Colleges and universities are complex operations—often with billion-dollar budgets. The stakes are high: what happens on our campuses affects not only students but the society at large.
The ultimate responsibility in higher education rests with the governing boards of trustees. If trustees are to be thoughtful overseers, they need to be informed about the role of the board, higher education issues generally and the challenges facing their state and their campuses. Their knowledge of such matters cannot be taken for granted; they need focused, ongoing education.
So it should come as no surprise that, in recent months, we have seen a range of policymakers looking at training trustees. Legislators in Texas, for example, have mandated sessions for trustees on ethics, conflict of interest laws, and budgeting practices. The Alabama and Massachusetts legislatures are considering similar legislation.
In concept, these initiatives have substantial merit. But unless legislators understand the trustees’ proper role and responsibility, training programs will be at best unfocused and quite possibly counterproductive. To be effective, all training initiatives must begin with a more basic question: to whom are trustees responsible?
The “prime directive” of public trustees is to pursue the best interests of students and of the public before everything else, including the immediate interests of the institution.
Trustees should not simply be boosters who never ask any questions. Rather, they should offer a reality check on the frequently self-directed focus of colleges and universities. If they do not, no one else will.
Virginia recognized this responsibility in 2014 when it passed a bill mandating that boards receive training on their “duty to the Commonwealth.” Virginia’s strong legislation aligns closely with the recommendations of the Project on Governance for a New Era, an initiative led by City University of New York Board chair and former Yale University president Benno Schmidt and endorsed by 22 distinguished higher education leaders.
Recognizing that trustees “represent the broader public interest,” the project report, Governance for a New Era, dedicates an entire section to strengthening trustee education. The project syllabus includes training in board effectiveness and management, budgets, curriculum, academic freedom, and accreditation. “Unfortunately, few boards of trustees are equipped with the resources they need to seek out and obtain this level of professional development,” observe the signatories to the project.
That’s why, the report goes on, governors and state lawmakers must support initiatives that provide boards of trustees with “resources independent of the president’s control.” Currently as it correctly states, many boards “are almost entirely dependent on…presentations and materials provided by the president and outside organizations selected and funded by the president.”
University faculty and administrators are by definition stakeholders of their institution, while trustees have a yet-higher duty to the public. Therefore, their view of the institution must not come through the lens of the administration and faculty; rather, trustees must jealously demand the independent information that allows them to be engaged and empowered stewards of the public interest.
Take, for example, a case at the University of Virginia where a consultant, a member of the National Commission on College and University Board Governance of the Association of Governing Boards (AGB), recommended that the Board of Visitors adopt what amounted to a gag order, preventing board members from speaking publicly about university business.
That policy also stated that the board members’ requests for institutional data “should be rare,” in effect recommending that university governing boards be treated like mushrooms—living in the dark and eating the (unmentionable) diet their keepers want them to have. This is simply a recipe for tame but ineffective trustees. Fortunately, the policy triggered a public backlash that prompted the board to drop its consideration.
Much the same dynamics were in play when the Texas state legislature recently considered a bill, inspired by principles recommended by AGB and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The legislation would have seriously hamstrung the regents of the University of Texas by stripping them of their authority to terminate, when necessary, a college president.
Thoughtful policymakers know that limiting responsible trustee action and education threatens higher education governance. In response to an attempt by the UT System administration to limit trustees’ access to information, the Texas State Attorney General issued a resounding opinion protecting trustees’ right to access the data they need.
Effective boards must have access to data to understand their school’s operations and how they measure up in a national context—a point we made in a letter to more than 19,000 trustees around the country, urging them to educate themselves and to insist responsibly on the information they need to be thoughtful stewards.
For trustees are fiduciaries. The very ethic of their service demands they be watchful and actively engaged. Effective trustees work collaboratively with their president, but they must know that they have an obligation to speak up if they believe, for example, that the academic freedom of their students is in jeopardy or if the administration is straying from the strategic mission of the university.
A state mandate that trustees establish regular training for themselves, on ethics, conflicts of interest, open meeting, and other applicable statutes and regulations could be beneficial. But as is often the case, the “devil is in the details.”
The recent efforts in Texas to mandate trustee training, regrettably, appear to have been more interested in trammeling trustees than empowering them on behalf of the public interest. And mandated training that aims at ensuring trustees remain quiet and minimally involved is worse than useless. Its effect moves from wholesome to destructive.
Therefore, an empowered board will not look to the state to learn the ropes. Instead, it will insist on its own training programs—most especially those that provide a national perspective on effective practices. A well-functioning board’s own bylaws and operations will incorporate ongoing professional development—that means regular and independent training.
In the words of then-governor of Indiana Mitch Daniels, “Higher education has never been so important to the health and well-being and the future of our state as it is right now…. If we are going to make the kind of improvement we need…[trustees] are going to have to press for it, and measure it, and demand results.”
To demand those results, trustees must understand their own potential. And they must recognize that, as guardians of the public interest, their obligation is to operate as informed and independent actors—responsive to all but beholden to none.