For whom the bell tolls, and how to ignore it

Until yesterday, an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education urging university trustees to remember that colleges are not businesses and to be patient with their CEOs was interesting only (forgive me) academically.  Now comes the report that the trustees of Gallaudet College have bowed to pressure from students, alumni, faculty and miscellaneous outsiders and rescinded their offer to make provost Jane K. Fernandes president.  Nothing like staying the course!

The specifics of the Gallaudet battle, which turned on allegations that Fernandes wasn’t "deaf enough" because she’s married to a hearing person, refused to ban spoken language on campus, and in general seems open to the possibility of considering deafness a disability instead of a badge of honor, are beyond the Nonprofiteer’s ken.  What pisses her off is the fact that people who are not governors of the institution have been permitted to govern it. 

Certainly all of the counties heard from are "stakeholders," but it’s the task of trustees to determine precisely what stake any given constituency holds.  Non-donating outsiders have no standing at all, though they may have opinions and are free to express them.  Students who don’t like the college president are free to leave the college, though of course this is less true of Gallaudet–the nation’s only liberal arts university for deaf students–than of any other institution.

A college president without faculty support (80% of teachers approved a vote of no-confidence in Fernandes) is unlikely to be a winning administrator, while a college president disdained by alumni is unlikely to be a successful fundraiser.  So it may indeed have been the better part of valor to let Ms. Fernandes go.

But–as a one-time Executive Director attacked by alumni who didn’t give money anyway, participants who didn’t give money anyway, and members of the community who didn’t give money anyway–the Nonprofiteer’s visceral reaction is that the trustees should have flipped the bird to the protesters and backed the person they chose.  It’s revealing that leaders of the student sit-in were disbelieving when told of the trustees’ decision–they never really expected to be allowed to determine who held the presidency; they just wanted to make a noise. 

The trustees should have let the various dissatisfied groups exhaust themselves and told the president to ignore or engage them as she saw fit.  The whole thing would have blown over, no matter how unending it seemed to those in the center of the storm.  People really do get tired of minding other people’s business.

And it’s no one’s business but the trustees’ who leads the institution for which they are responsible.  There’s a reason nonprofit leaders talk about a community’s "sense of ownership"–because it is a sense, rather than the real thing.  Actual ownership, in this capitalist society, belongs to those who pay the bills.  Free riders may honk the horn for a while, but they don’t get to steer, accelerate or brake.


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3 Responses to “For whom the bell tolls, and how to ignore it”

  1. Anita Bernstein Says:

    I agree with your bottom line. (Stated much better than the Washington Post’s flip-the-bird editorial about a month ago, by the way.)
    But do university trustees really “pay the bills”? Not in the literal way that owners of small businesses do. Even directors of publicly traded corporations might be more accountable than university trustees these days. Among the bills for the Gallaudet episode will be, according to today’s Chronicle, a severance payment to Fernandes of at least $500K. I’d like to see the blunderers on the board slapped for their ineptitude and shoddy results–and I don’t think that’ll happen.

  2. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Excellent point–it’s good to have someone call me on sloppy thinking. The trustees don’t literally pay the bills, so they do need to be more responsive to other stakeholders than the mom-and-pop store, say. Most likely, though, they pay more of the bills than the squeaky wheels on the faculty or among the alumni, and that’s enough to give them primacy.

    In publicly traded corporations, the issue of stakeholders is a complex one that the right wing has tried to make simple; though it’s constantly repeated that the corporation’s sole responsibility is to make money for its shareholders, scholar Gary Herrigel at the University of Chicago has shown that this view doesn’t hold universal sway outside this country. In Europe, considering the concerns of consumers and other constituencies is considered part of doing good business.

  3. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Prof. Bernstein adds, “And I notice that both president-designates these Gallaudet free riders forced out were women.” Yup: executive power somehow inspires a lot less awe when it’s wielded by a woman.

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