As truth-seeking, educational entities, all colleges and universities must unwaveringly commit themselves to free expression and academic freedom. While all such institutions rightfully place content-neutral time, place, and manner restrictions on speech to protect day-to-day operations from unreasonable disruptions, it is the responsibility of each school to ensure the broadest possible latitude for research, instruction, and student learning. These principles are the bedrock upon which all higher education rests, yet it has become all too common for campus leaders to place improper limitations on speech in the hopes of avoiding controversy.
Just this past month, Washington College saw an invited speaker (ironically giving a talk titled “The Truth-Seeking Mission of the University”) halted by a heckler’s veto . As student protesters shouted down any attempts to continue the discussion, campus security took no action to stop what was clearly a direct violation of the college’s event policies as well as its core values of “curiosity, civility, leadership, and moral courage.” Incidents such as this (in which a school fails to live up to both its internal policies as well as its basic responsibilities as an academic institution) arise in part due to a failure of governance.
Running a college is a messy business at the best of times. With students, administrators, and faculty from various departments vying for limited resources, campus leaders are under immense pressure from wildly different entrenched interests. Enter the trustee. While individual constituencies are focused on their own limited role within the institution, boards of trustees are tasked with viewing the big picture and ensuring that all major actions taken by the institution are in line with its mission. A properly constituted board brings members together from multiple professions with diverse experiences, all of whom provide a rich, broad view of what students need for future success.
As unpaid volunteers, trustees are the only members of the community capable of acting as fiduciaries, tasked with placing their institution’s mission and community’s well-being above reputational or even financial expediencies. This unique position allows them to hold accountable any member of the community who would (whether intentionally or unintentionally) act in a way that violates the school’s mission or the rights of another campus constituency. Trustees, of course, under normal circumstances, do not act autonomously but rather partner with administrative and faculty leaders. They do this through the norm of shared governance , which calls for “shared responsibility and cooperative action among the components of the academic institution.”
Why, then, is it so rare for boards to be involved when a controversy unfolds on campus? The answer is both simple and sad: They are told it is not their place to act.
For decades, faculty and education leaders pushed trustees to adopt an “ eyes on, hands-off ” approach to governance. Where shared governance was first invoked by faculty and administrators to demand a seat at the table when discussing important topics such as resource allocation, presidential searches, and budgeting, it is now commonplace for trustees to defer to another constituency’s expertise completely in the name of shared governance. Faculty and administrators are effectively expected to self-police without trustee intervention.
Meanwhile the Association of Governing Boards, the nation’s oldest and largest organization focusing on higher education governance, even chastised “activist trustees” who dared request “independent sources of information” rather than relying on what was provided to the board by a school’s president. Boards are treated as little more than boosters, and their fiduciary responsibilities have been reduced to rubber-stamping any proposal that had been already vetted by other campus leaders.
Many of the problems facing higher education can be traced back to this push for passive trusteeship. When administrators proposed tuition hikes far beyond the rate of inflation, trustees ought to have considered the impact saddling a generation of students with $1.7 trillion in student debt would have on their financial futures. When faculty began to lower academic standards in the name of prioritizing completion rates, trustees ought to have ensured that students received the rich, high-quality education they needed to thrive. And when institutions began adopting blatantly unconstitutional “free speech zones,” trustees ought to have stepped in and reminded the campus community of their moral and legal responsibilities.
As confidence in American higher education has plummeted , it has become clear that this model of passive trustee governance can no longer stand. This does not mean that trustees should become micromanagers, only that they must live up to their proper role as engaged, informed stewards of their institution. In the words of the late Benno Schmidt, a past president of Yale University and the former board chairman of the City University of New York, “ Shared governance — which demands an inclusive decision-making process — cannot and must not be an excuse for board inaction at a time when America’s pre-eminent role in higher education is threatened.”
This article was originally published by the Washington Examiner on September 25, 2023.