Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Neutering of a Board of Trustees

by Luke Myers

Tomorrow, the Ohio University Board of Trustees will begin discussion on a “Statement of Expectations” (“Statement”) for members of the board. Its current language, in draft form, violates every principle of good governance for public institutions.

First, sections of the “Statement” seek to seriously limit the ability of individual Trustees to publicly dissent against the decisions of the Board. These sections call for the Board to speak with a “single voice” and prohibit Trustees from publicly criticizing the President, the Board or any other university official. Finally, they require that Trustees “publicly support [a] decision even if they held a contrary view during board deliberations.”

Such unnerving provisions are a serious obstacle to transparency. If individual Board Members are not allowed to publicly break with the official line of the majority decision, students, faculty and the taxpaying public are deprived of information vital to evaluating that decision. Individual Trustees are allowed to oppose a measure during the Board Meetings, a section of which are public, but few constituents of the Board have the time to attend these meetings or to read the resulting minutes.

Squashing public opposition will also seriously harm the quality of the decision-making process to begin with. If dissenting Trustees are unable to raise their concerns to the university community or the general public, the creative process of public deliberation is never initiated. The result is a stagnation of opinion and policies; bad decisions will never be fully challenged and revisited, preventing their future improvement.

Finally, another provision of the “Statement” seeks to consolidate the power of the Board of Trustees in its Chair and the President of the university. It provides that individual Trustees’ requests for information should be conveyed to the Chair who will then receive the information from the President. Individual Trustees are admonished from gaining this information directly from the administrators responsible for the data, as is currently allowed.

The constituents to whom the Board is responsible, including the taxpaying public, should be seriously distraught by the likely outcome of decisions made under such draconian rules. The provisions limiting dissent and restricting the flow of information eviscerate the main benefit of having a multi-member Board: diversity of thought. Trustees who are forced to speak alike and receive information alike will have difficulty in not also thinking alike. Furthermore, the elimination of opposition from their own members about the Board’s decisions shows a willful disregard for the need to publicly justify their actions. When a governing body no longer feels a compelling need to defend its decisions against public challenge, it has little incentive left to ensure good decisions are being made.

Although clearly defined roles and expectations of behavior for the Trustees is important to the “best interests of the university,” the protection of which the “Statement” lists as the first duty of individual Trustees, the provisions limiting transparency, dissent and flow of information serve only the interests of whoever has power on the Board. These provisions are more reminiscent of the Stalinist Soviet Union than the principles of academic freedom of thought so cherished by institutions of higher education. They are directly contrary to principles of good governance for public institutions and have no place in the rules of the governing board of an institute of higher education.

Luke Myers is a senior political science major at Ohio University and research assistant for the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

No comments: