ACTA in the News | Governance

Colleges and universities must be held accountable to citizens

RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH   |  March 5, 2024 by Nick Down

Alarming legislation is on its way to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s desk that would fundamentally change the accountability structure of university boards of visitors within the commonwealth.

Senate Bill 506, introduced by Senate Majority Leader Scott Surovell, dictates to boards of visitors that their loyalty of duty lies primarily with the college or university and secondarily with the commonwealth of Virginia.

Senate Bill 506 would set a dangerous precedent and should not be signed by Gov. Youngkin. Those who are appointed to serve on a governing board of a public college or university should always be accountable to the taxpayers of the state first, and the institution second. He or she serves the people of the commonwealth through the institution. The institution is the means to an end, not the end itself of the board member’s service.

There is a long-held belief that college and university governing boards around the country exist only to raise money for the institution, or to rubber stamp the decisions of the president and administration. This belief is dangerous and misguided. The role of a trustee, first and foremost, is oversight and stewardship of the institution’s mission. The organizational chart of any institution of higher education will show that the governing board sits above the president and the administration, not below it. In other words, presidents serve at the pleasure of the boards of trustees. In the case of colleges and universities that are publicly funded, as in Virginia, these institutions have an extra layer of accountability in the form of the state taxpayer.

Keeping the loyalties of university boards to the commonwealth first, and the institution second, ensures that boards of visitors or trustees are not beholden to any one constituency over another.

Boards of visitors serve the public by considering the common good rather than merely the narrow interests of their institutions. For example, when a college administration proposes a tuition increase, it is the responsibility of the board of visitors to consider whether the citizens of Virginia can afford such an increase. By changing the duty of trustees to serve their institutions first, the only internal check against the narrow interest of each college or university is removed, which weakens the ability of these institutions to self-regulate. This point is reinforced in Governance for a New Era, a 2014 publication produced by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni that brought together 22 of the nation’s leading scholars, university presidents, trustees and business leaders dedicated to strengthening higher education governance. “Trustees indeed, at their best, can provide a ‘reality check’ on the often self-directed focus of colleges and universities,” the report stated.

Sen. Surovell’s testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Higher Education on Jan. 29 was all one needed to hear to understand the origins of this legislation. According to the distinguished senator, the need for this legislation came as a response to confusion from several visitors after an official opinion was released last October by Attorney General Jason Miyares, in which he stated, “In fulfilling the responsibilities to the specific institution it serves, the primary duty of the board of visitors of each Virginia institution of higher education is to the Commonwealth.”

Should Virginia Senate Bill 506 become law, it will cause even more confusion among members of university governing bodies in the commonwealth, as well as imply that these governing boards are beholden to the president of the institution. In reality, university boards of visitors should be receptive to all campus constituencies, but beholden to only the great, general interest and common good of Virginia.

This post appeared on the Richmond Times-Dispatch on March, 5 2024.


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