ACTA in the News | Trusteeship

Public University Trustees Should Serve the Public Good

Gov. Glenn Youngkin was right to veto legislation that would have undermined accountability.
INSIDE HIGHER ED   |  April 25, 2024 by Nick Down

To the Editor:

Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin made the right decision when he vetoed Senate Bill 506. However, both the title and text of Inside Higher Ed’s April 16, 2024, article, “Youngkin Vetoes Bill, Prohibiting Independent Legal Counsel,” fail to recognize the damage that this bill would have done to Virginia.

Had it become law, this legislation would have shifted the primary duty of loyalty of governing board members toward the university and only secondarily to the taxpayers of the Commonwealth. Accordingly, if the governor had approved Senate Bill 506, the legislation would have had a severe and negative impact on the accountability structure of Virginia’s public institutions of higher education.

Trustees of public universities serve the public by looking to the common good rather than the immediate interests of their institutions. For example, when a college administration proposes a tuition increase, it is the responsibility of the board of visitors to determine whether it is appropriate and reasonable for the citizens of Virginia. Removing the duty of trustees to serve the citizens of the Commonwealth first eliminates the only internal check against the narrow interest of each college or university. That weakens the ability of these institutions to self-regulate. Had it been signed into law, Senate Bill 506 could have set a precedent for other states with similar public higher education systems to follow suit. 

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 them. 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: the citizens of the state.

—Nick Down
Senior Program Officer for Trustee and Government Affairs
American Council of Trustees and Alumni 

This letter appeared on Inside Higher Ed on April 24, 2024.


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