Leadership & Governance

Public Colleges Face Major Threat From Some Trustees, Says AAU Chief

Hunter R. Rawlings III, Association of American Universities

November 25, 2014

Video and editing by Julia Schmalz

Hunter R. Rawlings III, president of the Association of American Universities, says that ideologically motivated and corporate-minded trustees pose a great threat to public colleges. Mr. Rawlings, who leads a group of elite research universities, was highly critical of a recent effort to fire William C. Powers Jr., president of the University of Texas at Austin. In 2012, Mr. Rawlings also admonished University of Virginia board members for forcing out Teresa A. Sullivan as president, only to reinstate her under public pressure. Both cases, Mr. Rawlings says, point toward a troubling trend that has created instability at some of the nation’s top academic institutions.



JACK STRIPLING: Thank you for coming. We're here with Hunter Rawlings, who's president of the Association of American Universities, which our readers will probably know is a collection of the top research universities in the country. We wanted to talk to you a little bit today about university governance and ask you about a column you wrote for The Chronicle back this past summer, after the failed ouster, if you will, of Bill Powers, president of the University of Texas at Austin.

And it may have been our headline writers that did this, but we called it "Texas Makes an Appalling Mess of Education 'Reform.'" And some of the themes you hit on there tied together both the dismissal of Teresa Sullivan at the University of Virginia and what happened with Bill Powers. And the undercurrent was about the politicization, I think, of public governing boards. I wonder if you could talk about what you see happening in that regard and why it might be a challenge for higher education right now.

HUNTER RAWLINGS: Well, I think you're right. The last few years have been kind of rough for many of our public flagship universities, partly because of politicization. Also what I would call the sense that these institutions are utilitarian, and utilitarian only. So there's a great emphasis on what they do for the state economically, what they do for preparing kids for jobs, but not much emphasis on their research role, and what you might call their broader educational role. So some boards, at any rate, have taken a rather narrow view of what universities should be, and I think that's led to trouble.

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JACK STRIPLING: You know, and some of that trouble ends in presidential dismissals. The Association of Governing Boards put out a report just a week or two ago, or a committee of that group, that cited presidential turnover as a real problem right now. Do you think that that is baby boomers retiring, or do you really think that we have a situation where presidents' tenures are shortened because there's an impatience on the part of boards, some of which are ideologically motivated?

HUNTER RAWLINGS: I think impatience is a good word that you used. There is a real impatience. The politicians often want to get things done quickly. They don't respect, in some cases, the joint governance, the shared governance that I think has been one of the great reasons why our universities are so strong. And so there's a desire to act quickly and without proper consultation. And sometimes that causes real problems, as in the UVa case, where I think the board's decision was reached without even holding a board meeting, which is just a very poor case of governance.

JACK STRIPLING: Yeah. I also want to ask you about exploring the theme a little further. It does seem to me, and this has been refreshing as a journalist, that you're OK putting yourself out there, taking stands as the head of the AAU, being vocal, perhaps in a way some of your predecessors weren't. Is there something about the times that we're in right now that you think necessitates that? Or is that your personality?

HUNTER RAWLINGS: I think it's more the times. Unfortunately, we're at a period now when there has been a lot of politicization, when there is this expectation that institutions are just instrumental objects of legislatures' will or the governor's will, and that ignores the long history of academic autonomy that's given us such strong universities, in my opinion.

So I do think it's important to stand up sometimes where there are these really egregious cases of governance. Fortunately, that's not true across the board. A number of our universities are well governed, but it has been tough on public-university presidents, I must say. The turnover has been high, as you said. And it's partly for these reasons.

JACK STRIPLING: I think there is some risk, though, to you getting out in front of these issues. And after you wrote the column for us, Francisco Cigarroa, who's the chancellor of the system, wrote you a pretty pointed letter, saying, Thank you very much. Keep your mouth shut. What was your response to that?

HUNTER RAWLINGS: Well, I didn't need to respond to that, I didn't think, because I don't enjoy back and forths, and I don't think they do anyone any good. But I understand where he was coming from. On the other hand, I think it was important for me to speak out in a case where there had been some very poor governance, and we've seen that, unfortunately, in Texas for several years now.

And the problem comes when other states begin to learn from those examples—what I would call bad lessons—and it's important, I think, for someone to stand up on the other side. So, yes, sometimes these things are controversial. I understand that. But it's important to be a voice, I think.

JACK STRIPLING: All right. Well, we do want to say that we have extended an invitation to Dr. Cigarroa to speak with us at The Chronicle, and we eagerly await that. So thank you so much. We will link to your column, as well as their letter to you in connection with this, but thank you for coming to The Chronicle.

HUNTER RAWLINGS: Thank you. My pleasure.

Jack Stripling covers college leadership, particularly presidents and governing boards. Follow him on Twitter @jackstripling, or email him at jack.stripling@chronicle.com.