With the University of Illinois’ trustees at the center of a mounting scandal, it seems hard to disagree with the recent call to radically restructure their selection process by minimizing the role of the governor and allowing alumni to elect a majority of the board.
In a state with a long history of corrupt public figures, curtailing their involvement in university governance—and turning instead to the ministrations of the alumni association—seems like a grand idea, ridding the process of dirty politics and bringing greater accountability. But is it?
In reality, the changes proposed by former presidents and chancellors of the U. of I. would only make higher education less responsive and less accountable to citizens.
Whether or not the trustees have engaged in misconduct—and there is substantial evidence to believe they have—the system of gubernatorial appointment that produced them remains the structure most likely to ensure accountability to the people of Illinois. Whereas the governor represents the interests of all citizens, a revised structure along the lines proposed would heavily weight the system in favor of insiders—those loyal alumni, fund-raisers and boosters who would receive the support of the alumni association.
One need only look at recent battles at Dartmouth, Hamilton and Colgate, to learn that alumni associations are largely extensions of the development office and the administration. The alumni may well elect trustees in elections, but their choices are limited to candidates carefully selected by the alumni association for their commitment to safeguarding the interests of administrators—and not of parents, students and taxpayers. It’s no wonder that chancellors and presidents prefer such a system.
Under the current system, if the appointees fail, the governor is accountable to the people and can be voted out of office. In a system that splits the appointing power—whether by giving it to the alumni association, the Legislature or even the voters as do several states—responsibility is harder to pin down and the people have less recourse.
The real problem, as Shakespeare could have said, lies not in the system, but in ourselves.
Trustees do not serve for the benefit of friends or special constituencies; they are appointed to safeguard the academic and financial integrity of the university for the benefit of the entire community. The answer is not to allow the universities to select their own trustees, but to insist that governors appoint thoughtful, active trustees who have a clear sense of their responsibilities to the public.
And if they don’t, we can hold them accountable. The Illinois constitution grants the governor power not only to appoint nine of the system’s 13 trustees, but also to remove them “for incompetence, neglect of duty, or malfeasance.”
Whether we like it or not, better governors and better trustees—not different governance systems—are the key to change. Rather than throw the baby out with the bath water, citizens of Illinois should recognize the crucial role governors can play in identifying individuals who will conscientiously act in the public interest.