Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has unequivocally made clear that being a college trustee is a serious job for serious people. Some may say he is engineering a “hostile takeover” of New College of Florida (NCF); others will say he is saving higher education from “woke indoctrination” and wasteful spending through his new appointees to the NCF board.
But what the governor’s critics and supporters alike are now recognizing is that trustees are not cheerleaders, decorations for the stage at commencement, or walking piggybanks for the college. They are crucially important fiduciaries of the public trust. They are there to make hard decisions and take bold action when it is needed.
Mark Bauerlein, Charles Kesler, Christopher Rufo, and Matthew Spalding are only a few of dozens of people that Governor DeSantis will appoint to boards this year and an even smaller fraction of the college and university governing board appointments that happen routinely. So why are they generating so many headlines? The answer is simple: They are doing their jobs.
To put this in context, one needs to understand the power politics of running a college campus. Nearly 23,000 trustees sit on the boards of the over 1,300 public and private nonprofit colleges and universities in the U.S. They hold the ultimate legal authority on their campus, including the power to hire and fire the president. Virtually all are volunteers who come from the civic and business worlds, the idea being that taxpayers, employers, and the community at large all have a stake in higher education, therefore colleges and universities should be held accountable to the public.
But in reality, trustees are often woefully unprepared, or unwilling, to take any public position that could remotely be considered controversial. One reason is the allure of prime access to school football games, to the extent that some governors have been criticized for using board seats as rewards for campaign donors. Another is the culture of “shared governance” in higher education, ill-defined but often used to stymie anything resembling reform, such as when the regional accrediting agency threatened to strip the University of Virginia’s access to federal funding when its board sought and obtained its president’s resignation.
The result has generally been a vacuum of accountability. The prevailing idea for decades that university trusteeship should be unremarkable explains how the cost of college has ballooned to the point of causing a $1.7 trillion student debt crisis, that the national, four-year graduation rate for public institutions is an appalling 42%, and that Americans’ confidence in higher education is at an all-time low.
New College of Florida has a bloated administrative budget and nothing that resembles a college core curriculum. That alone cries out for reform.
The new faces on the NCF board may be drawing attention nationally because of objections rooted in the so-called culture wars. That is a misleadingly simplistic view. Governor DeSantis is taking up responsibility as the state’s chief executive to ensure that colleges deliver the highest quality education at the most affordable price to the people of Florida. He is doing his job and has appointed trustees who will do theirs.
This article appeared exclusively in the print edition of the Palm Beach Post on February 8, 2023.