Now, here is something to wake up trustees

Ever since it was created in 1995, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni has been trying to help trustees do a better job. ACTA has issued readable, thoughtful reports advising trustees on topics such as advancing intellectual diversity, dealing with grade inflation, measuring academic effectiveness, criticizing accreditation, and cutting costs.

But turning the ship of higher education around is a herculean task (we at the Pope Center are engaged in the same enterprise—ACTA’s president, Anne Neal, serves on our academic advisory council—so we know). Furthermore, the context of the university is changing in unpredictable ways.

Universities face mounting problems—a cohort of graduates who are carrying $1.2 trillion in loans, the shock of flat or declining enrollments, and the challenge of online competition, to name a few.

So ACTA recently collected many insights for trustees and put them into a broad-based overview called “Governance for a New Era.” The 16-page paper was signed by 22 higher education experts—people you might call establishment reformers, such as Benno Schmidt, chair of the City University of New York; Hank Brown, president emeritus, University of Colorado; Velma Montoya, University of California regent emerita; and Peter Hans, recent chair of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors.

And then to hammer home its points, ACTA issued a small brochure asking trustees to consider 32 questions. It’s a trifold pamphlet called “Implementing Governance for a New Era.” ACTA sent it out to 16,000 trustees.

This small folder is full of wisdom packaged in succinct passages and it’s actually more appealing than the longer paper. Here are some of its messages: Trustees should lay out strategic goals, avoid mission creep, review the revenues of the athletics program, insist on a “dashboard” of performance measures, review building utilization, require an instrument like the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) to measure value-added, and learn from the school’s National Survey of Student Engagement how much students are expected to read and write.

But that’s just six out of 32 recommendations!

Trustees should also demand data on tuition as a percentage of median household income, the ratio of administrative to instructional spending, the salaries of athletic and administrative personnel—and keep a running account of these things over a five- or ten-year period. Beyond that, trustees should eliminate codes that restrict free expression, review the core curriculum, and ensure that speakers are treated courteously and, above all, not “disinvited.”

Whew! That brings us up to 12—only 20 left! Perhaps turning around the ship is not just herculean but utopian.

In that light, consider the typical trustee, someone from the hierarchical business word who takes on fiduciary responsibility for a college or university. As Richard Chait and his coauthors wrote in their book The Effective Board of Trustees, “From a typical trustee’s perspective, colleges are in many respects a foreign culture with strange customs and curious business practices.”

The trustee discovers that the university operates under a framework called “shared governance”—but the people who share the governance (faculty) are rarely in the room. The school’s financing is opaque, with lots of pockets of funding for vacant positions that look to an outsider like nothing less than slush funds. The job of the president turns out to be raising money, rather than controlling costs. Indeed, the president may not have much of a clue about how to control costs, because the finances are opaque to him or her, too.

As for the “customers” (the students), the college conducts little, if any, evaluation of whether they have learned much or are prepared and able to get jobs after they graduate.

And then there is the typical meeting, filled with minutiae because, as fiduciaries, trustees oversee lots of detailed proposals, from tenure approval to capital investment—many of which have already been decided on. At one statewide system, trustees receive hundreds of pages of materials for each meeting, often with less than a week to digest them before voting on them. And as a trustee told Richard Chait’s group, “There is no bottom line, no time frame. … The most frustrating thing is the amount of time it takes to complete anything after having reached consensus.”

Another complication is that the board of trustees may already have its priorities—its “strategic plan,” which is designed to guide the decisions of the institution. Some such plans are ignored; others are merely a series of boxes to be checked. Others actually guide the institution.

So, can 32 questions help a struggling trustee? Yes.

My advice to trustees is to tuck this little pamphlet in your pocket or purse and read it at your leisure—not trying to act immediately on its myriad of recommendations, but to learn what the problems are that your board orientation failed to tell you about.

You will learn that your board should know just how much money comes from athletics and how it is spent; you will learn about the recent wave of “disinvitations”—canceling speaker invitations because of oversensitive faculty or students.

You will learn that most schools don’t evaluate their students’ success, but that the tools are readily available (the Collegiate Learning Assessment, the National Survey of Student Engagement, and increasing information about graduates’ jobs and salaries). You will learn that in most schools there is no “core curriculum”—just distribution requirements; you’ll learn that tuition is rising fast and unnecessarily so.

You’ll find out that there is a problem with faculty not teaching all that many courses. You will learn that the process of searching for a president—the board’s most fundamental responsibility—is full of traps, and that the reliance on an executive search firm often leads to neglect of the board’s responsibility.

That’s just a start. The pamphlet raises issues that are often ignored by boards, but shouldn’t be. So don’t think of  “Implementing Governance for a New Era” so much as an implementation manual as a cold plunge into the reality of the university today.