Trustees | Trusteeship

College and University Trustees: Real Reform or Business as Usual?

FORBES   |  August 27, 2014 by Michael DeBow

On August 19 the intrepid American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) released a timely report on the governance of colleges and universities. “Governance for a New Era: A Blueprint for Higher Education Trustees” was the work of a blue-chip 22-member committee chaired by Benno Schmidt, a former president of Yale.

The 16-page report is available online, and deserves a wide readership, since most Americans have some stake in higher ed—as taxpayers, even if not as parents or students or employers.

As a matter of legal formality, the ultimate responsibility for a college or university is almost always in the hands of a board of trustees, responsible for selecting the institution’s president, monitoring his or her performance, and making broad policy decisions. As a practical matter, however, the trustees’ actual input into university governance is usually much less than that of the faculty—who call the shots as to the curriculum and other matters of academic policy, and the president and senior administrators—who run virtually everything else. This status quo is sometimes referred to, approvingly, as “shared governance.”

The ACTA report is premised on the idea that the status quo does not work well, and is not capable of dealing adequately with the array of serious challenges currently facing colleges and universities. If one agrees that higher ed faces existential threats, then proposals for invigorating boards of trustees need to be taken seriously. ACTA’s proposed reforms seemed to me quite sensible, and largely unobjectionable.  (As explained below, I was wrong as to the latter.)

Six areas of trustee responsibility are addressed in the ACTA study:

1. Articulating the mission (maintaining institutional focus, avoiding mission creep and the associated “bigger and better” attitude toward growth)

2. Protecting academic freedom and intellectual diversity (including both students’ freedom to learn from diverse viewpoints as well as faculty freedom of speech)

3. Setting the educational strategy (especially as regards the institution’s “general education” requirements for undergraduates)

4. Demanding transparency in performance and results (including more complete information-sharing with trustees)

5. Improving the presidential selection process (especially by decreasing the importance of outside search firms), and

6. Strengthening trustee selection and education (including increased trustee accountability to the public)

The report does not make detailed suggestions about how trustees should deal with today’s headline-grabbing issues—such as financial planning for new competitive realities, or dealing with the multiple technological developments that may “disrupt” higher ed as we know it (MOOCs and so forth). Instead, the report sticks to organizational issues, and as a result reads as if it could have been written ten or twenty or more years ago. It strikes me as a common sense document, rather than a revolutionary manifesto.

Nonetheless, one element of the higher ed establishment wasted no time in condemning the ACTA report as reckless and wrong-headed. On August 21 the blog of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges(AGB) described the report as calling for “unilateral trustee action” and “activism,” and the “dismantl[ing]” of shared governance. As a matter of fact, the ACTA committee did tip its collective hat to the idea of shared governance in the preface to its report:

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.

Even with this caveat, it is clear that ACTA’s view of the proper role of trustees is much more muscular than the AGB’s. As the catch phrase ACTA is using to promote the study puts the point: “Trustees must have the last word.” Given the seriousness of the challenges that colleges and universities face, here’s hoping that ACTA’s reform model prevails over the business-as-usual attitude exemplified by the AGB blog post.


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