Policymakers | Trusteeship

Keeping College Trustees on Course

NATIONAL JOURNAL   |  October 11, 2003 by Neil Munro

Governors across the country have long had the power to appoint the trustees who oversee state universities and colleges. But elected chief executives often find themselves disappointed when their chosen trustees ignore the governor’s priorities or actually ally themselves with university administrators in opposition. In response, some governors have begun taking steps to keep the trustees on their side

One of the groups that governors are turning to for help is the new Washington-based Institute for Effective Governance. The group is a spin-off of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which was formed in 1995 by a coalition of prominent politicians and academics who were concerned about academic standards, grade and tuition inflation, and accountability in the nation’s universities. The council’s founders included conservative author Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice President Cheney; Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn.; former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm; and Nobel laureate Saul Bellow.

The mission of the new institute is to provide outside advice and support to university trustees, so that they are not dependent on their schools’ in-house experts and data. That is important when trustees are pushing reforms, said Barry Latzer, the council’s director of higher education policy and now the chief of the institute.

“This organization is long overdue,” said James Gilmore, who was the Republican governor of Virginia from 1997 to 2001. In Virginia, he said, “the trustees are not doing their jobs and they don’t know how to do their jobs.” Gilmore said he wanted to make colleges in Virginia more affordable and accountable, but his reforms failed because most trustees “went native” and sided with university administrators.

The council pitches itself as an alternative to the much larger, older, and better-funded Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, which has been operating since the 1920s. The association also has an advisory group on university governance, the Center for Public Higher Education Trusteeship and Governance, which says its goal is to “strengthen relationships between public higher-education leaders and state policymakers.”

The center’s chief, Richard Novak, says that trustees should serve their institutions, not a particular governor’s policy preferences. Trustees’ “primary loyalty is to the institution…and the public interest,” Novak said. In turn, the public interest is “to ensure that the institution thrives, is financially sound, has curriculum and educational expectation of quality; that the assets of the institution are managed wisely; and that the institution does the public good,” he said.

The differing perspectives of the two advisory groups typically involve nuance and emphasis rather than outright disagreement. For example, Latzer says that trustees should indeed emphasize the interests of their own institution, but should not “define the interests of the institution very narrowly as supporting whatever the college administration wants.” Novak’s group, meanwhile, is flexible enough to support a new institute set up in 2001 by Kentucky’s Democratic Gov. Paul E. Patton specifically to influence his appointed trustees.

But many university trustees as the job title implies, see their charge as carrying out the public’s trust. “We work for the voters and taxpayers of Colorado,” not the governor, said Bruce Benson, who chairs the board of trustees at Colorado’s Metropolitan State College of Denver. Although Benson is a longtime friend of Republican Gov. Bill Owens, and helped Owens select more than 30 trustees of five state colleges over the past two years, “we’re not taking orders from the Senate, the governor, or anyone else,” Benson insisted.

Governor’s best opportunities to promote their views come when they pick trustees, Benson said. In Owen’s case, “he appoints people who think like he does, and then says ‘Go do it,’” according to Benson. Since he was appointed, Benson said, Owens “has never called me and said, ‘Do X.’”

But Owens caused some controversy when he told a radio interviewer in January that the state universities’ political science departments should consider hiring more professors with conservative views. “If you’re in a political science department, we ought to strive to make sure that there are people who understand and who can explain political philosophy from the left as well as from the right,” he said.

Several informal surveys done both before and after Owen spoke out showed that political science teachers in Colorado’s public universities were lopsidedly Democratic. Some conservative stat lawmakers in Colorado subsequently promised legislation to address the imbalance.

“The question of intellectual diversity is a question for trustees” and not legislator, countered Anne Neal, the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. “The Legislature should butt out” of any hiring decisions, Benson agreed. Trustees can address intellectual diversity, he said: “All you have to do is ensure that the [university] president you have believes in all forms of diversity–and you watch him.”

Owens has not revisited the issue of adding more conservative teachers, not does he support a legislative mandate, said Owen’s spokesman, Dan Hopkins. Instead, the governor hopes to achieve progress on intellectual diversity “by making students more aware, and by making the boards and trustees at least more aware that people are watching them,” Hopkins said. “Shining a light is always a start.”


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