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Business Officer Magazine

The CBO as Civility Broker

Chief business officers play a pivotal role in shaping how institution operations and governance are conducted.

An interview with Rita Bornstein

The Peaceable WorkplaceHigher education consultant Rita Bornstein is president emerita and Cornell Professor of Philanthropy and Leadership, Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida. Her numerous journal articles include “Promoting Civil Discourse on Campus,” published in the Winter 2010 issue of the American Council on Education’s magazine, The Presidency.

How is civility best embodied within the context of the higher education enterprise?

In transacting the business of the institution, we have to remember that everyone who works at a college or university is there foremost to support students. If civility is important to us as a community, it is incumbent upon us as leaders to model the kind of behavior we want to teach students, and so we all have an obligation to behave in a civil way. As part of the community that influences students, business and financial officers have an obligation as much as anyone else to model civil interactions. This includes their day-to-day dealings with faculty.

Why do you highlight this relationship in particular?

Very often a tension is present between the business and the academic sides of the institution. Faculty may assume that administration in general, and financial folks in particular, are holding back important budgetary information, for instance. And it can be the case that business officers don’t include faculty members in certain financial decisions or details that they believe are beyond the realm of expertise of academic leaders.

In truth, consulting with faculty can be time-consuming. This is particularly challenging at a time of economic duress when difficult financial decisions must be made, including some in short order. As we have seen during this recent recession, economic hard times can either exacerbate tensions between administration and faculty or bring them together in shared efforts to overcome extraordinary challenges. Many institutions have been laying off tenured faculty, increasing reliance on contingent faculty, holding faculty salaries flat, cutting academic programs, and increasing class sizes. All this makes it hard on the professorship and raises the potential for distrust.

How can the CBO build and reinforce trusting relationships with faculty?

First, what every CBO should remember is that faculty believe strongly in their role in preserving the institution. While finance officers are likely to want to make key decisions in quick fashion when they feel they know best where they can save money or enhance productivity, the CBO has an obligation to be as transparent as possible, to open the books and share budget information with faculty, and to communicate the problems in clear terms.

Specifically, the CBO can make a real difference in promoting civil interaction around these tough issues by making special efforts to sit down with the president of the faculty senate or chair on an ongoing basis to develop an honest and trusting relationship. He or she can periodically come to faculty with budget presentations and not only talk, but also listen, to hear faculty concerns, to determine ways to address those concerns, and modify financial priorities. When the CBO has a presence at faculty meetings, this can also give matters a sense of urgency for making certain decisions in a more timely manner.

It’s worth remembering that good decisions can’t be made too precipitously or without involving other stakeholders in understanding the extent of the problems. Bottom line: Each constituency must learn to listen carefully to the other and talk clearly about priorities and needs within the context of their mutual responsibility to work on behalf of students. Even when a matter of survival or the need to cut programming is evident, there must be some way in which faculty and finance can come together to make appropriate recommendations.

The president likewise has an obligation to promote civility within his or her cabinet and insist that all members air their concerns in cabinet meetings; though when finished, members must go forth and speak with one voice about the decisions that have been reached. Otherwise, these disparate voices can jeopardize the work of the institution. And if leaders speak negatively about each other, this undermines the kind of civil discourse that should set the tone for the entire institution. This includes curtailing negative comments made to trustees.

What is a CBO’s responsibility for promoting civility within the governance process?

Often there is a tendency for trustees to align with the recommendations of finance staff because they have confidence that the institution’s businesspeople know best how to solve budgetary challenges. Yet, business officers must remember that higher education operates under a shared governance structure that includes highly trained employees and professors who have a stake in the institution and want to be part of these decisions. The CBO and the president have a responsibility to reinforce the ideal of a shared governance structure and to explain to trustees why it is important not to make difficult financial decisions without getting input from all stakeholders, including faculty.

Finally, is there any role for the CBO in promoting civil discourse with external constituents?

Absolutely. The kind of protests that we are seeing emerge and intensify as tuitions rise, class sizes expand, programs are cut, and students are unable to get the classes they want, indicate a growing need to treat faculty and student populations with respect for these and other concerns. In a tough economy, it can be especially difficult to maintain a culture of respect and civil discourse. To the extent administration has an open and transparent relationship and continuing dialogue with faculty, students, alumni, and the public at large, this makes a big difference in the way bad news is received.

In many instances, the public has lost trust in our institutions. Therefore, higher education leaders have a big job in educating our constituencies about the growing financial pressures faced by higher education and explaining how we are cutting operations and costs, and why tuition levels may increase even as we strive to improve affordability and access and improve graduation rates. However, unless we can first talk to each other within the academy and engage the public in a way that models civility, the compromises we must make won’t be well received or understood within the context of how higher education contributes to the betterment of society.

Return to "The Peaceable Workplace."