Blame the Boards: How America’s Elite Colleges Flunked Humanity 101

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If alumni could sue like shareholders can sue, they’d have a solid case for malfeasance—especially after this week.

For America’s top universities it’s been a memorable back-to-school season, hasn’t it? Amid the turning leaves and ivy-covered brick, we saw student groups celebrating and demonstrating in support of Hamas’ brutally attacking, torturing and killing over 1,200 innocent men, women and children. We heard zombified “river-to-the-sea” chants echoing across campuses with little sense of the context—or fear created. Amid the change of seasons in bucolic upstate New York, the State Police took a Cornell student into custody after he threatened to kill Jewish students on campus.

To cap off this season of achievement, this week the presidents of three of the nation’s most elite schools—Harvard, Penn and MIT—came before congress, where they put on a masterclass in lawyerly contextualism over whether or not calling for the genocide of Jews violated their school’s code of conduct. It was quite an outing—the slipperiest show since tobacco executives were asked to testify on whether or not their product was dangerous.

Whenever there’s the equivalent level of chaos in the business world—from Enron to Tyco to AOL to Theranos or any number of other catastrophic failures of leadership and governance in the past few decades—the immediate question is, of course, where was the board? It’s the thing directors live most in fear of seeing in their morning’s edition of The Wall Street Journal.

It’s now time—especially after this week’s ethics class in Washington—to ask the same question at our most prestigious universities. How have these institutions and their leaders, who charge upwards of $80,000 a year to educate our children (in addition to receiving large grants from our federal government and charitable foundations), failed so miserably to teach and sustain our society’s core ideals like truth, knowledge, respectful debate, inquiry, and equality of opportunity? There are various factors at play but ultimately, it is the boards of directors who have failed.

Where Was the Board?

Public company board members live under two overarching legal rules: Duty of loyalty and duty of care. They promise to always act in the interest of the company and they promise to avoid acts that would, even through neglect, harm the company. If institutions like Harvard, Penn, Columbia, MIT and the University of California were companies, I can only imagine the billions in shareholder suits they’d be facing for their tanking shares.

If alumni could sue like shareholders can sue, they’d have a pretty solid case: The boards of these elite institutions (I am an alumni of one, Harvard) have failed to hire administrators who will fulfill the missions of their institutions of higher education, failed to hire and retain faculty that share the mission and vision of the institution, failed to root out faculty, administrators and students who create a hostile work and teaching environment for fellow faculty and students who don’t share their viewpoints. 

On their watch they’ve accepted billions of dollars from countries including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with much of the money going to the Middle East Studies Association and Middle East Studies departments, where these foreign parties have been able to influence which professors get hired, what curricula are used, what research is conducted and what courses are offered. 

They’ve allowed administrators to grant far too much power to tenured professors, with lifetime employment, regardless of the person’s actions. In every corporation, management has a duty to root out employees who create a hostile work environment for co-employees or who are hostile to groups of customers or other key stakeholders. In academia, these guardrails have—as recent events show so clearly—been eliminated on many campuses.

Most worrisome, these boards have allowed the cancer of antisemitism to take strong root and begin metastasizing. In the wake of the worst on-campus episodes, some university presidents finally spoke out, but only after a backlash from major donors and potential employers for their students.

Time for Change

Throughout all of this, not enough people were asking: where were the boards? The answer, unfortunately, was that in far too many cases, they were fast asleep or hiding out of the public eye. University boards, as anyone who has ever engaged with one comes to know quickly, are comprised of too many members unwilling or unequipped to take on real governance responsibilities. This was, prior to Sarbanes Oxley, the case at many public companies as well, but has changed in the decades since. This fall’s on-campus fiascos signal that it is time for a similar modernization at our universities. It is no longer enough to donate a lot of money to your alma mater or to be a respected academic and attend some meetings to be left in charge. That hasn’t worked out.

To start, college boards would benefit from adapting best practices standard at any public—and most large private—companies. These include effective NomGov, Compensation and Audit committees with strong chairs; recruiting independent board members with the needed experience on critical issues; a requirement that all board members have the appropriate ongoing education and support an effective board culture. Most of all, they need alumni communities that speak up when they see things going wrong and hold people directly, personally accountable—the way investors do.

If our society is willing to do all of this to protect the interests of corporate shareholders, perhaps we should also be willing to do so to safeguard something far more precious: our children, and our nation’s future.

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