Belated action by an accrediting body triggered the oafish outburst by the board chair that attracted media attention, but major governance flaws sat in plain sight for much longer.
It's only because of an egregious use of the N-word by (ex-)board chair Ralph R. Papitto that anyone outside Rhode Island is aware of Roger Williams University or it's law school. And now that Mr. Papitto has hired a public relations consultant and requested that his name be removed from the law school, it's likely that RWU will return to its former obscurity. (We discussed all this news already, including the fact that the law school name was never formally changed in the first place.)
It was only that word that prompted a handful of board members to go to the press. The more outlandish lapses in governance at RWU would never have seen the light of press attention, and still don't. The outburst and subsequent public humiliation was brought on by Mr. Papitto's response to a confidential letter from the institution's accrediting body, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (EIN 04-6112618 Form 990).
And before that, in 2006 the school had produced a self-assessment of its board governance practices that states, without comment or apology:
Ralph R. Papitto, who has served as a member of the board since 1969, has served as Chairman since 1986.
And shortly afterwards the assessment discusses the board structure of the Ralph R. Papitto School of Law. It should be apparent to even the most casual observer that there is a problem with board independence in this organization, if one individual can play such a key role in the organizations for decades.
It is baffling why this issue was not pursued and resolved a decade ago when the law school name change took place, supposedly through a board action of which Mr. Papitto was unaware (see previous article).
Yet, looking at the accreditation standards of the NEASC, there is a requirement of board independence. Standard 3.2 (page 9 of the pdf file) states:
The board demonstrates sufficient independence to ensure it can act in the institution’s best interest. The composition of the board includes representation of the public interest and reflects the areas of competence needed to fulfill its responsibilities. Fewer than one-half of the board members have any financial interest in the institution, including as employee, stock-holder, or corporate director.
The standards doesn't apply exactly to this situation because it focuses only on the most straightforward type of conflict of interest, but an accreditation group should have been able to identify the risk that a major donor on the board might want to pack it with his associates, which is what happened at RWU.
This case has implications beyond RWU, despite the lack of interest in these governance issues among the public. Ralph Papitto was in his early 40s when he first joined the board of RWC (it became a university in 1992), so his history on this board may forshadow what will happen with the wealthy young entrepreneurs who are now developing an interest in philanthropy. We have already seen a different case of extreme donor control involving Thomas Monaghan and Ave Maria Law School.
With these kind of risks, accrediting bodes may have to show a greater willingness to spell out standards of board independence and to enforce them, before the excesses of unchecked power become an embarrassment to another institution.