Trustees | Trusteeship

Report highlights need for regents to be engaged

OKLAHOMAN   |  September 8, 2014 by Editorial

Most Oklahomans would be hard pressed to name a single person charged with the responsibility for the state’s colleges and universities other than perhaps a few highly recognizable school presidents.

In a new report, a national organization suggests that the governance of the nation’s higher education system is out of whack. The report says weak governing boards are doing students and the general public a significant disservice.

In its Governance for a New Era report, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni said trustees need to remember that they’re more than just boosters and that their responsibility isn’t just to institutions. Instead, their “primary obligation” is to taxpayers and students. The report also cautioned against letting athletics usurp academics as higher education’s chief mission.

To back up its recommendations, the group cited recent survey data:

  • 72 percent of Americans say students don’t get their money’s worth in today’s higher education system.
  • 89 percent believe college today is becoming financially unaffordable for the middle class.
  • 91 percent believe boards of trustees should take the lead in reforming higher education.
  • Following a graduation season fraught with controversy, 74 percent believe trustees shouldn’t allow institutions to yield to pressure to disinvite controversial speakers.

To be certain, survey data can be massaged for different purposes. The cost of higher education is increasingly worrisome for families. However, we doubt most people spend much time thinking about the governance of higher education and whether local regents are exerting a proper amount of influence.

Still, the view that regents are accountable to the general public as stewards of taxpayer dollars is valid, although not much discussed. The value and affordability of higher education hasn’t been a major focus of regents. Whether that’s because the boards are weak or because they largely do their work without much public attention isn’t entirely clear. We suspect both are at least somewhat true.

“Those who hold on to the old strategy of passive governance can never be effective agents of change,” the report states. “The partnership of informed, engaged governing boards and dynamic academic leadership has never been more urgently needed. Effective board leadership involves not only listening, but also includes acting after due deliberation, even when not everyone agrees.”

The report offered some guidance on areas of focus for regents:

  • Board members should regularly review long-range goals and academic strategy.
  • Board meetings should be structured so goals and performance toward the goals are examined on at least an annual basis.
  • Board members should receive an annual report on tenure and the tenure review process.
  • Board members should re-evaluate general education offerings to make sure they provide a consistently strong academic foundation in a cost-effective manner.
  • Boards should be more results oriented, demanding data on institutional performance toward goals and evidence of learning. (Oklahoma’s higher education regents have started a web-based system that provides real-time figures, with the goal of giving regents a better understanding of student success data to improve their college completion and affordability efforts.)

By and large, the group’s recommendations are rooted in common sense. As with any governing board, a coup in which individual board members would begin to drive the direction of a higher education institution isn’t desirable. But higher education has a history of using regent appointments as political patronage. This hasn’t always served students of the general public well.

Asking regents in Oklahoma and other states to consider whether they need improvement in any of the recommended areas isn’t asking too much. 


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