American higher education faces unprecedented challenges: costs are too high, educational quality is often too low and student debt seems destined to continue increasing. In fact, here in Pennsylvania, the average student debt is $31,675—the third highest in the nation, according to the Project on Student Debt.
This is especially alarming at a time of disruptive innovation, when business visionary Clay Christensen has plausibly warned that half of the colleges and universities in America could soon be gone. It’s clear that our institutions of higher learning must do a better and more cost-effective job of producing well-informed citizen leaders ready for the duties of career and community.
These issues of quality and cost aren’t ones that faculty or administrators alone can fix. We must start asking, “Where are the trustees?” It is, after all, trustees’ responsibility to oversee the health of an institution and ensure that students are graduating with an intellectually rich education—preferably at a reasonable price. As one who served as a Penn State trustee for 12 years, I know that trusteeship comes with a great deal of responsibility.
Too many have taken a backseat in matters of university governance. They have been all too eager to adopt a go-along, get-along attitude. But the challenges of the 21st century are too great for this to continue.
That is why I helped craft Governance for a New Era: A Blueprint for Higher Education Trustees. This new report is the product of months of discussion and collaboration among over 20 national higher education leaders. My colleagues and I argue against the notion that university trusteeship is merely a sinecure. We articulate an alternative vision in which trustees take an active role promoting academic freedom, setting education strategy and demanding transparency.
On matters of academic quality, trustees have the responsibility to become more engaged, asking questions about their institutions’ general education requirements and investigating whether colleges are really giving students the well-rounded education they claim they are.
Sadly, that’s not always happening. Of Pennsylvania’s 21 public, four-year colleges, not a single one requires students to take a basic course in economics, according to the “What Will They Learn?” study from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Only one requires intermediate-level foreign language; just two require a course on American history or government.
Neither Penn State nor Pitt requires economics, foreign language, literature or American history/government. Or math. Clearly, Pennsylvania must rise to the challenge of ensuring our students graduate with the foundational knowledge they’ll need for citizenship and career.
It’s crucial that governing boards do more than just smile and nod—they must ask questions, foster transparency and demand the metrics and data they need to do their job. Anything less is a breach of the public’s trust. The pre-eminent place the American university has held in the world is in jeopardy, and without strong colleges and universities, our nation will be weaker.
Now is the time to bring our institutions of higher learning into the new millennium. Let us begin that journey right here in Pennsylvania with a new era in university governance.