Leave those in the know to manage the show

November 9, 2006

The US experience suggests that ceding control of universities to boards of outsiders is a mistake, writes Brian Leftow.

A short while ago, I asked a number of US academics if they could tell me anything that their university trustees had done, good or bad. Some couldn't say. One volunteered something best classed as indifferent. The rest - a little more than half - had only bad things to report. Several volunteered frank incredulity that people who had a choice would impose external control on themselves. But this is indeed the question that Oxford, the university I quit the US for three years ago, is currently debating.

A look at the US shows why handing the university to a board of trustees controlled by outsiders is a bad idea. All American universities are run by boards consisting entirely of outsiders. And one in 20 of them is currently under formal censure by the American Association of University Professors for offences against academic freedom, tenure and professional rights. The boards of 183 have been censured at some time, some repeatedly. And there are many more problems that are never reported.

US university boards have interfered with curriculum, with marking and with sabbatical applications. They have repeatedly voted to deal with increased student numbers through temporary low-wage "adjuncts" rather than by hiring new dons. They have fired dons for their political views, curtailed tenure rights, imposed non-academic criteria in hiring, played financial favourites among departments, and spent millions on sport, executive salaries and severance.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Justice Department are probing cases of trustee corruption that have cost universities millions of dollars - it's a problem that is sufficiently widespread that the US Congress has launched a general investigation.

A Brit once asked me if this might all be cultural. This was a delicate way of suggesting that as the British are better behaved than the Americans they would not do such things even if they had the opportunity. Although on the whole the Brits do behave better than we do, such consequence does not follow. An academic from another UK university has told me of interference with the appointments process more extreme than anything I've heard about in the US. It is not just a problem of American temperament.

External control, then, raises the prospect of interference with academic matters by people not competent to do so. Furthermore, it does not produce academic results. The Times Higher World Rankings placed Harvard, Cambridge and Oxford first, second and third: the world's two don-controlled universities came ahead of everyone save the world's richest university.

Dozens of institutions with many times the money of Oxbridge could not overhaul them. Brains, hard work and resources chiefly determine a university's success. Oxford has much less money than its competition and as money buys brains, it's unlikely that the university's dons are much cleverer than those of Princeton, Stanford or Yale. And there is no reason to think its staff work harder than those of its rivals. So if external control brings real academic advantage, how can Oxford's success be explained?J The arguments offered for an outsider-controlled board tend to be specious.

We're told that external trustees can be friends to speak for us. This is true, but they need not form a majority to do so. We're told that such trustees can speak for us without being seen as biased. This is also true, but they needn't be in control to be seen so. In fact, if they run the institution then, by praising it, they're also praising their own work and so look just as biased as the dons supposedly do now. We're told that the externals can reassure potential donors that their money will be well spent. Again, they can do this best if in doing so they aren't praising themselves: what's needed is scrutiny, not control. We're told that outside bodies demand this change - but as far as I can see, the Higher Education Funding Council for England's only request is that we do this or explain why we haven't. For an explanation, we need only point to the US.

It is also claimed that a move to external control would bring in money to raise academic salaries. But whose? Even if top-up fees were doubled - which they won't be - the revenue wouldn't enable the university to do anything substantial about academic pay. As for private donors, to raise the salaries of 3,700 academics by £1,000 each, they would have to contribute something in the order of £93 million (assuming 4 per cent interest after tax) earmarked for no other purpose. The university shouldn't hold its breath.

In sum, moving to outsider control would bring no genuine benefit without the significant risks noted above. Not one of the US academics that I polled volunteered a good word for the idea.

Brian Leftow is Nolloth professor of the philosophy of the Christian religion and a fellow of Oriel College, Oxford.

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