Two weeks ago the Southern Education Foundation convened 120 Minority-Serving Institution (MSI) presidents and trustees with a focus on innovation and organizational change. The intent was to enhance their role in the national degree completion agenda. For a long time the higher education community has debated the role of trustees, how they should participate in academic governance, and whether trusteeship even matters. There is a good deal of consensus about the latter — yes, trusteeship matters and I argue that it matters more at MSIs.
While conducting interviews for a national study on academic governance, one trustee from a flagship public university described her role as “relatively inconsequential.” She opined that the university was in such a good position that the board’s performance, at best, had only a marginal impact. “The endowment, the quality of academic programs, and reputation were all strong before I became a board member and they will be strong when my time is up” she remarked. I would be hard pressed to find a board member at an MSI who could make such a statement. Collectively, MSIs are serving a high percentage of students who arrive to college academically underprepared and without enough money in hand to persist to graduation. These students happen to be the fastest growing percentage of all students in higher education. They arrive with substantially greater needs for support and are attending institutions that have fewer resources. This poses a significant challenge for the MSI community that now operates in a world obsessed with outcomes data and graduation rates.
The MSI community has been informally tasked with figuring out how to increase student success without magically changing the profile of their incoming students and with no additional resources on the horizon. Successfully achieving this challenge will require bold and innovative institutional action as well as effective boards that understand the present-day imperatives. Rather than incite a debate about which actions boards must take, I want us to consider what failure might look like. The role MSI boards will play in better positioning institutions to serve students more efficiently while assuring quality has national consequences. Workforce analysts are seriously concerned about producing enough college graduates over the next decade to fill jobs that will require a college education. There is also concern about the underproduction of domestic STEM graduates and effective teachers from diverse backgrounds. It is numerically clear that MSIs have the greatest opportunity to significantly narrow these gaps.
MSI trustees do not enjoy the luxury of being casual about their role or the impact of their collective performance. The effectiveness with which they perform their duties will be reflected in how much ground the nation is able to gain educationally, socially and economically. Fiduciary responsibility takes on new meaning when viewed this way.