Trustees | Trusteeship

Higher Education in Need of a Cleanup


Does higher education governance need a clean up? The answer is a big yes. 

But the real problem with higher education governance is not micromanagement—as the Texas Legislature would have had you believe in passing SB 15. The problem is a culture that expects trustees to be little more than potted plants, doing the bidding of their faculties and administrations in lock step, with little regard to consequences to the taxpayers or tuition-paying families. That’s why Gov. Rick Perry was absolutely right to veto the bill.

The trustee’s function, former Harvard president Derek Bok noted, 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: they must represent the people.

In recent months, the behavior and the actions of the University of Texas Board of Regents have been under intense scrutiny. Many concerns have been raised—and not without cause. The Regents have often appeared agitated by a personality conflict, rather than motivated by a reasoned discussion about the direction and leadership of UT president Bill Powers. The Regents have sought “breakthrough solutions” without the requisite analysis and reflection, and in ways insufficiently attentive to the significant role research universities play.

However, the legislature made a big mistake in assuming that when trustees stir the pot, they are the problem. Indeed, when the Commission on the Future of Higher Education issued its report on the future of American higher education some years ago, it called explicitly on “higher education governing and coordinating boards, entrusted with the responsibility to ensure both internal and external accountability…to work with colleges to improve information about costs as well as prices for consumers, policymakers and institutional leaders.”

It appears Gov. Perry agrees.

Over the past year, the regents have tried to do just that—and they’ve discovered firsthand that the system is not committed to accountability and transparency. When the board sought teaching load data, they were accused of micromanaging. When the board sought to measure faculty productivity, they were accused of micromanaging.  When the board sought to determine whether administrators have used the university foundations to circumvent limits on pay, they were accused of micromanaging.

What the Legislature needs to understand is that the tradition and practice of shared governance are too often estranged from values of accountability. And when boards attempt to become more engaged in oversight, far too many insiders wrongly cry micromanagement.

The forces of the status quo want to restrain boards of trustees because they can bring about systemic change. The same scenario played out in Virginia when the rector and her colleagues raised questions about the pace and nature of change, fired the president and then rehired her. The faculty went wild, with accreditors following suit, putting UVA on probation claiming among other things that the board was controlled by a minority of trustees and vulnerable to outside influence. The fact is: education bureaucrats fear nothing more than “outside influence,” those who might challenge insiders’ privileges and power. It is not the first time that this standard  has been invoked when boards attempt to do their job and when interested third parties properly weigh in on matters of public policy.

While it is understandable for the Legislature to be interested in good governance, it needs to realize that it is the regents who have plenary authority, not the faculty, the administrators, or the accreditors—and that unless they are allowed to exercise that authority they will not be able to ensure the checks and balances that are required for appropriate oversight. Without proper checks and balances, it’s the students who suffer most. Bravo to Gov. Perry for understanding that.


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