Governance questions at AU
- Published: September 22, 2011
A controversy around Antioch University governance has sparked publicity recently in higher education circles.
At the end of August, the Web sites of both Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education published articles about the resignations of 13 out of 18 members of the board of trustees for Antioch University Los Angeles, or AULA. At issue was recent bylaw changes for the regional campus trustees that AULA trustees felt stripped them of their power.
“It’s a substantive change,” said former AULA board chair Dianna Wong, the CEO of an Los Angeles design and architectural firm, regarding the bylaw changes. “We didn’t have a lot of powers to begin with and what limited powers we had were taken away.”
The trustees who resigned also cited a lack of due process regarding the bylaw changes, which were made at a recent meeting of the Antioch University board of governors, the governing body of the whole university.
In his letter of resignation, entertainment lawyer George Hayum stated that “surreptitiously changing our status without discussion or notice does little indeed to reflect any appreciation of, or respect for, our time and efforts.”
However, according to Antioch University Chancellor Toni Murdock in an interview last week, the bylaw changes were neither substantive nor did they diminish the power of trustees. Rather, she said, the disagreement was one of “semantics” and the bylaw changes were “trying to clarify the roles and responsibilities of the boards of trustees and the board of governors.”
Two other leaders of the AU regional boards in recent interviews said they had no problem with the bylaw changes, and did not see the action as limiting their boards.
“We’re all on board with the one university system,” said Dan Young of Young’s Jersey Dairy, the vice-chair of the AUMidwest board. AUMidwest chair Phil Parker was out of town and unavailable for comment.
And in a Sept. 6 letter to Antioch University leaders, the chairs of the remaining four regional campus boards of trustees — New England, Santa Barbara, Seattle and Midwest — wrote to support Antioch University leaders.
“We join you in stretching, growing and inspiring ideas while resolving difficult questions in order to serve the whole and deliver a meaningful and unique educational experience to the entire student body,” the letter states.
A strong, feisty board
The AULA board of trustees was a strong board of influential people in the Los Angeles community, according to former AULA President Neal King, who led the school through a period of sustained growth in recent years. King resigned from his position last winter and is currently president of the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology.
“It was a phenomenal board of high-level people,” he said. “They expected to have a voice.”
The regional boards of trustees were created two years ago, at about the time Antioch College achieved autonomy from the university, in an attempt to increase the investment that communities had in the AU regional campuses, and to help the university board of governors with oversight of each campus, Murdock said.
Prior to the changed system, the regional campuses had advisory boards with no real power, and because of that lack of power, it was difficult to attract influential people willing to give their time and energy, King said. In contrast, the two-year old AULA board was a “feisty, talented, strong group of people” who were very engaged with the campus.
The L.A. campus is a growing “cash cow” for the university system, according to Wong, who said its programs are drawing many students from the surrounding community of 14 million people.
The L.A. trustees’ desire to build a new facility to accommodate the school’s growth was one issue of contention between them and the university governors. AULA trustees also questioned what they felt was an outsize assessment from each regional campus for university overhead, for which they felt they received little in return.
According to Murdock last week, the assessment covers “the enormous amount of services” the university provides each campus, including IT, health benefits, taxes and payroll services.
But what sparked the recent resignations were the bylaw changes. According to the previous bylaws, the trustees were to “conduct when necessary a presidential search, which shall include the chancellor’s participation.” When King announced his intention to leave, the AULA trustees made plans to begin a search for his replacement, but Murdock opposed their doing so, according to Wong and former trustee Richard Hesel, a higher education consultant.
The new bylaws, which cover all AU campuses, have now been revised to say that, rather than conduct the search, the trustees shall “participate with the chancellor when necessary in a presidential search process, which shall inform the chancellor’s hiring decision…” Other powers were also affected, such as the change from the previous bylaw stating that the campus board would “determine” campus financial aid policies, compared to the new rule that the board shall “recommend” policies to the chancellor.
Ultimately, the AULA trustees and the university board agreed on the selection of Tex Boggs as the new AULA president. However, the bylaw revisions, which the trustees said were made without notice or discussion, were the final straw prompting the resignations.
According to Antioch University Board of Governors Chair Larry Stone in an interview last week, the AULA trustees could have attended the board of governors’ meeting to make their voices heard about the bylaw revisions.
The trustees’ perception that there was a lack of due process was especially troubling because the action seemed “a strike to the heart of the philosophy of Antioch,” Wong said.
According to former AULA President King, who has been with the university seven years, first as interim president of Antioch University New England and then president at Los Angeles, the mission of Antioch University is “lived in the classroom.” But that mission is “less lived the further up you go in the organization. It becomes more and more autocratic and authoritarian the higher up you go,” he said.
In general, King said, the current Antioch University administration “has a seige mentality. The university will be served when there’s a transition in leadership.”
The upheaval on the AULA board has damaged the university’s relationship with the L.A. community, according to King, who said it will be difficult to find effective trustees in the future.
Other campuses on board
Antioch University Midwest Board of Trustees Vice-Chair Young disagrees with the AULA trustees’ assessment of the recent bylaw changes as a reduction of power for the regional boards.
“I look at the bylaw change as more clearly defining the role, cleaning up the language,” he said.
“We understand that we have an important role that we play locally,” Young said, defining that role as “most importantly, a good sounding board” for the president.
“We don’t micromanage in any sense of the word, but we ask good questions,” he said.
The Midwest board plays a role in reviewing the campus budget, acting as ambassadors to the community and weighing in on programming changes, such as the recent launch of the Midwest health advocacy program, Young said.
Television producer Vicki Riskin, chair of the Antioch University Santa Barbara trustees, agrees with Young that the recent bylaw changes are insignificant and will not negatively affect the Santa Barbara board.
“This should be a shared process,” she said of the AU governance model. “Everyone should work together in a collaborative way.”
Her own experience as board chair has been “excellent,” Riskin said, stating that the university leaders have been “encouraging and supportive of what our trustees want to do.”
The letter from other AU board chairs in support of university leadership was unsolicited, Riskin said, and was intended to express solidarity with the university board of governors and university staff.
Board chairs Ken Friedman of the AU Seattle campus and Martha Summerville of the AUNew England did not return calls seeking comment.
However, in the letter that the four board chairs signed, they stated that, “… We recognize the challenges inherent in our governance structure, but have confidence that meaningful contributions can be made at every level of our University that will truly make the whole much greater than simply the sum of our parts.”