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When Power Corrupts: Academic Governing Boards in the Shadow of the Adelphi Case

reviewed by William Phelan - 2002

coverTitle: When Power Corrupts: Academic Governing Boards in the Shadow of the Adelphi Case
Author(s): Lionel S. Lewis
Publisher: Transaction Publishing, Piscataway
ISBN: 0765800314, Pages: 195, Year: 2000
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This relatively compact book explores two interrelated themes. First as a case study, it details the gross incompetence and mismanagement by the Adelphi University President and the failed oversight by the Board of Trustees during 1985-1996. Second, the author argues that, contrary to popular perception, there is a marked disparity between the power of a lay board of trustees and that of the faculty in matters of academic governance. In Lionel Lewis’ view the Adelphi case is not an aberration but rather an extreme example of administrative control of resources and information, a lay board with very limited knowledge of higher education, and a faculty with no formal power.

As a carefully documented case study, the weight of the evidence supports the first theme. Lewis examined nearly 8000 pages of hearings conducted by the New York State Board of Regents and hundreds of documents collected from AAUP, law firms, and library achieves. He also interviewed some of the principal players.

The story of Adelphi, particularly of the President’s excessive compensation package and his extravagant life style, has been detailed in the popular media. Ultimately, the New York State Board of Regents removed the Adelphi trustees and their replacements dismissed the President. What makes Lewis’ account valuable is his documentation of the total isolation of the board and impotence of the faculty.

It is not surprising that the board accepted President Diamandopoulos’ vision of a new Adelphi based on the classical humanities. What is troubling is that they were so ignorant of resistance from students and their parents to a liberal arts curriculum. Despite generous scholarships, enrollment plummeted. The President responded to revenue shortfalls by reducing some of the more popular graduate and pre-professional programs. Where were the voices of opposition, especially of the faculty during this period?

As described in When Power Corrupts, the Faculty Senate passed several resolutions including those of no confidence in the President. They also asked to speak before the Board of Trustees. The central administration simply portrayed such faculty as malcontents, resisting the "enlightened" direction of President Diamandopoulos and the Board of Trustees who had embraced his vision.

The second theme explored by Lionel Lewis addresses the generalization of this case to other institutions of higher education. He points out that lay boards have supreme control subject to the input and, as evidenced here, the manipulation of college administrators. Meanwhile, in his view, administrative and trustee rejection of the "judgment of faculty shows that the fanciful talk about shared governance is frequently an empty platitude." Unfortunately, the author fails to provide a framework to distinguish between the personalities involved at Adelphi and the structure of lay governance and control.

Concepts such as power are left undefined. Lewis does not draw upon the extensive literature in sociology and political science that distinguishes between formal, legitimate power and informal power. Implicitly, his argument derives from the former. A lay board of trustees does have the final say on academic policy and resource allocations. But, at Adelphi, the faculty were stripped of even an advisory voice. The book then leaves a number of unanswered questions about lay boards of trustees.

First, would a Dr. Diamandopoulos be able to control the flow of information and determine, with board compliance, the allocation of resources in a publicly supported college or university? Since a president frequently is able to determine who is appointed to a board and compel the resignation of dissidents (at least at Adelphi) one may agree with Lewis’ generalization. However, unlike Adelphi, state institutions hold meetings under considerable public scrutiny, including the presence of television or press reporters.

Second, as a related question, are other presidents able to hide budget details from board members as was done at Adelphi? To what extent are administrative pronouncements about revenues and physical expansion accepted at face value despite the financial stress of dropping enrollments and lost tuitions?

Third, this book clearly shows a board of trustees acting without faculty input. If voting or non-voting representatives from the faculty were members, would that make a difference in board policies and decisions?

Lionel Lewis provides a lucid, well-documented portrayal of the failure of academic governance at Adelphi University. This book will challenge administrators, trustees, and faculty to examine the integrity of the decision-making processes at their institutions. When Power Corrupts should be read by all practitioners and researchers of academic governance in contemporary American colleges and universities.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 104 Number 1, 2002, p. 56-58
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10737, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 10:34:01 AM

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About the Author
  • William Phelan
    University of Massachusetts Lowell
    E-mail Author
    Professor Phelan is Faculty Chair of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He has published articles and presented papers on academic engagement, school dropouts, and other topics in sociology of education. He is a former chairperson of the University of Massachusetts Faculty Council, faculty representative to the board of trustees, and president of the UMASS Lowell Faculty Senate.
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