President's Blog

Governance matters

I was interviewed this past Dec. 8th by Spanish business daily Expansión (interview in Spanish available here). Among other things, we discussed the differences in governance in universities in continental Europe and the U.S..  After years experiencing both systems, I’ve reached the conclusion that governance is one of the main reasons why American universities became dominant and surpassed European universities during the 20th century.

In Spanish universities, presidents and deans are elected in elections that include students, staff, and, more importantly, faculty.  Because winners of these electoral processes owe their appointments to their peers, they see themselves forced respond to their peer’s needs and preferences, regardless of whether those preferences are aligned with the needs of the university and the society the university is intended to serve. The  system was created as a reaction to 40 years of Francoist dictatorship that compromised academic freedom.  But the solution that was implemented had terrible side effects.  Spanish universities have over-regulated, have little autonomy to make their own decisions, and are not held accountable by independent boards.

In American universities, presidents are appointed and held accountable by independent boards.  In my case, I was appointed by a board of 16 visitors, each of them in turn appointed by a Virginia governor. Each of the board members is a prominent citizen with a proven record in business, or various professional disciplines.  Their objective is to make sure George Mason University becomes a better university and delivers more value to society.  If I don’t perform to their satisfaction, they will show me to the door and find someone else better fit to do the job.

American universities have a long tradition of shared governance, which means that Boards defer to faculty in making decisions concerning academic quality.  But ultimately it is an independent board that has the final word.

The American system is not uniform and is by no means perfect.  In some states, public universities share one board. In others, like Virginia, we each have our own.  Like all human endeavors, boards too make mistakes (we are still recovering from this summer’s drama in our sister university further south). But overall the system has proven to work better than its alternatives.

Every once in a while I hear proposals and discussions in the U.S. to modify our governance system.  In Virginia, some have asked that various stakeholders (alumni, students, etc.) be given voting rights on boards.  Before we get too excited about these proposals, I suggest we look at how these ideas have worked in other parts of the world.