ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

Governance for a New Era Overview

August 2014

Almost every day brings a succession of news stories, editorials, and reports critical of higher education. American colleges and universities that were regularly called “the envy of the world” now draw withering admonitions from the White House and numerous others for their high costs and declining quality. President Obama has declared that he will institute a federal rating system for higher education with significant financial consequences.

A recent survey by GfK shows that a majority of Americans believe taxpayers and families are not getting value for their investment. They see tenure as a system that adds to cost and compromises quality. They fear that political correctness and intolerance are undermining the free exchange of ideas. And headlines underscore ever-more-frequent concerns about collegiate athletic scandals, binge drinking, and criminal behavior.

Multiple studies suggest that, despite massive expenditure, many of America’s college graduates are not leaving school prepared for career and community. Substantial numbers of recent college graduates lack a fundamental understanding of their history and heritage; many suffer from vast gaps in their skills and knowledge and are ill-equipped to compete in the fast-moving global economy. Meanwhile, completion rates at both two-year and four-year colleges are often shockingly low. Tuition continues to rise far above inflation, outstripping even increases in medical costs. Student debt has risen along with it, topping one trillion dollars.

While there is no single cause for this range of problems, one of the critical sources is the failure of higher education governance. That is why the undersigned have come together—as long-time friends and supporters of American higher education—to call for governance for a new era and to set a path for new and vigorous engagement by academic leadership and boards of trustees.

Ineffective higher ed governance is not a new phenomenon. Thoughtful observers like federal judge and former Yale trustee José Cabranes and Hoover Institution scholar Martin Anderson have for many years pointed at a general failure of boards to do their job.

But these times present new challenges. Every day, new entrants to the higher education marketplace compete for student enrollments. Legislatures cut back on state support, and families retrench. Emerging content delivery models make bricks and mortar seem a thing of the past. Most experts agree: the future of higher education as an element of America’s global leadership, along with the very existence of many institutions, is in jeopardy.

Rather than being a defining strength of higher education, lay governance now threatens to be a liability. There is no doubt that leadership of higher education is out of balance. Trustees should take a more active role in reviewing and benchmarking the work of faculty and administrators and monitoring outcomes. Too many have seen their role narrowly defined as boosters, cheerleaders, and donors. They should ask the questions that need to be asked and exercise due diligence. They must not be intermittent or passive fiduciaries of a billion dollar industry critical to the preparation of America’s next leaders.

New realities require new strategies. Shared governance—which demands an inclusive decision-making process—cannot and must not be an excuse for board inaction at a time when America’s pre-eminent role in higher education is threatened. Those who hold on to the old strategy of passive governance can never be effective agents of change. The partnership of informed, engaged governing boards and dynamic academic leadership has never been more urgently needed. Effective board leadership involves not only listening, but also includes acting after due deliberation, even when not everyone agrees. This does not mean that trustees unilaterally impose their will over the institution. Rather, trustees need to listen carefully to faculty concerns and become knowledgeable so that they can make highly informed decisions. When their decisions depart from faculty wishes, they must be able to articulate why that is appropriate.

While faculty are often focused on their disciplines, and administrators on the growth and prestige of their institutions, trustees—working with presidents—are charged with bringing the big picture to the table and making decisions in the best interests of students and the public. As former Harvard president Derek Bok has made clear, “trustees are supposed to act as a mediating agent between the interests of the institution and the needs of the surrounding society.” Trustees, who come from a variety of professions and present a variety of viewpoints, can provide a broad perspective on preparation for citizenship, career, and lifelong learning that a tenured professor, properly focused on his own department and an expert in his own discipline, cannot so easily offer.

That is why trustees must have the last word when it comes to guarding the central values of American higher education—academic excellence and academic freedom. The preservation of academic freedom, freedom of expression, and the integrity of scholarship and teaching rightly falls under their purview. While the occasions should be rare, they must be prepared to intervene when internal constituencies are unable or unwilling to institute urgently needed reforms.

To do this effectively, trustees need to work with the CEO and have access to independent information and experts to help them gain a full national perspective. Too often, they are in the dark when it comes to crucial issues such as academic quality and integrity. They often lack information on student learning, the academic culture of the campus, and the intellectual value-added of college. Boards should expect that campus administrators will provide concise, thoughtful, and analytical information for which they will be held accountable.

Both trustees—and those who appoint them—must reject the belief that university trusteeships are  sinecures or seats of honor. Trustees need to bring a renewed and vigorous commitment to learning about, and understanding, the academic enterprise. They must, going forward, require for themselves professional development, continuing education, and accountability. Just as trustees must insist on real and concrete institutional accountability, the public must demand the same of governing boards.

Our comments about the oversight responsibilities of trustees are not intended to diminish the responsibilities or powers of top institutional or academic leaders. The role of the chief executive officer is naturally crucial to the successful advancement of higher education institutions. And trustees must be able to rely on the president or chancellor in the development of policy and the operation of the institution. It is essential that chief executive officers be perceived as having trustees’ trust and confidence and that the flow of information be facilitated by the administration. Except in rare situations of crisis or in the selection of top administrators, trustees, who have final fiduciary authority, act through campus leaders who have day-to-day responsibilities for institutional management.

The signers of this document have come together to craft a bold new approach to governance—governance for a new era—recognizing that it is urgently needed if American higher education is to maintain the diversity and excellence that have for so long made it the envy of the world. We are a bi-partisan group of diverse and independent leaders beholden to no organization in our participation in this governance project. Each of us might express these values in different ways, and we recognize and expect each institution to modify and adapt these principles to its own mission and culture. But the values we outline are ones that we all share and ones that we believe all trustees and all leaders in higher education must aggressively pursue, today and long into the future.

We outline the path forward in what can be a blueprint for thoughtful and engaged stewardship for the next quarter century.

Benno Schmidt
Chairman, Project on Governance for a New Era