University Boardrooms Need Reform

As in corporate America in the 1980s, self-serving managers are putting institutions at risk.

Photo: Barbara Kelley
By Paul S. Levy
June 10, 2018 1:36 p.m. ET


I recently resigned as a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania and an overseer of its law school to protest the shameful treatment of law professor Amy Wax. Her career-threatening offense was to state that in her experience with black students over 17 years at Penn, few had performed in the top half of their class. Penn Law’s dean, Ted Ruger, declared her in error but refused to provide evidence. For dissenting from politically correct orthodoxy, Mr. Ruger forbade Ms. Wax to teach her much-admired first-year course in civil procedure—for which the university gave her an award in 2015.
Since I quit, I have received an education in why universities can trample free expression with impunity. My letter of resignation was printed in full in the student newspaper and excerpted on this page. I received well over 150 supportive messages from, among others, trustees, students, law school professors and alumni. One was from Judge Ray Randolph, a 1969 law graduate who sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. “You . . . have disgraced an institution I had admired throughout my professional career,” Judge Randolph wrote, addressing Dean Ruger.
Mr. Ruger, meanwhile, directed his fundraisers to tell alumni that his treatment of Ms. Wax was “fairly common”—a brazen falsehood. No Penn professor’s teaching responsibilities had ever been changed or limited for speaking out on public issues. He also claimed that Penn Law did not “mandate” ethnic diversity in selecting applicants for law review, traditionally an anonymous, merit-based process. That was misleading, since Penn now encourages a subjective statement from law-review applicants, which is intended to reveal their identity and tip the ethnic scales rather than reward academic excellence.

Other than me, not a single Penn trustee, overseer or professor wrote publicly about Ms. Wax’s treatment or resigned in protest. Nobody in the university community has an incentive to speak out, and everyone seems afraid to do so. Professors fear retaliation; students worry about social ostracism. I sent my letter of resignation to Angela Duckworth, the Penn psychologist and author of the celebrated 2016 book “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.” She and I met last year when I accepted the university’s Distinguished Alumni Award and had a lively email correspondence. She did not respond to my resignation email.
Trustees and donors candidly admit in private that they do not want to jeopardize their children’s chances for admission. Many serve out of genuine interest and affection for their alma mater, although they also enjoy the prestige, influence and perks, like access to the university’s medical system, that go with the positions. There’s no incentive to rock the boat, and universities make sure they don’t get much opportunity. At the trustee level, the board is large and its formal meetings are entirely show and tell, with discussion severely limited and vote outcomes never in doubt. Penn Law overseers do not vote on anything. One Penn medical school board member told me he was dropped because he had asked too many questions.
The corporate world offers a parallel to trustees’ abdication of their fiduciary duties. Reformers of the 1980s argued correctly that the interests of shareholders were too often subjugated to personal interest and small-group social dynamics on boards that compel unanimity. Just as the resulting realignment of interests between corporate boards and shareholders unleashed spectacular value for American investors, an activist response by the governing bodies of America’s universities is now essential.
The punishment of Ms. Wax coincides with the launch of the university’s latest fundraising campaigns, which seek $4.1 billion in all and $100 million for the law school alone. These philanthropic funds will maintain the massive bureaucracy that coddles hypersensitive students while issuing hollow claims to uphold academic freedom and dissent. When universities violate their values, trustees and overseers should resign, and donors should close their wallets. Until that happens, nothing will change.
Mr. Levy founded JLL Partners, a private equity firm, and created the Levy Scholars Scholarship at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

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