The opening lines are well known, the bridge section less so. After enumerating all the things he would do if he were rich--he "wouldn't have to work hard," he'd build a big tall house with "rooms by the dozen" and one stairway "leading nowhere, just for show," he'd fill his yard with ostentatiously noisy live poultry, et cetera--the tempo shifts from lively to stately as Tevye observes:
"The most important men in town would come to fawn on me. They would ask me to advise them, like a Solomon the Wise. If you please, Reb Tevye... pardon me, Reb Tevye... posing problems that would cross a rabbi's eyes..." Tevye chants briefly, pauses, then turns to the audience. As the light-hearted tempo and more familiar tune resumes, he sings, with a wink: "And it won't make one bit of difference if I answer right or wrong--when you're rich, they think you really know!"
Long fermata here, as if giving the audience time to contemplate what Tevye has just said: "When you're rich, they think you really know."
I thought of that song the other day when I was reading this AAUP Academe blog on boards of trustees and the role they play in university governance. As blogger and educational specialist Brian Mitchell points out: "By far, the weakest link in the governance chain is the trustees. Often successful in business, law, medicine and other fields, they take their considerable talent to a non-profit setting. Unfortunately, the issue may require an approach using an entirely different skill set than applied in a for-profit business."
To understand the differences between higher education and the trustees' own fields of specialty, Mitchell continues, calls for "ongoing trustee education": "Colleges today are complex and operate more like small cities than for-profit businesses. They are in the business of relationship-building. It is critical that Boards of Trustees understand the policies and protocols that matter differently than those they see in business and professional settings." Responsibility for such trustee education, Mitchell places at least partially at the feet of college administrators.
This is all well and good; I wholeheartedly agree. If a person is going to serve as a "trustee" for a nonprofit organization--that is to say, "one to whom something is entrusted"--such a person ought to understand exactly what it is that he or she is holding in trust for someone else. This seems too glaringly obvious to need mentioning. (Why some boards are composed of "regents" rather than "trustees" becomes an interesting lexical question, given that "regents" historically governed a kingdom when the sovereign was unable to do so, due to youth, disability, or absence--causing me to ponder why a university with a president would need to have "regents." But I digress.)
Surely it's reasonable to expect some of the impetus for such education to come from administrators themselves. And in an ideal world, administrators would receive much of their own guidance from faculty members, and even from staff and students--in other words, the people who are involved in the institution on a daily basis and know, from the ground, what's going right, what's going wrong, and what's needed. (Yes, I know -- here I should shift from Fiddler on the Roof to Aerosmith: Dream on.)
Mitchell's essay prompted me to think about another question that his blog entry doesn't specifically address: In higher education today, who are most of these trustees? How are they selected, and what makes a person qualified to serve as a trustee (or regent)? All too often, board members are mysterious entities; board members and faculty often would not recognize on the street, even when they often cross paths. All too often, it is also the case that board members come from professions outside education, and usually at incomes that are higher income levels than that of the average liberal arts professor--not to mention the countless lesser-paid staff members who keep the university running on a daily basis, or the legions of minimally paid adjunct faculty members who lack benefits, job stability, and even a living wage.
What makes people qualified to be trustees? Could it be that the selection process relies on the logic expounded by Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof: When you're rich, it's assumed that you "know," even if you're venturing into a field about which you actually know very little? And what is it about education that makes us assume that powerful, influential, and wealthy people--often, with no background in education--believe they have both the know-how and the right to determine how education is governed?
This seems to happen at all levels of education, not just at the university level. You have the Gates Foundation, with Bill G. able to shape and even determine the course of public K-12 education in this country based on ... what, exactly? I read recently about a newly appointed member of a state school board who comes from a background far afield from education, who gushed about this wonderful opportunity to "come full circle" because at an earlier age, the person had "thought about becoming a teacher."
Interesting. At an earlier age, I thought about becoming a doctor, a psychologist, and an avionics engineer. I wonder how many hospitals, mental health organizations, or transportation safety boards would like to invite me, with my PhD in English, to offer my expertise to them, based on my childhood dreams and the enormous social influence afforded me by my currently frozen five-figure salary. I'm sure if I offered, the response would be, "Sorry. Go play in a different sandbox."
And it appears that that's how many (I would assume not all) trustees/regents view their task: more as a sandbox to play in than as a sacred trust held on behalf of an institution whose long-term welfare, as well as the welfare of those whose lives are significantly influenced by it, depends on their wise and well-informed decisions. This may stem from two assumptions that appear to drive trustee selection: (1) the assumption that professional experience within education isn't necessary to wield power and influence in that field; (2) that when you're rich, "you really know."
I wouldn't argue that every single trustee should have an educational background. To the contrary, on any governing board a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives is a positive thing. Fiscal responsibility is a positive, not a negative, and boards can only benefit from having a few members with solid backgrounds in fields like business and law. I am also not suggesting that wealth is inherently a bad thing.
But when it comes to governance, the term "diversity" needs to be taken seriously. Boards will be even more effective if they are comprised of people from a true range of backgrounds, including but not limited to professional expertise and experience, socioeconomic level, race, gender, and more.
Imagine the difference if at least some board members had significant firsthand knowledge and experience in education. Imagine the difference if at least some board members were of average financial means and could share the perspective of families and students who struggle to pay tuition. Imagine the difference if some board members understood what happens in educational institutions, at the ground level, on a daily basis. Meanwhile, diversity of race, ethnicity and gender should be a no-brainer (though if you look at actual board representation, it appears that in most cases it isn't).
Imagine the world we would have, both in higher education and elsewhere, if Tevye turned out to be wrong. Imagine what could happen if we didn't begin with the assumption that wealth is really the best measure of whether a person "knows" what's best when entrusted with an entity's overall well-being.