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Partisan Political Battles
Governing boards and university presidents are plagued by divided loyalties

By Gerald L. Baliles

EDUCATION AND POLITICS are not strangers. The reports are heard around the nationöand my state is no exception. Just as in states such as New York, Kentucky and Illinois, the governance of Virginiaâs system of higher education has undergone intense scrutiny and significant change in recent years. And according to published reports, more and more education planning is being influenced and vetted through partisan political channels.

The statesâ policies on tuition, financial aid, admissions and access are being ardently debated as colleges and universities struggle to reconcile diminishing resources, an ever-accelerating telecommunications revolution, and increasing diversity with their goals for excellence in teaching and learning.

The scrutiny is well founded. All public agencies require oversight. In the U.S. system of higher education, governing boards are appointed by governors or legislators to serve dual roles: as loyal stewards to the institution and as servants to the public trust. Traditionally, governors and legislatures for the most part, have appointed knowledgeable and committed citizens to these critical positions, and have trusted the appointees to fulfill their roles.

More recently, however, there appears to be a change in role perception by board members in that they, increasingly, now seem to feel that their responsibilities and loyalties go to the governorâs officeöor some other political officeörather than to the institutions and their students and faculty.

There appears to be, also, a growing political chill in the wind for higher education. In Virginia, for example, the highly regarded State Council of Higher Education, a policy coordinating body appointed by the governor, is headed by a director appointed by the council. The most recent director, who had received high praise from both Democratic and Republican governors and legislators over a 20-year span, as well as national recognition for his independent leadership, recently left the council in what was widely regarded as a political push.

Here is what happened, according to the press: The governor introduced legislation to have the director appointed by the governor; it was defeated in the Legislature by members of both parties. The governor then proposed to cut the budget of the council in half; this also was rejected by the Legislature. The governor then appointed a sufficient number of allies and former staff members to the council to remove the director. Also, there have been published reports of other straws in the wind: strong professional staff departures, shifts away from long-term policy planning, proposed changes in the councilâs composition and powers, among others.

Across the nation, there are many other stories being reported about the arctic winds of partisan political agendas blowing across the campuses of higher education.

From my perspective, what this strife represents is a departure from a basic commitment. It is an abandonment of our continuing responsibilities to provide the best possible education, in favor of the fleeting caprice of current political blueprints or, more dangerously, the lure of ideological factions. What we need, as ever, is a long-standing commitment to excellence in higher educationöthe kind of commitment that endures across years and different administrations, with a strong commitment to the institution and to the public trust.

Naturally, high-quality appointments to the board are essential to the success of higher education. Board members play a major role in the success or failure of presidencies, and hence, in the college or universityâs advancement or stagnation.

As a former governor, I recognize that politics will always influence board appointments to some degree. However, there is an emerging public perception that some governors and legislatures have thrown all the weight on political alliances and support. They ignore the need for an honest commitment, some knowledge of the complicated issues facing higher education, and loyalty to an institution.

Recently I served as chairman of a 22-member national panel of leaders in education, business, government and the media that focused on leadership in higher education. The Commission on the Academic Presidency, sponsored by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, concluded that board members, by acting on the basis of politically expedient, short-term objectives, seriously undermine college and university leadersâ ability to establish institution-wide priorities. The problem is particularly acute for presidents.

Torn between allegiances to the board, to state policy makers, to the faculty, alumni and new business interests, the college presidency is more politicized than ever before. Presidents represent the core of the institution. They must position their institutions for success in a competitive marketplace, ensuring that costs do not exceed income. More than any other campus leader, they are responsible for crafting and implementing a strategic plan for the overall institution.

When solely political agendas emerge from the board and interrupt this careful planning, the institutionâs health and well being may be put in jeopardy.

Politics also motivates higher educationâs system of shared governance. As suggested in the media in Virginia this year, boards are sometimes directly guided by a political agenda separate from the stated long-term goals of the university. And within the unique structure of shared governance, even aside from any partisan politics, the president often finds himself or herself negotiating between two very different cultures: the boardâs business-minded, bottom-line orientation and the facultyâs thorough study and consultation approach to decision making. The president may be forced to work at the center of acrimonious relations when shared differences of opinion arise over policy decisions.

The Commission on the Academic Presidency found that a president needs trustees to serve as advocates and supporters of the presidentâs vision, strategy and efforts on behalf of the institution. The president needs a board that will work to better inform itself not only about funding and cost issues, but also about academic programs and their quality, efficiency and affordability.

The board, working with the president, should be actively involved in developing goals that reflect a clear sense of institutional direction and priorities. Shared governance should unite the board, the president, faculty members and elected policy makers around common objectives for ensuring the future of higher education and of future generations. Policymaking based on ephemeral political agendas and patched together in partisan battles should have no place in higher education.

Who wins these battles? That is not always clear, for the public perception is that politics often can blur the image of winners and losers in such struggles. In the end, however, the only winners should be the students and the citizens of the state, who depend on higher education for their economic productivity and for the future leadership of this society.

Gerald L. Baliles is a former governor of Virginia (1986÷1990), and is currently partner and head of the International Law Group with Hunton & Williams in Richmond, Virginia.

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