Trustees | Trusteeship

AGB President: Trustees must play a more active role in higher ed advocacy

EDUCATION DIVE   |  January 12, 2018 by Autumn A. Arnett

Richard D. Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, writing in The Washington Post, calls on trustees to “step up,” saying they “are even better positioned to lobby for our industry than presidents are.”

Presidents bring with them all the baggage people associate with higher ed — concerns about “value, cost, compensation and relevance.” But trustees, Legon said, are generally “local and regional business and community members,” and thus more trustworthy and carrying less baggage. 

However, Legon said he was “shocked” to learn via a recent survey that only 25% of trustees had contacted their elected officials about policies that impacted higher education in the past year, saying “the lack of trustee voices in national conversations about our industry is, at this point, dangerous.”

Dive Insight:

Legon’s calls for trustees to be more active in higher ed advocacy efforts are in line with calls that boards take a more active role in the regular affairs of their institutions as a whole. Earlier this year, the American Council for Trustees and Alumni called on board members to take a more active role in reining in administrative spending and eliminating bloat, and the same group in 2014 implored boards be more involved in everything from presidential searches to curriculum design.

Higher ed leaders agree that in many ways, an all-hands-on-deck approach is needed to help revitalize the industry; the more perspectives at the table for consideration, the greater the chances of an educational product whose relevance is not constantly under attack. And especially when boards are comprised of individuals who have gained success — and connections — in business and government; these added perspectives can be particularly valuable for the institution in the long-term. Similarly, in an ideal set-up, these successful, well-connected individuals would also be sharing in the fundraising load to help secure the institution’s finances apart from tuition and public funding reliance.

However, the role of boards is to help oversee the success of the institution and offer guidance and assistance to the on-campus leadership by supplementing, not supplanting, the efforts of the president and other administrators. Case after case of board-president disputes over trivial matters have played out in public battles that have proven more detrimental to the institution than beneficial. When egos and political interests are put before the good of the campus, it creates a bad situation for all involved.

While board involvement in advocacy and fundraising are critical to the success of the institution, in the case of student affairs, curriculum and other on-campus dealings, it is best to follow the advice of famed Xavier University President Emeritus Norman Francis and hire smart people — in this case, presidents — empower them to make key decisions, then get out of the way and let them lead.


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