June 26, 2012, 11:25 pm

Two recent events in higher education have illustrated the tendency of decision makers outside of the university (i.e., not faculty, staff, or administrators) to overstep their mandates in controlling what happens within the university. The first one is the attempt by the Michigan legislators in their state House to legislate standards for students in counseling programs. The second is the unethical actions of the UVa Board to impose their “unique perspective” on the university by basically staging a coup and firing forcing the resignation of the President. Both of these actions miss some fundamental points about the role of each body, as well as the purpose of the public university in American society. Let’s take the actions one at a time.

First, the bill introduced in the Michigan legislature is designed to address an issue raised by Julea Ward, a student from Eastern Michigan University who was thrown out of her counseling psychology program because she would not counsel lesbian and gay clients. The student refused to work with these clients in a supportive manner, and she wished to simply refer the clients to another practitioner. When told that she would need to provide affirmative support to LGBT clients, which is considered best practice in the field of counseling, Ms. Ward declined and stated that doing so would violate her religious beliefs. The program decided that Ms. Ward could not meet the expected standards of practice and removed her from the program. Ms. Ward sued the university on the basis of religious discrimination. She lost in federal court, but won an appeal in the Sixth District Court of Appeals, who remanded the case back to the lower court for jury trial. While this case is still pending in court, the Michigan House inserted themselves into the situation and passed this bill that TELLS counseling, social work, and psychology programs that they cannot discipline a student who “refuses to counsel or serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief of the student, if the student refers the client to a counselor who will provide the counseling or services.”

Now, we can argue amongst ourselves (or with counseling, psychology, and social work educators) whether there should be religious exemptions for working with LGBT folks. (In fact, Ms. Ward said she also would not provide affirmative support to a heterosexual engaged in an affair… I am honestly not sure who she thinks she will be seeing in counseling, but that is neither here nor there.) But what is amazing to me is the unmitigated gall of the state to mandate to higher education professional programs how they should educate their students. It has always been the purview of educators and their accrediting bodies to decide what and how students should be educated. If the national accrediting body of counseling states that students should be able to work with all clients and should not habitually refer clients based on their sexual orientation, as the American Counseling Association does (and as a lower court in Georgia just affirmed in a similar case), who is the state of Michigan to say otherwise?

We already have the state (like Virginia legislators) telling scientists what they should and shouldn’t study, and what words they should use in talking about their work. But now they are moving beyond federal- and state-funded research to look at the internal mechanics of our programs in a way that presupposes that they understand–better than we do–our fields of study, our missions and goals, and the expectations of our accrediting bodies and students’ future employers. This is outrageous to me. Legislators should set some expectations for public schools they fund (in however limited a manner) about our graduation and job placement rates, how well prepared graduates are for their jobs, and other outcome factors, but telling us “how” our work should get done seems outside their purview to me.

The second case of bad behavior by an external body is the (ultimately failed) ouster of President Sullivan by the Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia. Part of the first statement by the Rector (Board President) discussed how the trustees have a “unique perspective” that enables them to make the best decisions, presumably without needing to consult faculty, alumni, students, staff, or other administrators. I would suggest that having a “unique perspective,” which trustees undoubtedly do, does not equal having the most comprehensive or thoughtful perspective on the workings of the university.

Someone should remind the trustees at UVa, and other universities around the country, that public universities are actually NONPROFITS. That is, public universities are organizations that do not function for profit, but instead function to meet our mission and goals. Most public schools are focused on preparing undergraduate students to become contributing members of our society, through their work, their service, and their community engagement. We want to help students think better, write more clearly, and find ways to collaborate with other people to make a difference in our communities. Faculty and staff also work hard to make a difference in our own states and communities through teaching, research, and service. This work isn’t something we see as optional–in fact, we evaluate our faculty on these criteria to insure they are happening.

That being said, let’s return to the challenge raised by the board… namely, that President Sullivan wasn’t acting like the CEO of a business, using the business model of strategic dynamism. Instead, she was engaged in intentional, systemic change in a nonprofit organization that supports a model of shared governance… Sort of what you want your university president to do, if you ask me. But what about the board’s mandate? Did it meet its mission?

What, in fact, do we want our university boards to do? Those who argue for more board control often create a straw man argument, stating that if boards don’t have this kind of complete, independent control without any faculty, student, or alumni input, they become “rubber stamps” for the whims of the faculty or administration. Well, if we recognize that higher education institutions are nonprofits, you could ask that they do as the folks at Board Source recommend: basically, determine mission and goals, support the chief executive, insure that programs support the mission and goals, and provide financial oversight. You **should not** micromanage your CEO, replace your strategy for the strategy of the person you hired to be CEO, dismiss the perspectives of the staff or those served by your organization, ignore the mission, or (as President Sullivan has noted) surprise the CEO.  Also, it is bad precedent to allow decisions to be made in private one-on-one discussions of board members; big decisions–like deciding to fire the CEO–should only be made after (a) discussions with the CEO, with a chance for remedy (unless there is malfeasance) and (b) a thorough discussion with all members of the board and other stakeholders. Perhaps the Governor should mandate some board training for the Board of Trustees at UVa to head off these kinds of issues in the future.

I am proud of the faculty, staff, alumni, students, and other stakeholders affiliated with UVa, who worked together and raised their voices to oppose the board’s action. I am also glad that the board reversed its decision. I also hear tell that the Michigan bill may die in committee in the state Senate. That would be a wonderful outcome for such a problematic piece of legislation. Nonetheless, I hope that those of us in academe and those who care about higher education and government would take time to reflect on both of these recent actions and what they mean for our understanding of (1) the place of public universities in our culture and (2) the purpose and role of governing boards and legislators in shaping the future of our universities. The events in Michigan and Virginia can be a watershed for public discussions and reflections about public universities, or they can signify nothing more than the continuation of a downward trend toward the eradication of these venerable institutions. As someone who was education in public schools and who has spent my career working in public institutions of higher education, I know which way I hope it will go.


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