A Faculty Voice on the State Coordinating Board

Faculty representation on state higher education boards improves communication. We should insist on a seat at the table.
By Nancy J. McKenney

On June 20, 2013, I attended my last meeting as faculty representative to Kentucky’s coordinating board for public higher education, the Council on Postsecondary Education (CPE). On that day the CPE transacted business that had, over the past four years, become very familiar to me. We approved tuition increases for the eight public universities and the Kentucky Community and Technical College System and gave the go-ahead for three new academic programs. We heard presentations by representatives from Northern Kentucky University, our host for this quarterly meeting, and the community colleges concerning their progress on the goals or “focus areas” of the CPE’s 2011–15 strategic plan, “Stronger by Degrees,” with which I had become intimately acquainted as a member of the group that had helped to develop it. Also at this meeting were some special action items reflective of important work done by the council during my term of service. One of these was a resolution for “Continued Support of Senate Bill 1 of 2009” (which had led to Kentucky’s being the first state to adopt common core educational standards for P–12). Another item was council acceptance of the Report of the Rural Access Work Group—more about that later.

At the conclusion of this meeting, the student representative and I were honored with resolutions as our terms of service were expiring. As words from my resolution rang pleasantly in my ears, I reflected on my past four years on the council.

How Did I Get into This?

In my particular case, years of involvement in shared governance, especially as an AAUP member, had paved the way for me to serve on Kentucky’s Council on Postsecondary Education. When, as a newly minted librarian, I took a position at Campbellsville College (now a university) in Campbellsville, Kentucky, a faculty colleague invited me to join the AAUP. Upon doing so I learned that the AAUP supports faculty status and tenure rights for academic librarians; thus began my long history of membership and activism in the Association.

When I became a librarian at Eastern Kentucky University in 1985, the AAUP chapter was inactive, its “glory days” having been in the 1960s, when the university had a heavy-handed but politically savvy president. At that time, AAUP chapter meetings often drew sixty to seventy people, and the administration was so nervous that it sent “spies” to listen. However, by the 1990s the chapter was moribund, in part as a result of the tenure of a cautious, non-confrontational president who kept the faculty quiet by providing regular pay raises. Nevertheless, some determined AAUP stalwarts decided to reactivate the chapter by calling a meeting and holding an election. I was elected secretary and served in that capacity, and also as treasurer, over the next decade. Finally, after helping to keep the chapter running in the absence of a president for several years, I became president in 2004.

During these years I also served on the EKU faculty senate and became aware of a statewide organization for faculty at public colleges and universities known as the Coalition of Senate and Faculty Leaders for Higher Education (COSFL). The senate at EKU elected a representative to COSFL annually, and at senate meetings the representative would report on the most recent COSFL meeting. At some point I was invited to attend COSFL meetings as an AAUP representative. COSFL’s constitution, first adopted in 1989, had been revised in 1997 so that the voting membership would include not only faculty senate chairs and faculty trustees but also “the president of the AAUP where a sanctioned AAUP chapter exists.” This latter provision was initially controversial because some COSFL members did not think that the AAUP, which had relatively small chapters in Kentucky, was sufficiently representative of the faculty. Nonetheless, those of us from the AAUP persevered and were ultimately able to command the respect of our COSFL colleagues.

COSFL was responsible for getting a faculty representative on the Council on Postsecondary Education. The organization supported an amendment to the 1997 Kentucky Higher Education Reform Bill that allows for faculty representation on the CPE. Most COSFL meetings have featured an oral report from the faculty representative to the CPE, indicating close cooperation between the two bodies.

Thanks also to the work of COSFL, a state statute provides an orderly and at least partially democratic process for selecting a faculty member for the CPE:

One (1) member shall be a full-time faculty member employed at a state institution of postsecondary education. The faculty member shall be appointed to a four (4) year term by the Governor from a list of three (3) nominees selected and submitted by a majority vote of the ten (10) faculty members who serve as faculty representatives of the boards of trustees and boards of regents of the nine (9) postsecondary education institutions.

In spring 2009, having served on COSFL for several years as both an AAUP chapter president and an elected COSFL representative for my university’s senate, I was encouraged by COSFL president Peg Munke to apply for the position of faculty member on the CPE. The process outlined above was followed, and I was selected as one of three finalists. Governor Steven L. Beshear appointed me to serve as faculty representative in late September, and I attended my first CPE meeting in October 2009.

Two Governors and a “King”

In retrospect it is clear that I joined the CPE at a momentous time in its history. A year earlier, in October 2008, Governor Beshear had formed the Higher Education Work Group to develop recommendations to improve college access and affordability. The group, whose members included prominent business, education, and policy leaders from the Republican and Democratic Parties, issued a report in January 2009 with seventeen specific recommendations for the governor and the general assembly. In June 2009 the work group was reconvened and charged with making a second report, this time focusing on student financial aid, transfer from two- to four-year institutions, college readiness, and operating efficiencies and cost containment. Though the group was well along in its work when I was appointed to the CPE, I was asked immediately to join the work group to add a faculty perspective to the process. From the start, I emphasized that getting good educational results depended on having an excellent faculty and that we would not be able to appoint and retain such a faculty without appropriate financial support for public higher education. These words would become my mantra as the faculty representative.

Governor Beshear had taken another crucial step in September 2008, when he appointed former governor Paul Patton to the CPE. This was an eminently logical and politically astute move for a governor concerned about education, for Patton had been the mastermind behind the Postsecondary Education Improvement Act of 1997. He had served two successive terms as governor (1995–2003) and had been a national leader in education policy. He had created the CPE in 1997 and launched an ambitious program to reform education at all levels. In barely six months, Patton, whom everyone addressed affectionately as “Governor,” had become chair of the council.

The other member of the triumvirate of educational leaders was Robert L. King, who became president of the CPE in January 2009. King was former chancellor of the State University of New York, presiding over the governing board of one of the world’s largest systems of public education. It must have been a considerable adjustment for him to become the executive of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, which, as a coordinating board, has very limited authority over the state’s public universities. From my service on COSFL I knew that King’s two predecessors at the CPE had had considerable difficulty dealing with the state legislature, and they evidently had chafed at the CPE’s relative lack of power. King, in contrast, seemed to thrive on the challenge of leading the CPE and proved to be a master of diplomacy, persuasion, and collaboration. His new position required dealing with state officials, university presidents, provosts, chief financial officers, and, most importantly from my perspective, faculty advisory groups, while at the same time lobbying on behalf of higher education with members of the Kentucky General Assembly. He also was charged with directing the very knowledgeable and highly capable staff at the CPE.

I watched with admiration as King made the most of the CPE’s limited statutory authority, which primarily consists of approving annual tuition increase requests of public universities, setting the state’s higher education policy agenda and accountability system, and approving new academic programs, provided that they have met their diversity goals. However, as King reminded some legislators who questioned the need for the CPE, while the CPE has few powers, it has numerous statutory duties. An additional challenge for King was the fact that all the university presidents have their particular supporters in the legislature, and historically they have tended to go directly to those politicians with their requests and to “forget” the CPE. King handled this challenge by frequently meeting with presidents, both individually and collectively, and by getting them to sign biennial budget requests that were prepared on behalf of public higher education by the CPE.

The other key responsibility of the president is working with the governing board of the CPE. By statute, the membership of the council consists of one faculty member, one student representative, the commissioner of education (the latter ex officio), and thirteen “citizens” appointed by the governor and approved by the legislature. The statute also specifies that the governor, in making appointments, must ensure equal representation of men and women and must reflect voter registration in the two leading political parties and the state’s racial composition. Finally, no more than two members of the council should have an undergraduate degree from any one Kentucky university and no more than three should reside in any one judicial district.

In spite of the very real possibility that some council members could be chosen for political reasons, I found them to be, without exception, extremely competent, well-respected individuals who care deeply about improving education. The body included attorneys and businesspeople, a former executive of Kentucky Educational Television, the head of a construction union, and a few former elected officials. I was gratified at the respect with which I as a faculty member was treated by the other members. One of my predecessors as faculty representative told me that one reason a faculty member is on the council is so other members can talk with someone who actually works on a campus! There is probably some truth to that. The other members are highly intelligent, well educated people, a number with graduate degrees, but their familiarity with campuses tends to be as former students or as trustees, not as faculty members or staff of higher education institutions.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that one of my biggest supporters on the council was a businessperson, Joe Graviss, who owns eight McDonald’s restaurants. He listened thoughtfully to my concerns about the importance of faculty to student success and my reservations about the excessive growth of administrative positions relative to faculty positions at some universities. He then became a more outspoken advocate for faculty than I had been. Graviss repeatedly asked for data regarding numbers of faculty and administrators, even pushing for this “metric” to be part of the CPE’s strategic agenda. Alas, this did not happen, as there were always plausible excuses for not using this type of data for performance evaluations, but Graviss continues to this day to ask tough questions that need to be asked.

In addition to working well with council members, King has been conscientious about seeking faculty input, not just from me but also from COSFL president Peg Munke. With the support of King and the CPE’s vice president for academic affairs, Aaron Thompson, Munke was instrumental in getting faculty representation on most CPE committees. Faculty from the public universities have been involved with various initiatives led by the CPE—for example, the implementation of transfer legislation, which mandated that associate-level course work at community and technical colleges be accepted and credited to bachelor’s degree programs at the four-year institutions.

Politics Intrude

As council chair, former governor Patton was a marvelous asset to the CPE. With his charisma and political gifts, he was a considerable help to King in identifying the most important people to know in the Kentucky General Assembly, in getting access to them, and in persuading them to support goals of the CPE. Meetings of the council were filled with electricity and excitement, and members had a sense that great things would be accomplished. Our meetings generated considerable interest in the news media and always drew a crowd around “the Governor.”

Then we hit a brick wall. Patton became president of Pikeville College (now the University of Pikeville) in 2009. Soon it would become clear that he had particular goals related to his new role. In summer 2010, Patton invited the council to hold its regular summer retreat at UPike. We all enjoyed the hospitality at Patton’s beloved private liberal arts college, located in his hometown in eastern Kentucky. We didn’t fully realize why we were there, however, until the following year, when Patton began to advocate for making UPike a public university, on the grounds that people in eastern Kentucky (largely because of poor roads and geographic isolation) are seriously underserved by the existing four-year public universities. Council members and King were put in a very awkward and difficult position. While we sympathized with Patton, we were painfully aware that declining state support for higher education was causing severe budgetary problems for existing public universities. How could the state add yet another public institution and divide an already too-small pie of state funding into ten pieces instead of nine?

King, ever ready to turn a conflict into an opportunity for good, suggested that an outside body should conduct a study of the educational needs of rural areas of Kentucky not currently well served by higher education institutions. In January 2012, Governor Beshear commissioned the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) to evaluate the feasibility of taking the University of Pikeville into the state system. Patton was apparently persuaded that it would be best if he resigned from the council because of the conflict of interest inherent in his situation. Former Lexington mayor Pam Miller became chair of the council in January 2012 and continues to lead the body.

The NCHEMS report presented to the council in June 2012 showed that the twelve counties in the service region of UPike do indeed have lower educational attainment than many other parts of Kentucky and that, for many students, attending a four-year private institution such as Pikeville is prohibitively expensive. However, the NCHEMS report also revealed that other areas in Kentucky face equally low levels of educational attainment and also have limited access to lower-cost educational institutions. The report took the wind out of the push to make UPike a state university. No legislation on UPike has yet been passed in the Kentucky General Assembly. Legislation was proposed that would create scholarships from coal severance tax money for students in any educationally underserved area of Kentucky, but it has also not passed. In October 2012, the CPE formed a work group to investigate the causes of chronically low educational attainment in rural areas of the state and propose strategies for improvement. The Rural Access Work Group report was formally accepted by the CPE at my last meeting. Thus, a conflict has happily led to something that has the potential to improve education in the state.

What Have I Learned?

According to a study prepared for the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, 2010 Policies, Practices, and Composition of Higher Education Coordinating Boards and Commissions, it is very rare to have faculty representation on a coordinating board such as the CPE. Slightly fewer than half of the states have coordinating boards. Of these, board websites indicate that only two states besides Kentucky— Illinois and Tennessee—specifically provide for a faculty representative. (The Tennessee Board of Regents, a governing board under the umbrella of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, includes a faculty member, and the Illinois Board of Higher Education must have one faculty member among the ten members appointed by the governor.) We as faculty members need to work to make the kind of experience I had at the CPE commonplace.

Faculty need to try to get legislation passed requiring faculty representation on their higher education board. Forming a statewide faculty advisory group such as Kentucky’s COSFL is one way to gain traction with a state legislature and educational leaders. In states with an active AAUP conference, particularly one that engages in lobbying, faculty can work with the AAUP to push for faculty representation on higher education boards, even those of individual universities. In Kentucky, state statutes require that faculty trustees serve on the boards of all public institutions of higher education, but this arrangement is unfortunately not the norm in all states.

Faculty members benefit from having representation on their higher education board, but it is also good for board members to hear directly from faculty when making decisions on behalf of higher education. In circumstances where it is not possible to have a faculty member on the board, it is incumbent on the AAUP and other representative faculty groups to provide advice to higher education boards either formally or informally. The faculty voice will be heard only if we as faculty members insist on it.

 

Nancy J. McKenney is a librarian and associate professor at Eastern Kentucky University. She serves on the AAUP’s national Council. Her e-mail address is nancy.mckenney@eku.edu.

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