Is it time for an episode of ‘Undercover Regent’?

Harun Al-Rashid, Caliph of Baghdad, supposedly donned a disguise to wander among the populace to find out what was really going on in his kingdom. Tales of this same strategy are told in nearly all major cultures. And it has returned to mainstream America in the recent television series: “Undercover Boss.” Why is this theme so universal?

John Richard Schrock is a professor at Emporia State University.

John Richard Schrock is a professor at Emporia State University.

The answer is simple. Humans in a chain of command have a tendency to shade the truth as they pass the effects of policy up the line—the “yes man” effect. When the top echelon passes the question down—“how is that new policy we implemented working?—the result is predetermined. Whether in the military, industrial factory, or educational line-of-command, the strategy is the same. Those in the trenches truthfully report that the result has been a product that is [I shall be polite] “excrement.”  The sergeant, foreman or chair reports it up as “manure.” And by the time it goes through a half dozen more steps to the top, it has morphed into fertilizer and the best thing for growth that has come along. While each level “shaded” the truth only a little bit, black turns into white and bad policy into good.  We tell the boss what we think the boss wants to hear.

State policy boards therefore have a responsibility to keep many lines of communication open.

Our Kansas State Board of Education is elected. That puts them out in the public arena where they have to discuss and defend their perspectives on policies, past actions and future goals at least every four years. They have an open forum at each monthly meeting where any stakeholder can come before them and present concerns, reveal weaknesses in prior policy, and urge change. When it comes to actually inspecting schools within their district, well that becomes awkward. They call ahead and when they show up, they are elbow-to-elbow in tow with a superintendent or principal. That curtails any forthright discussion with teachers and staff.  (Some KSBE members have held open house so educators can come discuss K-12 issues more freely.) No vocation is more politically sensitive than teaching.

But it is in higher education that Kansas education policy is discussed and decided in an isolated echo chamber. Our Kansas Board of Regents are appointed. They do not need to discus their education policy in public.

In addition, the regents have not had a public open forum as part of their regularly-scheduled monthly meetings for over a decade.

All reports come to them through defined channels of communication: university presidents, vice presidents, faculty and student governance. And the super-polite pussyfooting that occurs in this arena is stupefying. You might suspect that the words to our state song—“where never is heard, a discouraging word”—was written to describe the Board of Regents.

And when regents do get out into the universities of Kansas, they are again in tow with administrators and in a climate where the possibility of program discontinuance can silence tenured professors.

Evidence of a disconnect with the day-to-day world of Kansas university life is in the minutes of many KBOR meetings. It was most blatant in a recent meeting of one regent with faculty, where the regent asserted that all decisions on course equivalencies were completely in faculty hands. But the KBOR’s own transfer and articulation committee representative had told biology faculty from across Kansas that certain courses would keep coming back again and again until we approved them—100 percent the opposite of what the regent understood. This is but one clear case of messages changing as they rise to the top.

Access to the KBOR is also critical for the Board’s perspective because how problems are posed to them often predetermines how they will address them. Without opening up to genuine public input, our increasing problems in educational quality will never be solved in the current echo chamber.

The best-qualified Board of highest integrity cannot do their job well unless there is an avenue for them to hear teachers, staff and the public who are willing to speak truth to power.

John Richard Schrock is a professor at Emporia State University.