Of Boards and the Discourse of Doom

By Daniel R. DeNicola    //    Volume 24,  Number 2   //    March/April 2016

These days, governing board meetings at colleges and universities can be gloomy affairs. The agenda may offer little uplift when it comes to prominent issues on campus: free speech/hate speech controversies, racial tensions and demands for cultural inclusion, “triggers” and “micro-aggressions,” alcohol-fueled sexual assaults, campus-policing policies, preparedness for a range of emergencies, student mental-health concerns, and so on. These issues are urgent, serious, and fraught with institutional implications that often are not easily visible to board members. Although a competent administration develops policy and adjudicates cases in these areas, board members will likely learn more than they ever desired about such matters—and carry an overarching responsibility for them.

Even when board members may turn with greater confidence to a more familiar domain—budget and finance—the mood is often dark. Increasing costs, rising student debt, alarming demographics, falling enrollment, creeping discount rates, insufficient endowments, budget shortfalls, and salary compression are among the financial perils that often await board discussion. Although these challenges might not apply immediately to their own institutions, alert board members may become preoccupied by the need for preventive strategies. An announcement that somewhere a college is closing its doors sends a frisson of dread through many a board meeting.

All of this transpires, of course, against a public drumbeat of negativity and doubt about the future of higher education, specifically of residential education, particularly of liberal-arts education, and especially of humanities education. The usual higher education scandals—various athletics excesses, golden parachutes for controversial presidents, questionable appointments of politically influential individuals, Greek system atrocities, faculty-student harassment, and objectionable course content—are dismaying enough, but they typically pass quickly and are focused on individual cases. Those institutions not implicated can deny that they indicate systemic problems—or, in any event, they are “not a concern on my campus.” But when the negative stories clearly address all of higher education, ducking and denial are not reasonable options.

Is a college degree worth the cost? Has technology made residential colleges obsolete? What use are the humanities? What does one “do” with a liberal-arts degree? Do small colleges have a viable business plan? Though educators may be repelled by the assumptions behind such questions, the queries are thought to be provocative by the popular news media. And such talk can be self-fulfilling, creating the reality critics claim to describe. Politicians looking for budget-reduction targets, particularly those politicians who are hostile to academia, easily buy into the assumptions. Advocacy of higher education is automatically couched as “defense” of higher education; the pointed questions barely hide charges and an indictment. It is natural that board members feel the pressure and have genuine concern: Parents of prospective students are surely reading the same material.

These things weigh us down. The very length of my long lists is depressing. But if just reading them is bringing on a headache, take heart. My point is that although we all can easily fall prey to this “discourse of doom,” board members should not be captured by it—in fact, they are obligated not to be captured by it. (The same is true, incidentally, for faculty members and administrators.) I intend to offer reasons why and suggest how this mindset might be achieved.

Collective Effervescence

There are, of course, undeniable challenges facing institutions of higher education, and they should be addressed directly, with sound judgment and creativity. The diversity of American higher education is one of its great strengths, however; institutions are different and face unique sets of issues. Certainly there are patterns, and some issues do cut across most, if not all, colleges and universities. But sweeping all of these challenges together as universal, urgent, and crucial for survival creates unhelpful and unfounded alarm. At its worst, it produces a climate of fear.

Curiously, even the most judicious and knowledgeable board members may be susceptible to this fear because of the dynamics of periodic board meetings. Board meetings generate what the sociologist Émile Durkheim called “collective effervescence”—a phenomenon in which a group gathers in common purpose and generates a sort of social “electricity” that intensifies emotion and temporarily unifies thought and action. The effect is heightened for groups that have engaged, committed members; that serve a larger purpose; and that have gatherings sharply bounded in time and held in a special place.

Such effervescence can be wonderfully buoyant and inspiring (essential for fundraising campaigns). At such times, the endorphins flow, the group feels happy. But the intensification of affect can also magnify negativity or create a mild delirium. It can precipitate strong, decisive actions that seem necessary, even prudent, in the moment but ultimately are harsh or harmful. Effervescence can skew decision making in three ways. First, the intensity of the moment encourages the decision-horizon to become short-term; the group responds to current data but ignores trends, focusing on individual cases rather than patterns. Second, the sense of urgency, the need to act now, is amplified. Time is precious, and especially the time of busy people during a brief, action-oriented meeting with a lengthy agenda. The pressure to act builds easily. Third, there is a resulting tendency to overreach—after all, the present situation can worsen by the next board meeting. Group dynamics become agitated: strong personalities and simple proposals dominate. Just imagine how all this is magnified if the meeting occurs in an external climate of controversy or emotion, especially fear.

This is why board members become vulnerable to the discourse of doom. The extensive committee work and communication between meetings that characterize exemplary boards serve to ameliorate this effect. Difficult preparatory work for board action is then accomplished under somewhat less “effervescent” circumstances. But unanticipated events, interim interactions, cultural climate, and the news of the day create the atmosphere in which a board gathers. (The Federal Reserve Board is an example of a board that is acutely alert to these effects and attempts carefully to reduce them. And, though one may find it difficult to imagine that effervescence would ever apply to the Fed’s meetings, such a high-profile board is even more susceptible to its effects.) Today, the atmosphere in which collegiate and university boards gather is often fraught with concern and pessimism. Anxiety about the future of the institution often roils beneath the bonhomie.

Taking the Long View

So what is to be done? The first step at times like these is to take the long view. Over the centuries, American higher education has weathered several major crises and absorbed dramatic intellectual, technological, and social changes—indeed it has led many of them. It represents a globally recognized excellence that attracts waves of international students. Colleges and universities have cycles of ritual, renewal, and reform. They experiment, innovate, and adapt; but they do so piecemeal and individually. Within the great diversity of these institutions, it is individual faculty, individual schools, and individual institutions themselves that are the sources of creativity and the domains of change. Education is a basic need and a public good, and nothing on the horizon suggests that need is diminishing. Quite the contrary: The need for education and for specialized training is growing. Combined, these factors give our educational system both adaptability and stability.

To the board member used to decisive corporate boards that engage a fast-paced business world, institutions of higher education often seem sluggish and hidebound; the tradition of shared governance can seem quaint and debilitating. The academic environment, in which everything is political and process often seems more important than outcome, can be baffling. It is easy to understand why a board member—especially one new to academic boards—might believe that such a place is ungovernable and must become more “corporate” to survive. But the fact is that the majority of colleges and universities have survived at a rate far greater than businesses. My own institution, for example, has existed since 1832 with only one early name change and without having a deficit year. How many corporations can boast such a record? And mine is certainly not the wealthiest, the largest, or the most prestigious of the pack. So, the first point is that the long view of higher education should inspire pride and at least a measured confidence.

A sharp critic might now say, “Yes, but the world is moving much faster, and whole industries can be undone by getting behind the curve. It is precisely the trend lines that are alarming for higher education as an industry and for individual institutions. Many colleges and universities just do not have a viable business plan.” These claims are true. But their implications and the degree of alarm they warrant are worth consideration.

Colleges and universities have seldom had what any competent executive would call a viable business plan. They are, after all, traditionally nonprofit institutions, and they never break even. The “plan” has been to sell the products—educational experiences and credentials—for less than it costs to produce them. As a rule of thumb, the more prestigious the institution, the greater is the negative gap between cost and price. The difference is largely covered—or so it is anticipated—by gifts and grants, and by the proceeds from endowments created by earlier gifts and grants. In a way, this difference between the cost per student and the “sticker price” can be seen as the investment an institution makes in each student. Well-endowed institutions invest tens of thousands of dollars annually in each student’s education—even for those who have no financial aid. The business plan of higher education has always relied on voluntary support. Such support has always been fundamental to the operations of independent schools, and it has become so for public institutions, as well.

Hopeful, Not Fearful

Then again, that doesn’t justify whistling in the dark regarding the intersecting projections of costs, tuition rates, student debt, and realistic fundraising goals. It does, however, suggest a compass point for board deliberations and decisions: Colleges and universities are and must be realistic organizations of hope. That’s a phrase that needs to be unpacked.

Effective institutional management requires realism, which is an attitude-inaction that forms reasonable goals, seeks and respects salient facts, and monitors the relevant environment. It does not wish away problems. It is guided by the truth. (Trustees should note the interesting etymological ties between “trust” and “truth.”) Realism must be data-informed, but need not be data-driven. It is cleareyed, but not fearful.

A fearful attitude works at crosspurposesto learning—which is, after all, the supreme aim of the institution the board holds in trust. Education is essentially a hope-driven activity. Its raison d’être is an augmented future—it envisions and cultivates individual and collective betterment. Students learn so as to become more competent, knowledgeable, skillful, compassionate, engaged, and accomplished. Education is also a public good; it is essential not just for the survival of the human race, but for the improvement of society. Training might work to prepare for a disastrous future, but not education. Moreover, research— the secondary aim of higher education— is also a hope-driven activity. Educational activities and research both aim well beyond merely coping with the world; they seek improvement. They thrive under the glow of a bright future.

And here is a key point: The shared sense of an institution’s future pervades the activities within the institution. If the stakeholders are generally fearful about the future of an institution, it will be hard for hope-driven activities to succeed. It is difficult to recruit the best minds as students or faculty, difficult to sustain the best teaching and research, and difficult to retain the best leaders in an institution that believes it is in a precarious state—or acts as if it is. Board members, along with other stakeholders, need an inspirational sense of the future, of motivating possibility. Part of what they hold in trust is the hopefulness that is the heart of their college or university.

It is tempting to think that realism and hope are so antagonistic that they require a division of labor: The president can tend the hope; the board can handle the realism. But that is doubly simplistic. In the first place, boards of trustees, even in hit-and-run meetings, project an affect about the state of the institution and its future. The mood is contagious; it is contracted by senior administrators and, ultimately, whether intentionally or not, it pervades the campus. Board discussions and actions frame a discourse about the institution’s prospects. When that affect is anxious, when that discourse suggests a diminished or perilous institutional future, the energy for teaching and learning and research is drained. Dire projections can be self-fulfilling. That is the realistic danger of the discourse of doom.

In the second place, realism and hope need not be that antagonistic. As I noted, colleges and universities have survived for years relying on the hope of voluntary support (and assiduous efforts to realize that hope). Nevertheless, as the tired but barbed cliché puts it, “hope is not a strategy.” Yet neither is hope a form of hiding from the truth or blithely dismissing unpleasant portents. Not all hope is misplaced. Realizing our hopes usually requires action and sometimes great cunning and effort; but nothing great is accomplished without hope.

The Board’s Role

How can board members protect the hopefulness of their institutions? One way is to dilute the discourse of doom. Among the sometimes necessary talk of retrenchment, reductions, freezes, declines, or, at best, sustainability, boards should work to retain the discourse of potential, investment, enhancement, advancement, and progress. Rhetoric matters, but I mean to say more than “change the rhetoric.” I mean that the ideas that reflect a positive future must motivate and guide board thinking. We all know, as they say, that “no college achieves greatness through budget cuts.” But strategic budget reductions need not prohibit areas of investment and enhancement. The question, “where are you investing?” should be as important as the question, “where are you reducing expenses?”

Another tactic is to call out the prophets of negativity. The news media breathlessly repeat negative stories about higher education that do not reflect our experience “on the ground.” And those stories influence our public. I recently met a worldly and intelligent physician who, learning of my career, asked if I thought colleges like mine “have a future.”

“Why do you ask?” I said. He replied, “Well, aren’t applications to liberal-arts colleges declining?” I admit to giving a self-satisfied response: “Actually, my college’s application pool increased by about 30 percent this past year.” And that is true. I did acknowledge that many institutions did not meet their enrollment goals, and a few had significantly smaller applicant pools. But many held their own or showed an increase. The point is, the picture is complex. Broad, negative generalizations are just that.

In the recent past, prominent politicians have cast aspersions on liberal-arts majors, specifically those students majoring in anthropology, art history, the humanities, and philosophy. The politicians’ statements, usually supportive of a financially measured utility, betrayed their ignorance. One claimed, “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.” The grammatical error is grating enough (fewer philosophers, please), but the claim is false. As Forbes magazine detailed, philosophers actually earn a much higher salary than welders: on average, faculty who teach philosophy make 78 percent more; philosophy majors make 67 percent more at mid-career—and both have more room for compensation growth than welders. (He could have made a positive point just by saying that we need to encourage and promote crafts and technical skills as socially valuable careers.) Another politician, looking to redirect state appropriations, recently said his state didn’t “need any more anthropologists.” The exquisite irony is that one of his state commissions called upon a team of forensic anthropologists who had exposed the horrific lives of juveniles in a now-closed state facility. For educators, the really frustrating aspect of such willful ignorance is that they must correct specific facts when it is the whole framing of the value of education in monetary terms that is objectionable. How the discourse can capture us!

Too often, higher education is portrayed as merely a private good. (An exception, only recently, is education in the STEM disciplines.) But education is also a key public good. An educated citizenry is the most important pillar of democracy—though it sounds almost quaint today when our public ignorance is so severe. Too often, politicians see higher education as another special interest sector— one that is politically troublesome. When those who advocate education, who speak out against false portrayals, are only those within institutions—the faculty and administrators of colleges and universities— it serves to reinforce the model of a special interest. But when alumni, parents, and especially board members do so, it appears less like special pleading and can strengthen the understanding that higher education is a public good. Board members are influential people who volunteer their time for the benefit of an institution. Their testimony has greater effect.

Another way for board members to counter the tendency to let fear override hope is to get to know students and faculty. That can be restorative. When the education-is-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket crowd is roaring, it is remarkably centering to sit down with some outstanding seniors. Their careers may already be impressive. When scholarly work is being mocked in the media, ask a couple of faculty members to talk about their most recent books; ask a group of scientists to explain the importance of their research. Commencements and convocations can elevate the spirit, but they tend to engage us en masse. Board members need to hear the individual stories, understand the individual accomplishments. At colleges and universities all over this country, a qualified and engaged student can receive an excellent education. Yes, some students fall by the wayside, and some graduate with glaring intellectual gaps. But we do graduate a multitude of remarkably bright and talented—and educated— students every year. The have the light of the future in their eyes. They defy the discourse of doom.

No, the role of board members is not to direct or interfere with teaching and learning. But realism requires knowledge of reality. And the closer a board member is to the heart of the institution—the more he or she understands it from the inside—the more its essential hopefulness will be revealed. And the more deeply that person will be committed to securing a bright future for at least one special place.