It’s easy to suggest that the governance struggle at the University of Texas is unique, full of outsize personalities and intrigue. But the issues of trustee responsibility and oversight raised in Austin are truly national concerns. Those in Texas and nationwide would do well to pay close attention to the recommendations of a report on higher-education governance called “Governance for a New Era” that gives colleges the tools to enhance the quality of students’ educations and avoid corruption and scandal.
The report, issued last fall, is a bold statement by a bipartisan group of diverse and independent leaders. Chaired by former Yale president Benno Schmidt, the statement signed by 22 educators and policymakers outlines a “bold new approach to governance — governance for a new era.”
As they explain, the status quo simply isn’t good enough “if American higher education is to maintain the diversity and excellence that have for so long made it the envy of the world.”
They weren’t looking specifically at UT; nor did they ever single out UT Regent Wallace Hall, but their concerns go to the very heart of the issues in play in the Lone Star State. The report calls for trustees to work with their CEOs, but it also emphasizes the critical and important role of “independent information” and responsive — not dictatorial — administrations. The clear message is that trustees bear final legal responsibility for their institutions, and they must have the information they need and the last word in safeguarding the quality and core values of American higher education.
Too many in the UT administration and in the capital would have Texans believe that Hall is the problem, an out-of-control trustee inundating the university with burdensome open records requests. They would argue that what is needed is more administrative control — something that SB 177, now before the Legislature, would institutionalize. But under the bill, regents’ ability to perform their critical oversight duties would be severely impeded.
Regents should have access to the metrics and data necessary to do their jobs as fiduciaries. They should be able to count on transparent administrative practices. That means when a trustee seeks pertinent information, which is the very heart of proper oversight, he or she should receive information. When the data are not forthcoming in an accessible way, trustees must act on behalf of the people.
Thanks to Hall’s prodding, the independent Kroll report revealed that the UT admissions process was tainted by a cozy relationship between President Bill Powers and the families of certain well-connected applicants. This questioning is the appropriate job of a trustee. UT’s problem was the behavior of top administration, not the efforts of the trustee to uncover and diagnose the problem.
Thus the problem in Texas — and in American higher education overall — is not too many Wallace Halls, but too few. Rather than doing the hard work of oversight, too many trustees smile and nod, careful not to ask too many questions or bother too many people or draw public attention to the fact that their alma maters might have some improving to do. They approve budgets and automatically pass items on agendas without causing much fuss.
They’re unaware or unwilling to accept that vigorous board debate is exactly what a university needs. Given Hall’s trials and tribulations, is it any wonder?
If SB 177 passes, it would simply make matters worse. Far from empowering trustees and demanding the exercise of their fiduciary authority, the bill would effectively put administrators in charge, eviscerating the regents’ oversight role. Trustees’ fiduciary responsibility would be subordinated to the demands of administrators and accreditors whose unconstitutionally intrusive governance standards are incorporated in the bill. It would insulate campus presidents by removing the regents’ authority to evaluate a president’s performance in any substantial way, instead first requiring a recommendation from the system chancellor. It would effectively prevent regents from communicating except through the system administration, curtail their role in strategic planning, and limit board action until “trained” by the administration.
If the Enron debacle taught us one thing, it should be that boards must be independent of management. Sound governance of our multibillion-dollar universities is not about administrators telling board members what to do but just the reverse, since it is trustees who, alone, are legally responsible.
It’s time for trustees to act — vigorously, vociferously — for the public and students. It is time for the taxpayers and public officials in Texas and elsewhere to wake up and make sure that trustees can assert their governing role.