Trustees or Delegates?

Chancellors, provosts, and faculty committees: Are you trustees or delegates?

The question may seem strange, but here’s where it comes from. In the late eighteenth century the political theorist Edmund Burke (discussing republican government), said that elected representatives can be either “trustees” or “delegates.” That is, they can act in trust for their constituents or they can simply carry out their constituents’ goals, no matter how self-serving.

Burke favored the trustee model. “Your representative owes you,” he wrote, “not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Now, let us apply that distinction to universities. Are our colleges and universities serving their constituents—students—when they let them do just what they want? Are university officials just “delegates” carrying out what students demand, or should they take on the role of “trustee”?

Administrators are more often delegates than trustees, relinquishing decisions about student life and allowing students to decide how act on campus. For example, at N.C. State University, student committees have been using university funds, and university authority, to bring in speakers of dubious value. So far this year, the school has sponsored Tucker Max, producer of the movie “I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell,” and Angela Davis, the former Communist Party member who purchased the guns used in a prison breakout in which a judge was kidnapped and killed. The university abdicated any responsibility for guidance.

At North Carolina A&T, administrators recently took a trustee position. The school had initially allowed students to select a gang-affiliated rapper, Gucci Mane (he is also a self-described cocaine dealer whose songs endorse violence), to perform at the school’s annual homecoming concert. Now, however, officials of N.C.A&T, under the recently appointed chancellor Harold Martin, have removed the school’s name and financial support from the concert, to the extent feasible at this late date.

In a democracy, the trustee model is flawed. Not everyone votes for the person who becomes the trustee; those who vote against the winner still have to abide by the winner’s “wise” choices, so they may be disadvantaged. In contrast, a delegate is merely trying to carry out the wishes of the electorate, so, if the wishes are widely shared among the electorate, the delegate has few disappointed constituents. (Earmarks and pork barrel projects tend to appeal to voters.)

In higher education, however, there is no such problem with the trustee model. The “election”—each student’s choice about where to go to school—is made before arriving. Students who want trustees will choose schools that make clear that they will act that way; other “voters” will go elsewhere.

This is important because the trustee model is essential for most students’ education. In general, students know what they want out of universities: expertise in a certain field, a liberal education, and a job. But they enter college without knowing enough to make informed choices about how to achieve those goals. Freshmen have little idea what courses comprise a liberal education, which books are included in the canon, or what the proper sequence of courses in their majors should be.

Faculty members generally act as trustees, at least when they are dealing directly with students in classes. As teachers of specific courses (and authorities on a student’s major), they recognize that they must use their greater knowledge to guide students’ learning.

Yet many universities, with the complicity of the faculty, have abdicated any responsibility to act as trustees for students’ learning. Allowing a student to choose his or her own educational path is a lot like allowing the fox to guard the henhouse. Giving students total control of the curriculum results in low standards, “fun” courses, and low enrollment in those difficult but important classes. When it comes to designing course requirements, even faculty have largely given up their responsibility.

Faced with competition among departments for distribution requirements, these faculty act like delegates—letting students choose whatever they want.

In fact, their actions are even worse than simply giving freedom to students. They logroll—trade votes—approving other departments’ courses as long as theirs is also approved. The result is guidelines so broad that they are meaningless; students essentially create their own “core.” Students at UNC-Chapel Hill, for example, have to select among two thousand courses to meet their distribution requirements.

As the ratings of core curricula made by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni indicate, few schools require even the most basic subjects: literature composition, language, math, science, American history, and economics. At North Carolina State University, the distribution requirements make no distinction between Studies in Great Works of Western Literature and Italian Society through the Cinema. Both fulfill the humanities requirement. (N.C. State scored a B, mainly because of its strong science and math requirements.)

But this situation is going to change. Today, students and their parents have more access to information about colleges than ever before. From the Pope Center’s college advice book to ACTA’s ratings, from Forbes’ rankings to Princeton Review’s, they can choose the colleges that have earned the trust of their current students.

Colleges should heed Burke’s advice to trustees: make decisions based on unbiased opinion, mature judgment, and enlightened conscience. The time will come when universities will have to prove that their judgment on educational matters is wise, unbiased, and valuable to students. They will have to be trustees, because schools that act as delegates won’t be elected.