Board to Death: A Mild Reflection on the Quiet Threat to Cultural Institutions

In 1971, the cartoonist Walt Kelly, playing on Oliver Hazard Perry’s famous War of 1812 words, had his Pogo proclaim, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  And so it goes for cultural institutions these days, such as historic sites and universities.  Governing boards, whether known as “Trustees” or “Directors” or “Visitors” or another name, are supposed to be the safeguards of the legacies of such places and the defenders of those who preserve and promote them.  But more often than not, in my experience, they do more harm than good, so poorly do board members understand their actual roles and responsibilities.  Consequently, presidents or senior directors of cultural resources often find themselves in conflict with uninformed, even uninterested, board members and spend more time managing them—in attempting to get them to work for, rather than against, the welfare of the institution—than almost anything else.  And that’s if the director happens to be someone who wants to do more than just keep his or her job, which generally means silently suffering through a problem board’s latest wrongheaded administrative, financial, interpretative, or [insert almost any other category here] whim, so long as paychecks continue to clear.

I’m not writing of matters of minor import.  Take a look at what’s happening right now at Sweet Briar College, for example.  Its board hired a president who, within a year, announced that the school would close at the end of the current term because of supposedly insurmountable financial difficulties.  Rarely has the ignorance, if not outright malevolence, of a board in failing to fulfill its proper charge been so clearly and publicly displayed, as the president could not have proceeded, or perhaps even been hired, without the board members acting as buzzkills-in-chief in the prospective closure.  So, just like that, with breathtaking temerity, a splendid college that has done a terrific job of educating young women in Virginia for more than a century was sentenced to death, seemingly without appeal.  Of course, such a myopic and dramatic step reveals one of the more pernicious characteristics of problem boards: The inherent belief, especially amongst long-term board members, that l’institution c’est moi.  The notion that they are the institution runs strong in such boards, allowing them to feed their egos as easily as they disregard their responsibilities and ignore the basic fact that the best of places, like Sweet Briar, do have the right of appeal in the form of other entrenched, committed, and powerful stakeholders, whether they be students, staff, faculty, alumni, donors, or members, whom can and will take matters into their own hands.  The Save Sweet Briar campaign will, I trust, become a cautionary tale for problem boards everywhere. (Note: I’ve financially contributed to #SaveSweetBriar and encourage anyone who cares about higher education for women to do so, too.  Click here to make a pledge.)

Lest you think that Sweet Briar’s case is exceptional, turn your attention to other examples, such  as the University of Virginia’s board’s failed attempt to oust president Theresa Sullivan several years ago or, much more recently, to upstate New York, where another nifty little school, the College of St. Rose in Albany, is suffering through a death by at least 40, if not 1000, cuts — different in degree from Sweet Briar’s troubles, perhaps, but not in kind.  Just this week, a college president in the job for less than a year announced a major retrenchment because of the institution’s financial difficulties.  Sound familiar?  At St. Rose, 40 jobs are to be eliminated and health care coverage sliced for all employees.  The president claims that the steps, taken with the board’s nemine contradicente support, are necessary for financial reasons caused by the fact that, in a striking admission, “we have just not been attentive.”  Um, to employ the punchline of an old joke about the Lone Ranger, “What do you mean we, Kemosabe?”  If we take someone whom has been on the job only 11 months at her word, that means that the board, until recently, remained entirely ignorant of the budgetary difficulties facing the school and the new president was hired either without knowing the extent of the situation (a possibility) or with an express mandate to make cuts that a suddenly attentive board thinks are required (a probability).  It appears that, in attempting to compete in the crowded market of higher education, St. Rose quickly expanded (one presumes, also with the full support of the same board), but did so in a way that was not sustainable, necessitating the subsequent budget cuts.  Either way, as with Sweet Briar, the failure lies not with the administrator, but rests at the collective feet of a problem board, ignorant of its proper responsibilities.

The issue is not limited to colleges, of course.  Historical and other cultural organizations are hardly immune to the disease.  The famous example of the Barnes Foundation disaster should keep any cultural administrator on his or her toes.  Keep in mind that, for many current and prospective board members, being on such boards carries with it social cachet in certain circles and is therefore coveted for that very reason.  Forget that good board governance actually requires members who understand the real work that a board exists to do, from fundraising (including writing their own checks) to strategic planning, and contains more than a handful of people who are willing to approach the commitment in a thoughtful and productive way.  Those board members who see their position as valuable primarily for social and professional networking advantage represent, sadly, many of those of my acquaintance at some of the most — and more than a few of the least — prominent cultural institutions in the country.  They show up to quarterly meetings, are invariably treated like visiting royalty, and just as invariably kept as far away from the reality of the institution as they care to be, while often fed carefully crafted presentations of the institution’s situation, along with the canapés and Chardonnay.  Rarely do they truly engage with the front-line staff.  I have been part of more than one cultural organization, in fact, the boards of which had never even met the senior staff, let alone those carrying out the organization’s daily mission with guests or students.  The result is a sort of latchkey institution, left alone, without oversight or guidance from those whom are legally responsible for maintaining its legacy.  And we wonder why they struggle, and struggle, and struggle, and then fail?  There are exceptions to this rule, of course, such as the teams behind James Madison’s Montpelier, the Valentine, the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the Newport Restoration Foundation, and the White House Historical Association, and also among individuals, who inevitably bear the greatest burden of board committee work, but those exceptions strongly appear to prove the rule.

The main point I want to make in this not-so-thinly veiled rant is for cultural administrators of any sort, from public historians to museum directors to faculty members: Beware of the board. And get to know all you can about the ins and outs of good board governance.  If you are in a position to evaluate a cultural institution, start with the very board to whom you do or might report.  How informed are they about their roles?  How is the board organized?  What is its members’ understanding of the institution’s mission statement and strategic direction?  How much do they know about the organization’s financial position?  And, almost above all, are they willing to change if change is demonstrably needed?  Then ask yourself whether it is therefore a problem board, one that will do more harm than good in the long run, unless you first go through a rigorous process of board education (which is no fun, trust me) or, in more drastic but very real circumstances, you look at having it completely dissolved and then reconstituted along more practical and responsible lines.

In the end, as stories about failing institutions zip through the media, and senior administrators and program directors come under censure for their individual shortcomings, look closely at what you don’t see, because they hide in plain site.  Look at the people who actually hold the responsibility for protecting an institution’s best interests—which usually means to do whatever it takes to keep its legacy alive.  Look at the boards, for what your organization does not know about them could kill it.

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Where There’s a Will, There’s No Way?: Saving Sweet Briar

Sweet Briar College has been recently likened to a setting from an American Girl book, which is true enough, I suppose.  It is, indeed, a beautiful and serene space, almost idyllic and out of time, one full of young women (and their horses) whom, by trying to better themselves, hope to better their world.  So it’s more or less the school that Felicity Merriman, and her Penny, would attend in a heartbeat were they alive (and real) in 2015.  And that’s a terrific thing; Sweet Briar is a safe place where girls are allowed to become women, and prepared to meet a world more contentious than they deserve.  And I can attest to that personally, as a former member of the University of Virginia faculty (and a UVa alumnus), I taught Sweet Briar students during summer sessions, and, as a historian and equestrian, have been to the college a number of times, and found the members of its community as bright, earnest, and engaging as any I’ve encountered at Brown or Harvard.  Not to slight Wellesley or Smith, both splendid places, but I think that Sweet Briar was made as much for the fathers of today’s Felicitys as it was for the modern Felicitys themselves.

That’s why, as someone quite familiar with the college, I was especially distressed to learn that it is to be shuttered like an English country house at the end of a shooting season when the current term comes to a close due to “insurmountable financial challenges,” but without the ceremony, one suspects.  Goodbye students, faculty, and staff (and equine residents)—the doors will be locked and keys likely turned over to lawyers and accountants come June by a vote of the Board of Directors.  To note that the decision appears abrupt is to muddy the picture.  Without a doubt, the school has been in serious financial trouble for some time.  The enrollment has dipped and the terms of the Will that created it, and current unrestricted endowment funds, do not lend its administrators much painless flexibility.  The writing was, as they say, on the wall, when the Board chose expedience over courage in washing its collective hands of the place, its 114-year history, its tens of thousands of alumnae—and the Directors’ responsibility to them all.

Other observers have reflected on this or that aspect of the story, as if it is already a matter for reflection, rather than for action.  Is it a harbinger of the fate of small liberal arts colleges across America?  What will the soon-to-be unemployed faculty and staff do in an already crowded academic job market?  And what about the horses?  Frankly, I’m not terribly concerned about any of that, except for perhaps the horses.  Colleges everywhere are in the midst of dramatic change to curricula and methods and staffing in order to remain both solvent and effective as institutions of higher learning, embracing, for example, digital and distance learning.  Even the seemingly most secure universities, such as my current institution, Harvard, are acting in bold and creative ways to expand and ensure their reach.  And Sweet Briar’s faculty might be considered as paid lower than their counterparts at other institutions, but with light class loads, little to no publishing requirements, a relatively low cost of living in the region, and an average salary still higher than the median national household income, I don’t think too many people, inside or outside of the “Ivory Tower,” are going fret much about their fates.

That brings us to the most important part of the Sweet Briar situation: the students—past, current, and, hopefully, future.  Having worked with a number of Boards of Trustees and Directors of different sorts, in my experience they are often an institution’s worst, but most pampered, enemies.  More often than not, they tend to know very little about their charges (other than what senior administrative staff allow them to know) and, an even more insidious factor, have no real, personal stake in whether their involvement results in success or failure.  In Sweet Briar’s case, the conclusion is painfully obvious, regardless of the names on the letterhead: this Board—not the faculty or staff or, most certainly, students—failed to discharge its responsibility, yet can simply walk away.  The students and staff are not so lucky.  Instead of immediately closing the doors of the school to, according to the Directors, save the students from a future of consistently lowering standards and a diminished experience, they should instead have admitted their own, personal defeat, resigned en masse, and turned over the leadership of the institution to a set of people with the vision, creativity, and willingness to implement the sort of change, however painful it might be in many quarters, that Sweet Briar requires–the college community itself, which includes the people of the surrounding area.

As my grandmother might have said, the President and Board came to the conclusion that the only way to open this nut was to use a hammer.  And what’s worse, it was done in the name of the students, who don’t seem to have had much say in the matter at all.  Sweet Briar has unique strengths that could be maximized and weaknesses that can be addressed (my grandmother, from whom I learned almost everything good and decent about life, would not have acknowledged that the word “insurmountable” even existed).  Again, other schools are facing similar challenges with nowhere near the same special qualities to help address them (the equestrian program alone is the envy of schools across the East Coast).  For example, more aggressive and creative marketing can target enrollment, and faculty can teach more classes that enroll part-time and non-traditional students, both on-site and online (which sure beats being unemployed).  To continue dispensing my grandmother’s old Chesapeake wisdom—if something is wrong, stop whinging and do something about it.  If that fails, pick yourself up, learn from the failure, and try something else.  But always try.  Where there is a will, there will be a way.  And as any rider whose horse has a big heart knows, no obstacle is entirely insurmountable.

For Sweet Briar, there is an unsurprisingly intense will, at least outside the current Board room, to make sure that its story does not end in 2015.  The #SaveSweetBriar campaign is just beginning and has developed encouraging momentum.  So I suggest that the current President and Directors be thanked for their time and sent on their merry way, leaving the college to those whom actually care about its future—and whom, if they cannot find a way, will almost certainly make one.