CSHPE Professor Mike Bastedo Reflects on Educational Policy Studies (EPS) Conference Presentation

On March 29-30, 2012, CSHPE professor Dr. Michael Bastedo presented at the Educational Policy Studies (EPS) Conference.  The 9th annual EPS conference titled The Public Interest and the Future of Public Higher Education in the 21st Century, took place at the University of Wisconsin Madison.  Based upon his previous research, Dr. Bastedo gave a presentation titled Revisiting Governing Board Activism in the Public University.  I spoke with Dr. Bastedo a week after his return from the conference about his experience, his presentation, and how it related to his former work in the fields of higher education and governing board activism.

How did your presentation, Revisiting Governing Board Activism in the Public University, relate to your 2005 article on activist boards?

What I was doing here was discussing my work on activist boards, in correlation with my later work about the dynamics of trustee independence.  During the last decade, people thought of governing boards and trustees as a very individualistic phenomenon.  Many thought that these people were going to use their positions, as trustees, as a platform to discuss higher education more broadly.  These cases, however, were not that helpful, considering that the individual trustees were not that influential.  I wanted to delve deeper into the cognitive dynamics by which people start to become identified as activist trustees and what it means to be an activist trustee.

In 2009 you wrote about “moral seduction.”  How does that concept relate to your recent presentation?

What I wanted to do was look at broader range of board of trustees, because the 2005 piece was an intensive case study of one governing board.  I wanted to take a look at more institutions to see what this meant nationally.  I observed and interviewed almost 60 college presidents about what the cognitive dynamics are like on their boards and they gave me lots of great examples of things that happened, which are included in my paper.  Moral seduction was the idea I had to contrast the idea of an activist trustee, perceived to have the intention to act and cause possible disturbances or problems in an university.  Moral seduction is the idea that people, over time, can convince themselves that the actions they are taking are in the best interest of the university, when they are really best for some external interest.  It is a more subtle conception, a more normal human cognitive process that all of us engage in, which is why I wanted to describe it.  I thought it was a more accurate representation of the source of issues on governing boards in American colleges.

What trends are you noticing in public university governing boards?

It has been somewhat of a quiet period board-wise.  Some of the things that have been described as governing board activism, for example, have not been creeping up as much lately.  I do think that there have been a couple of cases that have been concerns.  There is an overall concern that governors, both Republican and Democrat, are using their appointments as more political than they have in the past.  Governors see this position as a more political position, or a platform on which to express their views on higher education.  I believe that governors, as a whole, tend to have more explicit and developed views on higher education than before when they felt they didn’t have much expertise.   You see this in the presidential campaign as well.  Candidates are speaking about higher education more than ever before!  Higher education has truly become a domain for political conflict.

Are there ways we can guard against governing board activism in our public institutions?

Yes, there are things we can do, however, my argument is that policy interventions are not that effective.  There are two main policy interventions that universities can implement.  The first is merit selection, meaning there would be a non-partisan board that would select good candidates for trustee positions.  However, if moral seduction is a normal cognitive process, you can’t select out people without a bias.  Therefore, non-partisan boards are not a panacea to the problem.  The second is the idea of open meetings.  Transparency is most often linked to disclosure about the groups that trustees are related to.  However, research on decision-making has shown that people are more likely to engage in that conflict of interest after disclosure, because it is cognitively viewed as an absolution.  In other words, this disclosure could exacerbate the problem further.  So, where are the solutions?  I believe that practice-based solutions are the answer, meaning presidents need to engage in particular practices that will help trustees be better trustees.  Presidents need to explicitly socialize new board members into what the mission and goals of the university.  They need to expose trustees to areas of the university that they will be governing, because many trustees join boards not knowing much about higher education.

How does research on governing boards figure into your future plans?

Right now I am studying something slightly different in regards to governance.  I am studying whether or not presidential charisma is related to organizational performance or to their compensation.  This study actually developed from my previous work because we had a meeting, composed of both trustees and presidents, where we discussed if it was important for presidents to be charismatic.  I found that board trustees, the people that select presidents, thought charisma was an important characteristic of a president.  However, all the presidents said the opposite.  They suggested that charisma was not a necessary trait and that you could train yourself to do most of the presidential roles.  I found this empirical question to be extremely interesting and unique, and definitely something I wanted to explore further.

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