Leave Politics at the Door

In the early 1950s, a friend landed his first academic job at a public southern university. Midway through the first semester, he was visited by a colleague who "invited" him to contribute $5 from every paycheck to the Governor's re-election campaign. Naively, he declined. At the end of the semester, his services were no longer required.

Political interference in colleges and universities is nothing new. But it comes and goes, and now its intensity is increasing. Because higher education in America is the door to everywhere, because it is what virtually everyone wants or needs, it is no wonder that factions want to control it. They want it to be responsive to their perceptions of what needs to be done.

Those responsible for colleges and universities have an obligation to listen respectfully, to meet changing needs as best they can, and to decline to be controlled.

It is unfortunate that we seem to have entered into another phase of overt political interference with higher education because it distracts colleges and universities from important changes they need to make. Primarily, they need to adjust what they do and how they relate to other social institutions, particularly businesses. We are deciding how to prepare the women and men who will sustain the kind of society we want to live in. Partisan political agendas, ideology, and even the political maneuvering occasioned by expansive institutional ambitions, divert attention from the truly important issues of the day.

What we need now are governing boards that exemplify the defining values we are trying to protect as higher education changes to meet the needs of an advanced technology based economy. We want a society whose citizens are involved, enlightened, tolerant, and willing to negotiate differences of opinion. We want them to be productively engaged in satisfactory work. But these two objectives now are in tension within higher education because the nature of work is changing so dramatically. Faculties across Virginia and the nation are trying to adapt curricula to give students the high levels of technical skill and knowledge they need to meet the expectations of business, while at the same trying to hold on to the defining values that characterize education in a democratic society. Of course higher education is under stress! But the new adaptations, the new syntheses, always come out of discomfort like this. An important task of the boards is to encourage this process, and to model in their own behavior how conflicts among competing goods can be reconciled.

Like the citizens of Athens at its strongest, who possessed a disinterested commitment to act in the best interests of the city, we need board members who continue to rise above party, ideology, and even advancement of institutional ambitions, to do what is best for Virginia. They should support and advise the faculties and staffs as they work through the curricular reforms that are necessary. They should help institutions develop stronger partnerships of various sorts with businesses.

We need, in short, boards whose members, in the strong Virginia tradition of lay governance, mirror the defining values of an ideal citizenry: involved, enlightened, tolerant, and able to negotiate differences of opinion.

Higher education relates to government on three levels. It is related administratively, whether public or private, through laws and regulations governing various programs and funding mechanisms. In Virginia, for instance, the private institutions must comply with various rules in order for their students to receive Tuition Assistance Grants. Public institutions are subject to a plethora of laws and regulations that dictate the administrative processes they must follow, the hoops through which they must jump in getting anything done.

On a second level, colleges and universities have an independent appeal to a large, generally middle-class constituency of supporters: alumni, financial backers, and parents, to name only three. These supporters are part of the best networks in any state, and they influence political action with their votes and their checks.

On the third and most important level, colleges and universities are grounded on the bedrock of our democracy: on the Constitution and the intellectual traditions from which it grew. They are the institutions in which ideas are placed in the crucible and subjected to the most severe tests. Some ideas fail, others die for lack of interest. Some change our lives.

Political interference can occur at each level of relationship between higher education and government. It begins, of course, at the administrative level. In one state after another, governors have seized control of the systems office to install staff who share their political persuasion. One governor of an eastern state recently engineered the reorganization of colleges and universities into a centrally governed system so he could get the changes he wanted by making a single telephone call.

Systems boards probably are most vulnerable to political interference because they have no alumni, no prominent financial backers, and no football teams. Taking them over can help to advance some agendas or to resist change. Playing on historic American distrust of the professional and managerial classes, board members at both the system and institutional levels may attempt to micromanage, producing a huge amount of friction that inhibits administrators who actually run things from getting their work done. Complex organizations that thrive on ideas can be reduced to shuffling bureaucracies by board micromanagement. So this kind of interference is an excellent way to prevent change that is feared and unwelcome.

At the second level, higher education's popular support, rooted in its extensive networks of friends and alumni, can be eroded by diversionary attacks on colleges and universities as bloated and inefficient or as subversive of fundamental values. These attacks are often characterized by meanness associated with resistance to change, or with the certainty that some political ideology or another is absolutely right.

But it is difficult to force a political belief system upon colleges and universities because faculty can -- and will -- resist and subvert changes that are forced upon them, especially if they perceive the changes not to be in the best interest of their students and their own professional commitments. This insulates colleges and universities from political pressure but makes them vulnerable to criticism: people in other walks of life become impatient with higher education because it appears to make needed changes so slowly. A corporate CEO once quipped that he had had a terrible dream in which he was assigned responsibility for a major industry but told he had to run it like a university. At the same time, the new-found corporate enthusiasm for distributed decision-making appears to bring major businesses closer to universities in their approaches to management, in theory at least.

Observers often fail to see that colleges and universities are changing, particularly in Virginia. Only 30 years ago there was no community college system, no George Mason University. Tech had 8,000 students, and Madison was a women's college emphasizing teacher education. Since then, Virginia college and university enrollments have increased more than four-fold, and our system of higher education is regarded as one of the best in the nation. If all this had occurred in Japan, pundits would be calling it "an educational miracle in the land of the Rising Sun."

The third level of interference is in the intellectual lives of the colleges and universities: what is taught, by whom, and to whom. In most states, this interference has been absent or subtle; in a few, it has been heavy-handed. In my experience, Virginia has been free from it. But I sense, largely through anecdotal evidence at this point, that political interference is on the rise.

A university chancellor who later was elected governor of his state appeared before the legislature some years ago to answer criticisms about what the faculty was teaching.

"I know that half of what they teach probably is wrong," the chancellor said. "But I don't know which half."

Both our democracy and our colleges and universities are grounded together on the principles of intellectual tolerance and inquiry exemplified in this story. We have always to consider the possibility that we may be wrong. But that is the price we pay for the possibility of being right.

Political interference in higher education is a symptom of a much larger fear that things seem out of our control. We are at the end of one intellectual tradition and working toward another. We are at the end of a millennium, which induces a sense of uncertainty (and verbosity about it). And we are at the end of the Cold War, during which we knew clearly who the enemy was. Now, in a time of heightened economic competition and ubiquitous information, the world's peoples are disquietingly free of restraints. There is more opportunity but also more migration, tribal nationalism, and fundamentalist fervor. There is more emphasis upon difference.

Some people react fearfully to change and seek to impose more rigid controls on institutions and processes. In Leadership Without Easy Answers (Cambridge, 1994), Ronald Heifitz observes that "severe distress can make people cruel; empathy, compassion, and flexibility of mind are sacrificed to the desperate desire for order" (p. 235). As the institutions in which new ideas are tested and taught, colleges and universities are particularly apt to come under attack by those who are distressed by change.

Because it is the gateway to most things we consider to be good, higher education and our way of life are closely intertwined. This has led some public intellectuals, elected officials, and others to assert that the enemy that was without during the Cold War is now within, and that its agents promote change in the ways we think, what we think about, and how we behave. The charge that colleges and universities are subversive to established values and the principles of democracy finds fertile ground in the anti-intellectualism that historically has characterized Americans' ambivalent feelings about academic institutions. It leads to the conclusion that it is necessary to control who is allowed to teach or correct what is being taught.

The competition for scarce state revenue provides occasions for political interference in higher education. Colleges and universities have, as I have noted, some of the best networks of friends and supporters in any state. Their clamor for additional money can be muted by attaching to the institutions, and their faculties, an alliterative list of adjectives: lazy, liberal, licentious, lax, and leftist. Discrediting the institutions and those who work in them is one of the best ways to divert attention from inadequate financial support. And those from without who would suppress the rich ferment of collegiate life have allies within the academy. Perceiving that resources are limited, some entrenched factions are trying to preserve their privileges while excluding newcomers. In higher education, this entails attacks on equal opportunity and affirmative action in some states, and the suggestion in some others that too many people are going to college. It is a "lifeboat mentality": there are a limited number of places in the boat, so the rest have to stay in the water. And in the United States today most of the "rest" are people who are poor and not Caucasian.

Imperfect though they are, in the past 30 years colleges and universities have become the most important providers of equal opportunity in our society. They also are the most important sources of skilled workers and entrepreneurs, and of new products and technologies. And if they are true to their highest calling, they help students encounter ethical questions, whose answers will shape their lives. As a nation, we cannot afford to be unable to afford higher education for all citizens who can benefit from it.

The best defense of colleges and universities finally lies in the hands of the women and men who are appointed to govern them. Their good judgment and shared commitment to long-range educational objectives are essential.

Governing boards have different responsibilities now that the academy is closely involved with other social institutions and the body politic, rather than distant as it was until only a few decades ago. In addition to their fiduciary responsibilities, board members now should help senior administrators form essential collaborative relationships and understand the environment within which they are working. This means that they should be experienced, well-connected, and able to work effectively in an unsettled environment.

Board members richer in conviction than in professional experience or maturity may threaten the freedom of inquiry that is the foundation of institutions of higher learning by attempting to impose their personal opinions upon the curriculum, the composition of the student body, or the services provided by the system and the institutions. Those who fear change and do not understand the necessity for it may impede the work of institutions or whole systems preparing for the challenges of a post industrial society.

There is no easy way to ensure that the right kinds of persons are appointed to boards. But alarm about what is happening in some states has caused the national Association of Governing Boards to advocate creation of review panels that would evaluate the credentials of possible board members and create lists of qualified candidates from which the appointing authorities can select their nominees. The idea has merit and might be considered here in Virginia. Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Minnesota have introduced versions of it. A non-partisan review panel composed of eminent and knowledgeable citizens could help to ensure that the worst effects of political interference do not afflict this system of higher education and its member institutions.

The Chichester Commission on the Future of Higher Education (1996) suggested the "possible benefits of permitting the boards of visitors of the selected institutions to appoint a limited number of members in addition to those now appointed by the Governor" (p. 26). If this suggestion were implemented, the list of qualified candidates could be used by boards as well as by the Governor.

Short of a review commission, the Governor and General Assembly might consider creating a non-partisan commission to recommend the qualifications necessary for appointment to higher education governing or coordinating boards. This would help to guard against excessive politicization and could prepare the way for a review panel at some time in the future.

The Dangerous Opportunities of Advanced Technology

Twenty Years of Higher Education in Virginia