Trustees | Trusteeship

Managing a ‘New Era’ for University Trustees

BUSINESS ROUNDTABLE   |  August 20, 2014

Trustees and directors who oversee U.S. higher education in this country must become more active in their roles, as this country’s universities and colleges face serious challenges of educational quality, cost and global competitiveness, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni argue in a just-completed project, “Governance for a New Era.”

The project, which produced extensive recommendation about improving higher education governance, was headed by Benno Schmidt, chairman of the City University of New York Board and former president of Yale University. From the news release:

The public’s confidence in higher education is slipping, and slipping badly, and we who are part of this vital American institution must do something about it,” Schmidt said. “That is why I am gratified to be joined by 21 of our nation’s most respected leaders in higher ed to chart a path for the future.

ACTA convened the group of policy-makers earlier this year at the City University of New York. The report’s key findings include:

  • Shared governance cannot and must not be an excuse for board inaction, especially now, when America’s preeminent role in higher education is threatened.
  • Leadership of higher education is out of balance. Too many trustees have seen their role narrowly defined as boosters, cheerleaders, and donors.
  • Trustees are fiduciaries for their institutions, but have a primary obligation to the taxpayers and students.
  • Trustees and administrators have, for the most part, done a good job of protecting the academic freedom of faculty, but they have often failed to guard the academic freedom of students.
  • Trustees cannot and should not expect participants in the multibillion-dollar industry of intercollegiate athletics to ensure academics remain a college’s primary mission.

BRT President John Engler joined Schmidt and two other of the 22 signatories in releasing the report this morning: Tom McMillen, a regent with the University of Maryland System and former member of the U.S. House of Representatives (and basketball great); and Richard DeMillo, director of Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities. Engler spoke as a representative of business and as a former governor of Michigan, well familiar with responsibilities of board members. Excerpt:

A lot of governors get caught up in, “We’ve got to increase the number of college graduates.” We need to graduate the students we enroll! We could double thegraduation rate right there. What an easy opportunity that is for us, if we were able to do that.

But we’ve also got to be focusing on the provision of an education that prepares students to succeed in this global economy. And it is a more highly competitive, more integrated, more complex economy than we’ve ever known in our history and the history of the world.

Preparation can vary. I think that’s very important to say this. Sometimes when business talks, people hear, “engineering and science.” Course of study can be in liberal arts; there’s going to be a very high demand for people who can think, analyze, write, work as part of a team. There’s no question about that.

Now, our Roundtable member companies, we also represent as a group – we’ve got about 210 companies there – we do more than half, 50 percent, of the private-sector that’s done in the country. Just our 200-plus companies. So naturally there is an interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and physics. We care deeply about those hard sciences as well.

More from his opening remarks.

News coverage and commentary …

Inside HigherEd, “Call for Trustee Activism“:

Citing a “failure of higher education governance,” a group convened by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni has called on trustees to play a much more active role in overseeing their institutions.

The group issued a report suggesting serious erosion in the quality of American higher education. “Substantial numbers of recent college graduates lack a fundamental understanding of their history and heritage; many suffer from vast gaps in their skills and knowledge and are ill-equipped to compete in the fast-moving global economy,” the report says. “Meanwhile, completion rates at both two-year and four-year colleges are often shockingly low. Tuition continues to rise far above inflation….”


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