Trustees | Trusteeship

A public university needs a publicly appointed board

VIRGINIAN-PILOT   |  October 13, 2013 by Anne D. Neal

Virginians should be mighty uneasy that a group of wealthy New York City financiers wants control of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors—all in the name of accountability.

As reported this month in The Washington Post, some U.Va. alumni millionaires, led by New York financier Jeffrey Walker, are attempting to transform the nature of U.Va. and the process by which its trustees are selected. As these alumni see it, the democratic process is suspect when it comes to university governance.

They don’t like governors having the freedom to appoint supporters to the board. Instead, they want to be able to choose from among their powerful alumni friends and move to a privatization model far different from the public flagship university model that allows the public to hold the governor accountable.

In this case, the alumni want alumni seats. But once the concept takes hold, it has no end: Faculty want faculty seats, students want student seats. At Penn State for example, even county agriculture societies get seats on the school’s unwieldy 32-member board.

No less a figure than former Harvard University president Derek Bok has something to say about the issue:

The trustee’s function, says Bok, is “not merely to interpret and justify the university to the larger society but to convey the legitimate needs of that society to the institutions they serve and to inquire whether more imaginative, more effective responses should be forthcoming.” In other words, boards are a lot more than cheerleaders for the presidents or the alumni; they must represent the people.

Trustees, by law, are fiduciaries. They alone are charged with the big picture, balancing the interests of competing constituencies. The problem with higher education governance is not the appointment process. The problem is a culture that expects trustees to be little more than ATM machines, doing the bidding of faculties, administrations and rah-rah alumni, with little regard for the consequences to taxpayers and tuition-paying families.

Over the past year, the behavior and the actions of the U.Va. Board of Visitors have been under scrutiny. Many concerns have been raised – and not without cause. The board’s clumsy effort to fire and then rehire President Teresa Sullivan has properly attracted criticism. And it’s not surprising that some members are calling for broad changes to the governance structure.

But alumni are making a big mistake—and students, families and taxpayers will be horribly served—if they think that the key to good governance is allocation of board seats by constituencies or making U.Va. a high-priced “privatized” university relying on out-of-state students to pay for its expensive demands.

The strategic planning process put in place by Sullivan appears to be moving rapidly in this direction. It is more focused on getting money than on efficient, effective use of taxpayer resources. There is way too little mention of teaching loads, faculty productivity, student learning or educational outcomes.

Instead, the writing is on the wall. Insiders want U.Va.’s already high tuition to go even higher, and aid with it, making U.Va. look like an elite private university.

Rather than having a board fully accountable to the governor—and thereby accountable to the voters—these financiers would rather have U.Va. resemble Dartmouth, filled with wealthy alumni boosters.

Can governance be improved? Yes. But is there something fundamentally wrong with the governance appointment process? Absolutely not. Boards need members who will engage the big picture—not folks who are there to represent a constituency or a specific interest, particularly ones that will spit in the face of the Virginia taxpayers who have made U.Va. the preeminent public university it is today.

Whether the New York alumni and Sullivan like it or not, U.Va. is a public university—and there should be no question. Over the past centuries, taxpayers have invested billions in the flagship public university that Thomas Jefferson devised for the people of Virginia.

If, in the name of governance reform, wealthy alumni are able to deny access to lower- and middle-income Virginia students and end the unique model of an excellent public university, then Jefferson would surely be turning over in his grave.


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