New Challenges for the Academic Affairs Committee

By Kathleen B. Rogers    //    Volume 28,  Number 5   //    September/October 2020

Recent national events, such as the novel coronavirus pandemic and the widespread protests for racial justice, will continue to impact colleges and universities for quite some time. As these institutions seek to adjust to a changing operational and financial reality, boards may need to revisit traditional ways of allocating responsibilities among their standing committees. Increasingly, these reassessments may include considerable focus on the structure and purview of the academic affairs committee.

The vast majority of governing boards at U.S. colleges and universities have an academic affairs committee. A review of hundreds of governance documents at both private and public institutions confirms that these committees typically oversee promotion, tenure, and academic quality, along with assuring that academic programs and priorities are appropriately funded.

None of these traditional responsibilities will disappear anytime soon, but the question posed by the current environment is whether other oversight responsibilities should be added to the classic academic affairs portfolio? To my mind, the answer is an emphatic “yes.” Colleges and universities should explore the potential benefits, within the context of their own missions, of expanding trustees’ “academic” oversight to embrace issues that have traditionally been left to presidents, provosts, and faculty.

An online search of governance documents reveals that many schools that have updated their bylaws in the last decade have renamed their academic affairs committees to reflect broader duties. These schools recognize that preserving financial health, securing campus peace, and maintaining institutional reputation are central to delivering the core academic experience of the institution.

A number of these boards have combined once separate student affairs and academic affairs committees into a single body. They came to realize that separating concern for undergraduate student life from concern for the quality and funding of academic programs is fundamentally at odds with the way students experience college. For example, which trustee committee should oversee retention? Is a falling retention rate a matter for the student affairs or academic affairs committee? Experienced trustees know that it is both, because students transfer elsewhere when they are dissatisfied with the academic offerings, facilities, campus life, or financial resources.

Trustee oversight of undergraduate retention was the catalyst that prompted my university to merge our separately focused committees into a single entity now named Educational Stewardship. This committee follows the student experience through its life-cycle—recruitment, enrollment, orientation, campus life, retention, graduation, and career placement—in addition to the traditional academic affairs concerns for the quality and relevance of our academic programs. The “Ed Stew” committee—as it is known on our campus—has its own subcommittee to address matters of tenure, promotion, new academic programs, and honorary degrees.

For a list of alternative names for your academic affairs committee, please see the box on page 30.

But boards are doing more than changing the names of their committees. The traditional academic affairs committee is increasingly being replaced by a committee that now oversees strategic plans along with declining enrollments, the demands for new academic programs, and degrees (and the closure of underperforming ones), and the effective redeployment of faculty resources in response to these changes.

The typical college or university governance document vests ultimate authority in the board of trustees. But making clearer in plain terms that final decision-making belongs to the board can inform campus expectations and facilitate oversight of the strategic measures that trustees have determined are essential. Clearly delineated responsibilities may even be welcomed by senior administrators who are on the front lines with faculty and students. A president or provost facing dismayed and angry faculty when tasked with assessing the viability of chronically underperforming programs, may find it useful to refer to governance documents to support difficult inquiries and data requests.

Let’s consider three scenarios in which an academic affairs committee could benefit from having its “academic” oversight better defined.

Case Study #1

In response to declining enrollments and revenues, trustees of a tuition-dependent college approve a new strategic plan. The plan calls for: (a) investing in signature academic strengths; (b) launching new programs to appeal to high school seniors; and (3) closing chronically underperforming programs. The executive committee tasks the academic affairs committee to oversee the timely implementation of these strategic initiatives and to report back to the full board regularly.

If you serve on the academic affairs committee, would you feel it fell squarely within your committee’s purview to monitor both the progress of the new strategic plan and the implementation of the changes required to achieve the strategic objectives?

Would you feel more comfortable if your governance documents included one or more these provisions which are taken directly from actual bylaws and committee charters:

The Academic Affairs Committee is responsible for overseeing progress in achieving all academic components of the university’s strategic plan.

The Academic Affairs Committee shall develop, recommend, and monitor the implementation of strategies that advance the academic goals of the college.

The Academic Affairs Committee is responsible for ensuring that academic programs fit student interests and needs and enhance their educational experience.

The Academic Affairs Committee shall consider and approve whether academic programs are appropriately responding to student needs, interests, and professional workforce demands.

And what about the request from the executive committee to oversee the closing of chronically under-performing programs? Would your committee feel more comfortable doing so if your governance documents included either of these statements taken from actual bylaws:

The Academic Affairs Committee shall deal with educational policies and plans … and inform itself as to measures needed to make the most effective use of the resources of the university for educational purposes.

The Academic Affairs Committee is responsible for ensuring that … faculty policies and procedures are effective, efficient, and consistent with academic and institutional needs and priorities.

Why is board oversight on faculty redeployment so important? Because it facilitates critical discussions along these lines:

  • What expertise is in our tenure pipeline for new academic programs?
  • Can we redeploy tenured faculty from stagnant degree programs to growing ones?
  • Do we have faculty willing and able to teach across disciplines in virtual classrooms and emerging modalities?
  • Can the board responsibly continue to grant lifetime employment in the form of tenure without regard to institutional needs?

The last point—considering tenure applications in conjunction with institutional need—is especially worthy of trustee attention. Unstable and unpredictable student enrollments call for heighted scrutiny in tenure cases. How precious faculty resources will be successfully allocated to new programs with revenue potential, and whether investments and tenure commitments can continue indefinitely in programs that no longer attract students, are appropriate stewardship questions, particularly for those overseeing tuition-dependent colleges.

Let’s look at another area where trustee oversight has not occurred regularly in the past but may need to be revisited to respond to today’s realities.

Case Study #2

A philosophy professor is showing sexually explicit materials in class. Students complain. The professor refuses to omit the images, citing academic freedom and the First Amendment. The students claim that their rights under Title IX trump the professor’s rights. They threaten to file a complaint with U.S. Department of Education.

The president and provost have found an intermediate solution to the students’ classroom concerns, but the institution has suffered bad press—from both sides of the issue. Trustees are dismayed and embarrassed by the negative media coverage.

The chair of the board calls the chair of the academic affairs committee to report that trustees are inquiring about university policies and practices and to ask the academic affairs to take up this incident report to the full board on their deliberations.

Would your institution’s president, provost, or faculty be less surprised by the committee’s inquiries if your governance document included any of these provisions which are culled from actual bylaws and committee charters?

The committee’s primary responsibilities are to assure that any policies in the faculty handbook affecting or relating to faculty conduct and dismissal are clearly articulated and are approved by the board before the policies take effect.

The Academic Affairs Committee reviews and considers policies relating to recruitment and retention of faculty members, including tenure, academic freedom, and academic responsibility and codes of conduct and makes recommendations to the board on these and other matters referred to it by the board.

In carrying out its responsibilities, the committee shall take responsibility for serving as diligent and knowledgeable board members regarding academic programs and academic policies.

The admonition that wise trustees keep their “noses in but fingers out” of university business may need updating. More than ever, trustees may need to get their hands dirty to fulfill their fiduciary duties. Any of the following questions should be considered appropriate for an academic affairs agenda:

  • How is the First Amendment applied on our campus?
  • Is it applied differently, because we are private, not public?
  • Where and how is academic freedom defined on our campus?
  • Who decides what qualifies as academic freedom?
  • Is there a code of conduct for faculty?
  • Is there a process for disciplining faculty who engage in misconduct?
  • What does that process entail?
  • How are students’ complaints against faculty members typically handled?
  • What’s the process if a faculty member has a complaint about a student?

The third fact pattern focuses on issues that are widely covered in the media, often to the dismay of trustees.

Case Study #3

Students in a political science course decide to host a panel on the Second Amendment. Three days before the event, the students realize they have two gun-rights advocates and no one from the gun-control movement. The president and vice president of development learn about the event when angry alumni—on both sides of the issue—object. Social media indicate that outside groups for and against gun control will attend the event.

The event goes forward and students and other attendees shout down the moderator and the panelists. The event is stopped shortly after it begins. Outside the auditorium, protestors confront one another. Eight people, including students, are arrested. Several people, including a panelist, are injured by rocks, flying glass, pushing, and shoving. There are reports of vandalism. The incident is widely covered by local and national media. Trustees are asking many questions and want to discuss the event at their next board meeting.

Before institutions were roiled by the COVID-19 pandemic, they were wrestling with campus protests. When our schools reopen, and we return to our new normal, campus climate issues may be waiting for us. If that happens, trustees may want to start (or resume) discussions about the board’s accountability for civility on campus.

The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges has already encouraged governing boards to take up these issues if they have not already done so. In its 2016 Directors’ Statement on Governing Board Accountability for Campus Climate, AGB urged governing boards to address campus climate issues. Here are a few of the calls to action in the 2016 Directors’ Statement:

Governing boards should actively lead in addressing campus climate issues through effective governance practices that are proactive, responsive, and adaptive.

Boards should periodically review campus climate policies and ensure that those policies are up to date and consistent with institutional mission and relevant laws and regulations.

Boards should also receive reports on institutional efforts and metrics that can guide their responses, including campus climate surveys, student engagement surveys, academic achievement results, and retention rates of various student groups and subgroups.

Some boards have already updated their governance documents to reflect these responsibilities. Consider these directives to academic affairs committees in two schools’ governance documents:

“[T]he committee shall recommend to the board action on policy and oversight in respect to… campus life functions… civility and campus community issues.

The Undergraduate Education Committee oversees the social, ethical, and personal development of undergraduate students. It oversees and recommends policies… related to the undergraduate experience, including… the general physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being of undergraduate students.”

Any of the following questions would be appropriate (and interesting) discussion starters at your next academic affairs committee meeting:

  • Does our institution have effective, updated free speech policies?
  • Are we treating academic freedom and free of expression, similarly, or differently?
  • Do our policies protect unpopular speech and speakers and those who invite the speakers to the campus?
  • Does our institution have well-established policies for handling protests, demonstrations, and civil disobedience on campus?
  • Do we have effective processes to address the behavior of student protestors when violence takes place?

The authors of the 2016 Directors’ Statement cautioned readers that “providing board and institutional leadership on these matters is not easy and working through them can be messy.” This warning is fair, but it should not deter trustees from embracing the challenge. The duty of care trustees owe their institutions requires that board members identify and confront issues that threaten their institutions as comprehensively and effectively as they are able. Some of the most pressing of those current issues suggest that the academic affairs committee should take the lead.

The Academic Affairs Committee by Another Name

Committee names that other institutions employ:

  • Academic Issues Committee
  • Academic Planning Committee
  • Committee on Educational Policy
  • Educational Excellence Committee
  • Academic Excellence Committee
  • Mission Fulfillment Committee
  • People and Programs Committee
  • Educational Policy and Institutional Resources Committee
  • Academic Issues and Student Success Committee
  • Undergraduate Education Committee
  • Graduate Education Committee
  • Educational Stewardship Committee

Areas where academic affairs committees are exercising oversight:

  • Opening programs
  • Closing programs
  • Academic freedom
  • Faculty Handbooks
  • Faculty redeployment
  • Campus climate
  • Student Retention
  • Faculty retention
  • Graduation rates
  • Student advising systems
  • Graduate school acceptance rates
  • Career placement services
  • Financial aid policies
  • Library resources and services
  • Computing and information services
  • Instructional lab facilities
  • Technology transfer and commercialization policies
  • Art collections

Kathleen B. Rogers, JD, is the senior vice president/general counsel and secretary to the Board of Trustees at Simmons University in Boston, Massachusetts.

Takeaways

  • Boards need to reassess their standing committees’ effectiveness and explore opportunities to expand trustees’ responsibilities to embrace issues that have traditionally been left to other leaders in higher education institutions.
  • Traditional academic affairs committees are increasingly being replaced by committees that combine once separate student affairs and academic affairs committees. These dynamic committees take on a broader range of duties and recognize the interdisciplinary nature of solving problems in higher education institutions.
  •  Trustees fulfill their duty of care by embracing the challenges that come with revitalizing academic affairs committees and traversing the operational and financial realities of today.
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