Bored of the Board of Regents

Word out of Austin is the Senate will hold hearings on the University of Texas Board of Regents to determine “whether the regents are going beyond their policy-setting roles and are meddling in administrative and operations functions at the university, which should be Powers’ role.” Senate Higher Education Committee Chairman Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo want to find out “if the regents are micromanaging the university to its detriment.”

This, quite possibly, is the most exciting news out of Austin this legislative session. Forget public school funding (mostly because they’ll never really solve that problem) or water issues (mostly because fracking will use up any water we have left).

For those who don’t know, the Board of Regents, called Board of Governors and various other things in other states, is a group of political appointees tapped by the governor of any given state, usually “in consultation with the elected legislative branches,” to provide public oversight to institutions receiving public funds.

In theory, these groups are there to ensure fairness, equity, and check that a university is, in fact, serving the larger good within any given state. A Board of Regents for a System (University of Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech) also helps ensure macro-level consistency with allocated funds, missions, and system-wide policies as they relate to serving particular student populations.

In practice lately, these groups have become increasingly intrusive into the daily lives of most university campuses. One need look no further than the University of Virginia a couple of years ago when the Board of Governors fired the university president in a closed door meeting under politically charged circumstances. In our own system, our Regents consistently participate in micro-level decisions that are not within their purview.

The irony, as you might imagine, with ever intrusive Boards is relatively easy to imagine:

1. Boards are political appointees with no higher education experience. Much like the current trend in Texas of appointing Chancellors who are politicians not educators (Kent Hance at Texas Tech, John Sharp at A&M), membership is largely determined by the amount of campaign contributions handed out. Universities are multi-million dollar (multi-billion for UT and A&M) units. In the “real world” (because universities are never the real world), no business would create a board of directors filled with members who didn’t have expertise with that company’s product. Simply put, the only expertise these folks usually have is that they went to college. That’s like arguing my love of hamburgers means I can run Wendys.

2. As public funding for higher educations shrinks, intrusive oversight increases. When I went to college at Sam Houston State in Huntsville, the state funded around 65-70% of my education. The mid-80s weren’t necessarily a time of great prosperity in the state, but we had the last vestiges of a government that believed higher education served a greater good. In essence, everyone in the state benefits from an educated population; hence, everyone pays a small amount. Our philosophy has clearly shifted. Currently, the state provides around 30-35% of funding for higher education, clearly indicating that we prefer a kind of user-fee model. The irony, I think, is that I’ve never worked for a university in a state not controlled by “small government, anti-regulation” politicians. Logically, the state would reduce funding and reduce regulation. Instead, they reduce funding while increasing regulation.

3. The Board is, in theory, designed to hold universities accountable for their decisions, yet the Board is accountable to only the Governor, a friend and recipient of political contributions. In other words, a Board member has more freedom and less accountability than a tenured faculty member and they are evaluated less often. Importantly, there is also no hiring “process” for a Board member. There are no public hearings, no votes, and, seemingly, no input from those entities most impacted by the appointment.

What, you may ask, is wrong with intrusive, unqualified, over-regulation? (Actually, if you are asking that question, I’m not sure why you are reading the blog.)

In addition to the extra work required to handle increased requests for reports and justifications for what used to be routine decisions, intrusive, politically appointed boards change the dynamic on a university campus. Currently, our Board of Regents places a Board member on every administrative search committee. (Remember–this person serving on the search committee will later vote to approve the person recommended for the job.) Inevitably, a Board member’s behavior influences which job candidates move forward. Their approval or dissent of a candidate signals how the Board will vote on that candidate at the earliest stages of the process.

More importantly, perhaps, administrative candidates must now be people adept at handling the politically charged atmosphere of the Board, a group (in Texas) of conservative Republican friends of our Governor not necessarily those most qualified to run an educational institution. The net result, unfortunately, creates an increasingly large divide between the administrative unit and the faculty. A president (or provost) becomes increasingly beholden to a Board peopled by members with preconceived ideas regrading education. When the president rejects the Board in favor of faculty desires, we get the University of Virginia. Or, the University of Texas.

Richard Vedder, in his essay “The Damage That Accreditors Do” (posted to Minding the Campus) does an excellent job of showing us how accrediting bodies, groups external to the university, are adversely impacting universities. Vedder notes these groups are largely unaccountable and increasingly political, yet they create rules and regulations universities must follow in order to receive federal funds. (Interestingly enough, the accreditors desires often contradict the Board member’s desires.) We might say the same thing about Boards of Regents.

I certainly understand the need for external evaluation and oversight. Universities are large public entities whose primary missions should include serving the population within which the school resides. Establishing a body to ensure that we stay focused on such missions is important, but I think it’s also high-time we found a way to ensure those bodies are held accountable for their behavior also.

Addendum: After I posted this, the Texas Tribune reported: “Similar concerns also led Senate Higher Education Chairman Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, to file a bill that would curb what he also referred to as “micromanagement” by regents. The bill would prevent regents who had not gone through the Senate confirmation process from being able to vote on budgetary and personnel matters, require more robust regent training and say that powers not designated to a university system or its board are under the purview of individual institutions.” Good for Mr. Seliger. Let’s look at all the Boards. 

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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