those of community groups. Some are there for their resume, but most people take it seriously and dig deeply into the issues. A college board member who doesn’t take the time to do her/his job should just quit or be asked to leave.

      These boards could provide good oversight if they wanted to do so.

  2. In a corporate board the members must be qualified to sit on the board. They can be sued by the shareholders for any number of reasons. Specific positions on the board, such as chairman of the audit committee, have more rigid requirements.

    As far as I can tell, board of visitor positions in Virginia, especially at UVa, are high society badges of honor. They entitle the board member to considerable bragging rights while sipping bourbon and branch water on the porch of some antebellum Richmond mansion during a party. The seats are awarded to those willing to donate small fortunes to the Virginia politicians and political parties in favor at the moment. In other words, like so much else in Virginia, the board seats are bought and paid for.

  3. I agree board members are generally equipped to understand the complexities of universities and the positions are generally viewed as sinecures. I can only recall three situations in Virginia where boards took activist roles in challenging or removing presidents. The Dragas family was involved in two. If I recall correctly, George Dragas and the ODU board was instrumental in removing President Marchallo and ultimately replacing him with Mr. Koch, who wrote this book. The board thought the president was ineffective and challenged him. The daughter of Mr. Dragas, essentially tried to do the same thing at UVA and replace President Sullivan, but the board reversed itself under pressure. W&M’s board, then with Michael Powell as Rector, was involved in removing President Nichol, who appeared to be more interested in activism and signaling than leading the university. Nichol removed a cross from the chapel in the Wren Building, which caused a gift of something like $10M or $15M to be rescinded by Jim McGlothlin, an alumnus. Nichol’s demise was more of an own goal compared to what was going on at UVA during Sullivan’s tenure or during Jim Ryan’s tenure.

  4. While things have changed, and drastically, as an undergrad circa 1972, I was paying about $900 for 12 to 15 semester hours in-state Va. A girl I dated at the time, who was home for Xmas, was paying $90 for in-state Ca at a San Diego state school.

    It was punishing.

  5. “Although Koch does not mention the point, faculty and administrators also are driven by ideology.”

    That is a shocking omission. Kock’s book by definition is woefully inadequate as a result. As to Jim’s characterizations on Kock’s views he found in Kock’s book, those comments are quite shallow and well known to the point of being little more than a list of platitudes. The real problems of Higher Education, and its governance via colleges and universities lie far deeper, and require far deeper solutions. This is illustrated by events, and realities far beyond the discussion found here.

  6. “Although Koch does not mention the point, faculty and administrators also are driven by ideology.”

    That is a shocking omission. Kock’s book by definition is woefully inadequate as a result.


    For example, since the late 1960’s, the Boards and Presidents of our colleges and universities have presided over their faculty and administrators who were (and are right now) busy at work erasing American history, and its founding principles, from the collective memory of their students. This is a book burning of knowledge on a massive scale unknown in human history until the 1960s, and it has been increasing every year ever since, a genocide of intellectual history on which Western Civilization, its practices, its survival, and our nation depends.

    The annihilation of American traditions, legacies, and histories undertaken by our colleges and universities over five decades now is nearly complete. For example, the College Board’s Advanced Placement tests, a test that our high schools must teach towards if their students are to gain admittance to college, now has erased almost all references to American exceptionalism: liberty and freedom and equality of opportunity, the primacy of each individual’s right to pursue happiness, including his or her self-governance; and the College Board’s intentional erasure of nearly all the American founders whose founding documents created a republic whose citizen’s liberty, freedom, and independence changed the world.

    As a result, the leaders of higher education in America over the past 50 years have failed to prevent, and now, in most cases, are still actively enabling this ongoing crime against humanity.

    Meanwhile, we all have watched it happen over a period of fifty years, most watching without comment or complaint. Oddly, it took a single vulgar sign posted on a resident’s door by a single student to wake up, to some very limited degree, a few alumni. This means that now, at last, we no longer have any excuse for our vast ignorance and gross neglect, our cowardly wastage of our ancestors memory and most all they handed down to us. This we have besmirched and allowed to be dragged through the dirt and torn apart, much as Achilles’s in his war chariot tore apart Hector’s dead body. We knew this story, so our acts are without excuse. And far worse than Achilles, who knew no better, yet transcended his ignorance at long last, seeing Priam’s pain, and though it the dignity of all men, even one’s battlefield opponents. Our erasure of this story deprives our children to the right to avoid our mistakes. Thus, our crimes against history when we knew better have compounded our crimes, having condemned our children to similar crimes by reason of our exiling them into darkness and ignorance.

    Now, it is time for us to understand that this is not a signage problem, nor is it a management problem. Our legacy of humanism, built brick by brick over more than 5000 years, is at stake. And those who, in breach of their sacred fiduciary duty allowed it to happen, while collecting the benefits of those running the carnage, need not lecture to us now, but in upmost humility.

    • “This is not a signage problem, nor is it a management problem. Our legacy of humanism, built brick by brick over more than 5000 years, is at stake.”

      Very true, Reed. And the situation at UVa is far worse than even you know (and you’re more attuned than most). I’ll have more to say soon.

  7. Jim says:

    “Very true, Reed. And the situation at UVa is far worse than even you know (and you’re more attuned than most). I’ll have more to say soon.”

    That is very good news, the suggestion that new facts, events, circumstances, and their details, at UVA are soon exposed to light of day. Whatever they may turn out to be, I doubt I will be surprised.

    What I know or strongly suspect about how UVA has been intentionally designed / built over the past 8 plus years leads me to believe that UVA has been hijacked by private interests at great cost and harm to UVA’s charter and mission, to Virginia, its citizens, and most of its students. I have much more to say about this myself, so as to fill a great gap in explanation and understanding of why UVA acts as it has since the spring of 2012 with such chronically horrible results. Aubrey Daniel indictment by letters, of course, raises this issue vividly yet again. And I have much more yet to say about this subject itself.

  8. This came across my computer screen today from the Kirk Center and seems appropriate here:

    “Classic Kirk: a curated selection of Russell Kirk’s perennial essays

    Three Pillars of Order: Edmund Burke, Samuel Johnson, and Adam Smith

    From Redeeming the Time (ISI Books, 2006)

    What Matthew Arnold called “an epoch of concentration” impends over the English-speaking nations. The revolutionary impulses and the social enthusiasms that dominated our century since their great explosion in Russia are now confronted by a countervailing physical and intellectual force. Fanatic ideology has been, in essence, rebellion against the old moral order of our civilization. To resist ideology, certain principles and forces of order have been waked, quite as they stirred against French innovating fury after 1790. We have entered upon a time of reconstruction and revaluation; we discern a resurrected conservatism in politics and philosophy and letters.

    Britain during Arnold’s “epoch of concentration” became, despite its disillusion, a society of high intellectual achievement, the revolutionary energy latent in it diverted to reconstructive ends. That the epoch of concentration displayed moral qualities so powerful, that it did not sink into a mere leaden reaction, Arnold attributed to the influence of Edmund Burke. Indeed Burke succeeded in death, beyond his own last expectations, at his labor of upholding the order of civilization. “The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.” Let me add to the name of Edmund Burke the great names of Samuel Johnson and Adam Smith; and permit me to suggest to you, very succinctly, how these three men of the latter half of the eighteenth century explained and defended that social and moral order which endures to our own present troubled decade.

    Although the three great men knew one another, they were not intimates; Smith and Johnson, indeed, were adversaries. Burke was a practical leader of party, Johnson a poet and a critic, Smith a professor (nominally) of moral philosophy. (Actually, he at once converted his Glasgow appointment into a chair of finance and political economy.) Johnson was a Tory; Burke and Smith were Whigs. Doubtless their ghosts would be astonished to find their names joined amicably near the end of the twentieth century. Yet it may be said of them what T. S. Eliot wrote of the partisans of the English Civil Wars: they “Accept the constitution of silence/And are folded in a single party.” What party, nowadays? Why, we may call it the party of order.

    All three men were moralists; all were realists and shrewd observers; all gave primacy to order in the commonwealth. I propose to touch briefly upon some of their several convictions, to compare the three, and to suggest their relationships. We turn first to Burke, about whom I have written much—probably too much.

    * * *

    In 1790, when Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution in France, he had been a politician for thirty years. Yet his ambition it had been, in his youth, to succeed as a man of letters, eschewing “crooked politicks.” Like Johnson, Burke was a man of letters who derived his politics from his ethics and his knowledge of history (as well as from his intensive practical experience, in Burke’s case); but unlike Johnson, he made politics his career. It took the catastrophe of the French Revolution to divert the Whig politician from practical statecraft to consideration of the first principles of the civil social order.

    When only seventeen years old, Burke had glimpsed the abyss into which the Enlightenment would tumble. “Believe me,” he wrote then to a friend, “we are just on the verge of Darkness and one push drives us in—we shall all live, if we live long, to see the prophecy of the Dunciad fulfilled and the age of ignorance come around once more. . . .Is there no one to relieve the world from the curse of obscurity? No, not one….” And he quoted Vergil: “The Saturnian reign returns and the great order of the centuries is born anew.”

    By 1790, Saturn was in arms. Anacharsis Cloots wrote to Burke in May of that year that Europe should have no more Gothic architecture: Notre Dame would be pulled down, and a harmonious Temple of Reason would be erected on the cathedral’s site, to be admired by all connoisseurs of the arts. But Burke resolved that the Gothic edifice of European civilization should not be submitted to the wrecker’s bar. Against an armed doctrine, a revolution of moral ideas carried on by violence, Burke contended with all his power. His determination it was to refurbish “the wardrobe of a moral imagination.” Passions once unchained, abstract benevolence and enlightened poses would not suffice to keep men from anarchy, Burke knew. The obscene and the terrible, the sensual and the dark, rise out of the depths when moral authority is derided. For man comes out of mystery, and is plunged back into grisly obscurity when he presumes to fancy himself the rational master of everything on earth. So ran Burke’s burning rhetoric in his later years. There are flames of glory, and flames of damnation. We are born into a moral order, Burke told England; and if we defy that order, our end is darkness.

    “Burke gives the state a soul,” Hans Barth writes. “He makes it personal, he fills it with the values and contents of the individual soul. He wants to make it worthy of devotion and of the possible sacrifice of one’s life.” Burke perceived that the just state exists in a tension between the claims of authority and the claims of freedom. And love of country, like love of kindred or friends, Burke knew, cannot be the fruit of mere rational calculation. Nothing, he said, is more evil than the heart of a thoroughbred metaphysician—that is, of the “intellectual” who enthrones his ego and his private stock of reason upon the ruins of love, duty, and reverence.

    In the Jacobins, Burke perceived the fanatics of the armed doctrine, determined to sweep away Christian love and the old rule of law—the revolt of the arrogant enterprising talents of a nation against property and the traditions of civility. It remained for the men of the Napoleonic era to coin the word “ideologue” to describe this passion for innovation, this violent eagerness to abolish the old morality and the old social order, that the New Jerusalem might be created on principles of pure reason.

    To resist the Jacobins, Burke undertook what Louis Bredvold justly called “the reconstruction of social philosophy.” Like Plato in another time of disorder, Burke endeavored to adapt the ancient structure of his civilization to the challenges of the age. Knowing that mankind really is governed not by the speculations of sophists, but by a “stupendous wisdom molding together the great mysterious incorporation of the human race,” Burke sought to revive the understanding of “the contract of eternal society.”

    One of the more lively disputes over Burke’s meaning has arisen from the question of whether Burke was primarily a man of enduring principles, or a champion of expediency and empiricism; whether he stood in the “great tradition” of classical thought, or was a Romantic irrationalist. This controversy seems to have been stirred up chiefly by a passage in Leo Strauss’ Natural Right and History. “Burke comes close to suggesting that to oppose a thoroughly evil current in human affairs is perverse if that current is sufficiently powerful,” Professor Strauss wrote; “he is oblivious of the nobility of last-ditch resistance.” Although the late Leo Strauss was an admirer of Burke, this observation of his has been carried by others to a general denunciation of Burke as a guide in a time of revolution.

    The concluding paragraph of Burke’s Thoughts on French Affairs (1791) is the source from which Strauss’ criticism issues. “If a great change is to be made in human affairs,” Burke wrote, “the minds of men will be fitted to it, the general opinions and feelings will draw that way. Every fear, every hope, will forward it; and then they, who persist in opposing this mighty current in human affairs, will appear rather to resist the decrees of Providence itself, than the mere designs of men. They will not be resolute and firm, but perverse and obstinate.”

    Burke’s hostile critics interpret this passage to mean that in Burke’s view principles change with times, and morals with climes; and that (anticipating Hegel) we ought not to oppose futilely the March of History. But this interpretation of Burke ignores Burke’s actual course. Anyone interested in the matter ought to reread Thoughts on French Affairs. Therein Burke does not hint that perhaps the champions of religion and of things established ought to let themselves be swept away by the current of the French Revolution. On the contrary, he says that effectual opposition to the Revolution must be the work of many people, acting together intelligently; he professes his inability, as an old politician retired from Parliament and separated from his party, to do more than to declare the evil. The “mighty current” for which he hopes is an awakening of the men with “power, wisdom, and information” to the peril of the Revolution; he is asking for a surge of public opinion in support of things not born yesterday. Providence ordinarily operates through the opinions and habits and decisions of human beings, Burke had said years before; and if mankind neglects the laws for human conduct, then a vengeful providence may begin to operate. Of all men in his time, Burke was the most vehemently opposed to any compromise with Jacobinism. He would have chosen the guillotine rather than submission—or, as he put it, death with the sword in hand. He broke with friends and party, sacrificing reputation and risking bankruptcy, rather than countenance the least concession to the “peace” faction in England.

    Neither an irrational devotee of the archaic, nor an apostle of the utilitarian society that was emerging near the end of his life, Edmund Burke looms larger every year, in our time, as a reluctant philosopher who apprehended moral and social order. Practical politics, he taught, is the art of the possible. We cannot alter singlehandedly the climate of opinion, or the institutions of our day, by a haughty adherence to inflexible abstract doctrines. The prudent statesman, in any epoch, must deal with prevailing opinions and customs as he finds them—though he ought to act in the light of enduring principles (which Burke distinguished from “abstractions,” or theories not grounded in a true understanding of human nature and social institutions as they really are.)

    Burke might have been many things—among those, a great economist. Adam Smith declared that Burke’s economical reasoning, as expressed in Burke’s Thoughts on Scarcity, was closer to his own than that of anyone else with whom he had not directly communicated. As editor of The Annual Register for many years, and architect of such elaborate pieces of legislation as the Economical Reform, Burke was intimately acquainted with the science of statistics in its eighteenth-century genesis. Yet Burke often expressed his dislike of “sophisters, economists, and calculators,” by whom the glory of Europe was extinguished. Elsewhere in the Reflections, he argues that industry and commerce owe much to “ancient manners,” to the spirit of a gentleman and the spirit of religion, and would fall without the support of those ancient manners; yet he remarks with some contempt that “commerce, and trade, and manufacture” are “the gods of our economical politicians.” Despite the Whigs’ commercial connections, Burke remains strongly attached to the agricultural and rural interests. He rebukes obsession with economic concerns, perceiving that society is something vaster and nobler than a mere commercial contract.

    Burke reviewed favorably The Wealth of Nations in The Annual Register, and occasionally met Adam Smith at the Club, in London. Smith was Burke’s host in Edinburgh, in 1784, and they met there again in 1785; Smith obtained Burke’s nomination to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. They were friendly, in short, but not close collaborators. Many parallels may be drawn between their respective remarks on political economy; but it should be noted that Smith, in his social assumptions, was more of an individualist than was Burke. I suspect that Burke may have been a trifle uneasy with Smith because of Smith’s intimate friendship with the great skeptic David Hume, against whose first principles Burke set his face. (For his part, Hume desired Burke’s friendship, and it was Hume who first introduced Smith to Burke’s writings, telling him to send a copy of his Theory of Moral Sentiments to “Burke, an Irish gentleman, who wrote lately a very pretty treatise on the Sublime.”)

    With Samuel Johnson, Burke’s connection was dearer and more interesting. We take up the great man of Gough Square.

    * * *

    “The first Whig was the Devil.” A good many people know little more of Samuel Johnson’s politics than this witticism, which does suggest, indeed, Johnson’s emphasis on ordination and subordination. But Johnson was a political thinker of importance, though no abstract metaphysician in politics.

    It will not do to look at Johnson through the spectacles of “the Whig interpretation of history” or on the basis of silly commentaries in popular literature-textbooks which result from ignorance of Johnson’s doctrines and milieu. The political Johnson was a reasonable, moderate, and generous champion of order, quick to sustain just authority, but suspicious of unchecked power. If one analyzes his Tory pamphlet Taxation No Tyranny, one finds that Johnson merely was stating the long accepted and still valid definition of the word “sovereignty” as a term of politics—not advocating absolutism.

    There runs through Johnson’s works a strong vein of disillusion and doubt of human powers, a sense of the vanity of human wishes … (END Quote)

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