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Regents, campus should resuscitate shared governance

N. William Hines

Des Moines Register

December 22, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by the Press-Citizen, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

The current ruckus between the Board of Regents' leadership and the University of Iowa campus community over the failed search for a University of Iowa president is often loosely characterized in the media as a fight over who will "run the university." This is an inaccurate and pejorative description of the issue.

It misleadingly blends questions of well-settled legal responsibility with longstanding norms for assigning to the campus community decision-making responsibility on purely academic matters.

Of course the Board of Regents has the power to select the next president of the university, but that point does not settle important questions concerning what qualifications should be sought in the new president, how the search can best be conducted in the public interest and by whom.

Chapter 262 of the Iowa Code provides for the appointment and removal of regents and prescribes the powers and duties of the board. For example, the board is expressly empowered "to elect presidents, professors, instructors and employees [of Regents' institutions] and fix their compensation." Further key powers include "to make rules for admission to and government of said institutions."

The code's recitation of core powers makes clear that the Legislature has empowered the Board of Regents to oversee the state's universities in most important fiscal, structural and accountability matters.

Most important, however, is the type of authority not expressly delegated by the Legislature to the regents in Chapter 262 or elsewhere: the responsibility to deal with the multitude of purely academic quality concerns that in the aggregate foster the creative and collaborative learning environment that makes American higher education the envy of the world. The Legislature wisely left day-to-day academic decisions to the judgment of those in the campus community professionally responsible for defining and delivering excellence in higher education.

These academic decisions nearly always involve educational matters for which the faculty and campus administrators enjoy a comparative advantage in expertise and experience over a lay governing board. Thus, when it comes to purely academic matters, the campus faculty and administration do indeed "run" the university, and, in the interests of educational quality and academic freedom, should continue to do so.

Inevitably occasions arise when the legislative charge to the regents to "govern" the state's public universities and the prerogatives delegated to the faculty and campus administrators will converge or even conflict. This is the realm denoted by the term "shared governance," frequently used to describe the complex management structure of major research universities. The concept recognizes the potential for different points of view to arise on important matters of common interest. It also reflects a legitimate expectation by the public that the regents and various campus constituencies affected by an issue in dispute will cooperate and strive to reach a resolution that ultimately advances the quality of higher education in Iowa.

It is not surprising that the selection of a new president could create tensions between the regents and the campus community. A university president is both directly responsible to the regents for executing regents' policies and is expected to lead his or her campus in performing its various missions, the most central of which are the achievement of academic excellence by its students and faculty and efficient delivery of essential services by its staff.

Since the 1960s, the natural tensions associated with a presidential search were substantially ameliorated on the Iowa campus because the regents consistently asked campus constituencies to conduct the presidential search and recommend successful candidates to the regents for final selection. Having participated extensively as a dean in the last four successful presidential searches, I can attest to the high quality of the candidate pools they attracted and the ease with which the regents made a final, outstanding selection. Public campus interviews, offering members of the campus community an opportunity to see and hear the candidates address higher-education issues, were a critical element to the searches' success. They both introduced the candidates to the campus in a favorable light and helped recruit them to Iowa.

The regents have never made clear why they decided to abandon this highly successful search model. It is not difficult, however, to understand the dissatisfaction of campus constituencies who felt they had not been accorded their customary "shared governance" roles in the search process.

It is time for the finger-pointing and name-calling to stop and for the regents and the campus constituencies to work harder to implement the idea of shared governance effectively. Both the regents and the campus have much at stake in identifying and appointing the best possible president. The people of Iowa should expect nothing less than good-faith efforts by all parties to work together to mount an effective presidential search this time around.
Professor N. WILLIAM HINES is dean emeritus of the University of Iowa College of Law.