Now there are new insights from the ongoing discussion of one of the most interesting and controversial cases of disputed organizational governance. We have often come back to the example of Dartmouth College, of which Dartmouth Medical School is a significant component. We most recently discussed here an ongoing dispute about the extent that the institution's board of trustees ought to represent the alumni at large, or instead, ought to be a self-elected body not clearly accountable to anyone else. (For our take on this complex case, start here and follow the links backward.) The latest development in the case is a lawsuit filed by Dartmouth alumni challenging an increase in the number of self-elected, or "charter" trustees, which they charged broke an 1891 agreement that established numerical parity between alumni-elected and charter trustees.
Soon after this lawsuit was filed, an important article by Harvey Silverglate (one of the founders of FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) and Joseph Malchow appeared. For those interested in the case, the article includes extensive detail, with multiple citations, on all the twists and turns of the case, and is very much worth reading. (See this post on FIRE's Torch blog for more background and discussion.)
However, the article also features extensive scholarship on governance of US not-for-profit institutions, focused on academic institutions (including medical academia), and with relevance to other not-for-profit or non-governmental health care organizations. In particular, the article sheds light on how the governance of such organizations has become so degraded.
First, Silverglate and Malchow summarized the duties of governing boards:
Traditionally, fiduciary duty [of the board of trustees] has been understood as having two components: the duty of loyalty and the duty of care. The duty of loyalty requires a fiduciary to act in a manner he or she reasonably believes to be in the best interests of the organization. The duty of care obliges directors to inform themselves of reasonably available information prior to making a business decision. More recently, courts have considered the duty to act in good faith [the duty of obedience] as a fiduciary requirement. This component, similar to the duty of care, is satisfied when a director makes informed decisions without conflicts of interest.
The question central to the dispute regarding Dartmouth governance is to what or to whom do fiduciaries owe their duty. Corporate directors have a relatively straightforward task of serving the corporation and its shareholders. In the case of a charitable trust, however, which generally does not have 'ascertainable beneficiaries who can enforce their rights,' the duty of fiduciaries is instead directed toward fulfilling or furthering the organization’s mission
So just to summarize, considerable discussion, scholarship, and I believe some some laws support the notion that the board of a not-for-profit organization is obliged to take reasonable care to make informed decisions free of conflicts of interest to uphold the organization's mission.
However, currently, many boards value deference to the organization's (usually hired) top managers and avoidance of internal conflict within the board more highly than these obligations:
Dartmouth, to be sure, is far from the only place where fealty to organizational leaders—and the notion of 'going along in order to get along' —has been placed before true fiduciary duty.
Silverglate and Malchow have some important ideas about how we came to this.
Not-for-profits became more like for-profit corporations:
During the 1980s, traditional nonprofit organizations supported by donations and governed by donors and volunteers became increasingly displaced by professionally staffed commercial nonprofits, supported by grants, contracts, and earned income, and governed by insider boards. The shift in governance was armored by progressively professionalized and entrepreneurial management, which was perceived to be more adept at control of the ebb and flow of funds in the American market.
Top hired not-for-profit executives assumed more power at the expense of other constituencies, including the professionals who did the work:
By the 1990s, with faculty power firmly institutionalized at colleges and universities, a notion that university presidents were bereft of power took hold. The AGB [Association of Governing Boards], in 1996, argued that university presidents needed to regain power with a pivotal document of its own: Renewing the Academic Presidency: Stronger Leadership for Tougher Times. Though this outlook was applied to varying degrees at colleges and universities, an imperative toward greater executive power in universities was thus established.
Presidential and professorial decision-making power, combined with the rise of the administrative bureaucracy in academia, have generally relegated trustees to a secondary role in campus affairs.
Attempts at reforming governance were inappropriately based on a for-profit corporate model, and particularly the need to project unity and avoid confrontation among the leadership trumped transparency:
Aligning academic boards with the cultural trends of increased critical oversight has obvious benefits, but some boards have moved to adopt the norms of for-profit corporate governance that are simply not applicable to the university context. Admittedly, this is a thin distinction when considered on a theoretical level. But in practical terms, misguided nonprofit reforms—some of which, upon close examination, actually violate an institution’s mission—are readily evident.
For example, some nonprofit boards have emphasized the adoption of formal nondisclosure pledges or confidentiality agreements that step well beyond nondisclosure of proprietary information. This is hardly uncommon in the business sector, where bottom-line strictures demand a certain degree of internal accord and non-transparency. And though there is evidence that nonprofit board directors have, from time to time, attempted to hush public dissent, only recently have dominant majorities of some nonprofit boards proposed and ratified binding pledges not to publicly air differences. According to a 2006 BoardSource publication, 'If a board member does not support a decision for whatever reason, [he or] she has a responsibility to remain silent or step down from the board.' (Recall the resignation offer made to Zywicki before his second term was denied.)
These directives, written in highly influential publications in the realm of university governance, disregard the important role that public discussion has on decision-making at universities and nonprofits in general. 'In the nonprofit context, nondisclosure agreements or the use of 'executive session' rules to curtail debates about policy and procedure depart from established norms. They shut down opportunities for public dialogue and for communication with other concerned and influential parties, including reporters,' nonprofit specialist Norman I. Silber wrote in the Oregon Law Review.
Emphasis on raising money rather than upholding the mission has lead to board deference to hired executives.
Fidelity to institutional leaders, rather than institutional mission, is now paramount in higher education, as deviation from accepted decisions is perceived as potentially shrinking the donor base. Administrators cringe at public disagreement; rather than focusing on the long-term likelihood that competing ideas will result in implementation of the fittest, they tend to focus on the short-term possibility that a particular alumni subset may be offended. This shortsighted outlook is not only an insult to the intelligence of alumni and other constituencies, but it is ultimately detrimental to the institution, as established ideas are enthroned and unchallenged. It is also based on false premises: as in the case of Dartmouth, there is no established correlation between public criticism and donor decline.
Boards are increasingly composed of executives of for-profit corporations, particularly in the finance field, who may grant the same deference to the organizations' leaders that they would like from their own board. That is, hired executives identify more with other executives than with the organizations they are supposed to be leading:
Judge Cabranes noted that trustees, especially business executives, tend to act toward university presidents as they wish their boards would act toward them—deferentially. And the phenomenon of board members believing they serve at the pleasure of the executive is what one nonprofit attorney and blogger, has termed 'upside down board.' The ascendance of the hedge-fund community, a peculiar province of graduates of elite institutions, has contributed to the prevalence of the upside down board....
The article suggests some issues that need to be addressed to make governance more accountable, transparent, ethical and honest. Boards need to be reminded of their duties, and that their loyalty should be to the mission, not the organization's executives, or the views of the board's majority. Transparency and open discussion are more important than projecting the (sometimes false) impression of unity. New board members should be chosen for their loyalty to the mission rather than their similarity to and congeniality with current board members.
I strongly suggest that anyone who cares about how health care organizations are run ought to read Silverglate and Malchow's full article. It should be required reading for current and would-be board members of academic and health care not-for-profit organizations (but I will not hold my breath waiting for them to read it.)