U’s history is important in regent choices

by By Professor

Certainly. Absolutely. The Board of Regents should reflect the makeup of the entire state of Minnesota, geographically and politically, but also in terms of gender and ethnicity. For sure! But this question puts politics in front of the question we should ask first: How do we discern and promote competency among the regents?
In a private business, the Board of Advisors — by whatever name — is paid at some interesting rate, interesting enough to persuade board members to join. The bottom line will eventually distinguish competency. In the University, a public institution, people serve out of good will, for the prestige, to serve their community, etc.
In the present conversation, in which there is a remarkable lack of discussion of the pertinent literature, the only book about boards governing universities is called “Imposters in the Temple,” written by Martin Anderson, a former Reagan adviser from the Hoover Institute who says in essence, “No pay, no way!”
Anderson’s lament: University overseers serve for odd reasons and have little incentive to study their university seriously, from the Harvard Corporation, where Anderson begins, down to the regents of the University of Minnesota where we have ended up. Hope for good administrators because advisers are purely honorific! Imposters!?
The question of competency may take years to discern. The University has been in a slow decline for 40 years or so, overseen by earlier regents. In the past several years we have fallen from 16th to 21st, and have likely fallen several more places in national rankings since the regents’ attack (yes!) on tenure this year. So, we would reasonably infer the present regents system is particularly competent at overseeing decline. There is a public report written by a select committee (commissioned by the regents) of businesspeople and faculty less than two years ago, which critically discussed the workings and thinking of the regents, and of the management they are supposed to … ? What are they supposed to do, exactly?
Let’s read and discuss this thoughtful critique before trying to settle questions of who rather than why and what for. A university and its regents who won’t study their history are doomed to …. Part of the problem is we don’t read, we don’t observe and analyze and we don’t discuss much. The idea of administration has become removed and unhinged from the faculty and students. We all live in some large pyramid of universities, usually headed by Harvard.
But here at Minnesota, we judge ourselves mostly in comparison with the seven or eight universities we consider a little bit better or like us (peer universities), and the seven or eight we think are just a wee bit less. How does all this work? Do we judge the University of Minnesota, or mostly copy those whom we would emulate and beat out?
There’s a compelling book about this as well: “Leadership and Authority: The American College President,” by Cohen and March. I’m particularly intrigued by their cynicism, and that this book has become a virtual manual for administrators in higher education all over the country. Its advice permits administrations to keep their institutions afloat. But leadership? Let’s read, discuss! You know the drill. Or read more critically, “The Moral Collapse of the University” by Bruce Wilshire, who shared his ideas with us for a couple of days last May. The fact is that the very idea of the university has moved a great deal from its former senses, and survival needs more than watching our peers and treading waters even as they are pouring out of various dams whose pilings deconstruct themselves. It seems like Minnesota leads the crisis, so we have the (serious) advantage of being very public in the national debate over the University. Meanwhile, we’re arguing fairly small politics rather than debating the future of Minnesota.
Or read the provocative Bill Readings’ “The University in Ruins,” which demands that we think more globally. The modern research university was constructed originally within the ideas of Kant and Humboldt, something about rationality bubbling up to a rational state and in an era when the very idea of the state has become blurry, what with electronic money transfers each day exceeding a trillion dollars, and NAFTA, and …
Who knows where the idea of a university is going? Can we here, now, put some shape on its future beyond the pallid perorations of U2000 which first set off the regents in the past couple of years to the realization that our decline is hurrying.
Or whatever happened to Newman’s idea of the university as a community of scholars: Eat! The Faculty Club seems to be disappearing, perhaps paralleling the idea of the nation. Talk! Who’s got time to talk? We’re all too busy being productive, producing money, producing interactive courses, becoming virtual, disappearing from our lives and those of our students, trying to keep up with our peers while the entire system of higher education worries parents that their children will not be capable of dealing with their futures.
At home, we are dealing with an ebullient state college system which can surely give credentials worth whatever jobs the state affords. And we can hire the rest from our (soon to be former?) peer universities. The question of the mission and point of a land-grant University in Minnesota is seriously up for discussion.
Privatize. Rationalize. Surge ahead! To return to the question of regent competency: my sense is that many of those who have been proposed are potentially competent to lead, to advise the management (the President, etc. — good luck to Mr. Yudof!), to try to discern where the University of Minnesota is and might be. But prior experience at administering other organizations or foundations is not itself sufficient. A university in times of change and decline is not like a business or a school system or anything else. Its faculty is not like anyplace else. Besides being scholars and researchers, they are very political animals, connected genealogically to other universities only an e-mail away. Beating on its faculty will only hinder, unless decline is presumed and desired.
Competent regents will work with lots of faculty, getting to understand their work and thinking and what will inspire them, trying to rethink the place when their lives seemed at a standstill. Recent administrations haven’t done much more than overload their underlings, rather than rethink (read, discuss, analyze!) the University. The fact that this faculty is demoralized is not an accident of time or place. Why haven’t the regents known this? What could lead new regents to inspire the administration to inspire its faculty and inspire its students?
This is a very complicated time for higher education, both within Minnesota and the entire country, and perhaps especially internally to this University. The regents we choose need to be able to study and think about who we are and where we might go. This will take a great deal: traveling to see how other universities operate; studying the people and the times to see how a so-called research university might survive and lead us to the fiction and reality of the next millennium; figuring the nature of a good faculty which is an ability to inform the legislators and the people about the whys and what fors; reassuring parents and exciting students. No one comes with all this knowledge and skill, irrespective of their experience in administration of other institutions. Competency will be an ongoing study, way beyond any sitting in judgment.
This is a fragile, perhaps perilous era: the radically changing nature of work, the practices or curing, the globalization of our thinking really and virtually — all have gone without much discussion as we have literally sold off pieces of our intellectual souls.
But I think that the current crises can be interpreted as challenges more than declinations. I think we can seize this moment, and become an important University. Can we begin by asking better questions about the regents?

Harvey Sarles is a professor of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature.