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The Board of Regents

April 25, 2010

“I’d like to kill that guy.”  The speaker was a faculty member attending a board of regents’ meeting.  She was addressing a stranger sitting beside her who happened to be a newspaper reporter.  The “guy” was a grandstanding member of the board of regents who was proposing to permanently cut the benefits of the faculty and staff.  The occasion was a board of regents meeting at which potential ways to reduce expenditures in response to a cut in state appropriations were being discussed.  This was, of course, not a serious threat to the regent — he is still very much alive, but simply an expression of her frustration.  To her and other faculty, including me, attending this meeting,  this regent, and some of the others, seemed to be completely indifferent to faculty concerns and  fears.  As far as this regent was concerned, university tuition was too high, and this was making the universities less accessible.  (This was in spite of the fact that the universities had record enrollments, and they have among the lowest tuition rates in Midwest.)   His preferred way to keep the universities accessible was to permanently reduce faculty compensation.  For him and his supporters on the board, faculty clearly did not deserve their extravagant salaries.

This regent’s perception of how best to deal with keeping the state’s universities affordable  is clearly at variance with that of most faculty who  feel overworked, underpaid and unappreciated   The faculty would like to see tuition raised to offset the loss of state funding and to bring it in line with tuition rates in surrounding states.  After all, somebody has to pay the bills.  Faculty feel that the regents have done little (probably nothing) to protect university budgets during the budget crisis.   Why is there such a gap between the regents and the faculty?

The regents are political appointees.  Appointment to the regents, or some other state board, is a way for the governor to reward donors and other major supporters.   Not surprisingly, the majority of the regents tend to be from the business community.   There is also a token student regent.  To an outside observer like me, one of the most striking characteristics of the regents is that they seem to know very little about the day-to-day realities of the universities that they govern, except the rankings of their football and basketball teams.  As far as I know, not a single regent has ever worked at a university.  What is equally striking is that the faculty know almost nothing about the regents, other than that they exist.

Most faculty have never been to a regents’ meeting, and they pay little attention to these meetings.  What little they do know about the regents and regents’ meetings they pick up from local newspaper reports and occasionally from the local TV news.  Is this mutual ignorance really a problem?  I think so.  Ignorance may be bliss, but it also results in uninformed decisions being made by both the regents and the faculty. The regents are currently in the process of  developing a new five-year strategic plan.  Faculty are barely mentioned in it, and none of the regents’ proposed goals deal with faculty concerns: declining number of faculty,  increasing workloads, decreasing competitiveness of salaries, etc.  As far as the regents are concerned, the faculty evidently don’t matter, except that they should be teaching more distance education courses.

Faculty input into regents’ meetings is almost non-existent.   This is in sharp contrast to that of students.  As noted, there is a student regent.  Student leaders have breakfast with the regents at each board meeting.  Although the presidents and other members of the faculty senates attend all regents’ meetings, faculty leaders have virtually no access to the regents.  (I have been president of the faculty senate for nearly a year and have never spoken to a single regent.)  Once per year faculty senate presidents do get to give brief statements (five minutes tops) on proposed university budgets for the next fiscal year, but these are pro forma presentations to which the regents pay little (probably no) attention.  The only group of faculty to which the regents have to pay attention are the unionized faculty at  the smallest of the regents’ universities.  These unionized faculty are the de facto voice of all the faculty, at least on salary matters.

The unsung heroes of university governance are the board of regents’ staff.  There are the folks who actually do all the heavy lifting for the regents.  They write the reports, prepare the memos, collate the data, etc. presented at board meetings.  They are knowledgeable about the realities of all aspects of university life.  If faculty know almost nothing about the regents, they know absolutely nothing about the regents’ staff.  I only got to know most of the regents’ staff when I was the director of an institution that reported directly to the regents and that hosted regents’ meetings occasionally.  I have rarely run across a more dedicated and hardworking group of people.   Although they cannot control the actions of the regents, they can influence their decisions  and what actions they decide to take.

What should the faculty do to improve their relations with the regents?  I think that all faculty should be  encouraged to attend regents’ meetings  at least once.  This is easy to do when these meetings are on their campus.   Seeing the regents in action can be both an interesting and sobering experience.   If for no other reason, seeing the president and provost of your university being grilled by their bosses gives faculty some insight into the political and social forces that are shaping the future of the university, not to mention a certain pleasure.  Faculty leaders need to become more aggressive at presenting the concerns, demands, and requests of the faculty to the regents.   Currently, we rely solely on the administration to do this for us, but faculty only represent a small part of their bailiwick.   More formal and informal contacts between faculty leaders and the board of regents staff also need to be developed.   Faculty need to get their messages to the regents more effectively.  Unless they do, faculty frustration with the regents, and vice versa, will only continue to grow.

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