There’s governance trouble brewing at Benedictine University in Illinois: The monks of St. Procopius Abbey, which owns the school, are suing the trustees for shutting them out of the selection of the new president. According to a recent article in Inside Higher Ed, the monks claim that the abbey’s leadership has always played a role in the selection of the president -- ever since the first nonclerical president was selected 40 years ago.

On the other hand, according to Inside Higher Ed, the trustees claim that the monks’ role is limited to four areas only: sale of property, closure of the university, election of new trustees, and debts that produce liens on the property. Neither side will make the bylaws available publicly.

Double boards are not uncommon in Catholic higher education, and a number of Catholic schools of theology are structured in this way -- especially those operated by religious orders. Often these structures have been set up to preserve the special emphasis (or “charism”) of the religious order while opening up the governance to lay people, both male and female, who share the religious and educational vision of the institution. So the priests of the religious order might comprise one board, to which are reserved specific powers, while lay trustees oversee the general affairs of the school.

But as the lawsuit at Benedictine University is demonstrating, these double board structures bring ample opportunity for conflict.

This serves as a sober reminder that governing documents should be reviewed regularly -- especially when the original authors of complex governance arrangements have moved on or retired. When trusted veterans are no longer in leadership to smooth the way and remind everyone what was intended by obscure paragraphs hidden within articles of incorporation or bylaws, problems can erupt among people of good will who disagree about what the best course of action should be. 

And those conflicts can be bitter indeed.