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College presidents harbor doubts about governing boards

Limited Confidence in Boards
September 4, 2013

College presidents, particularly at four-year public institutions, harbor doubts about the effectiveness of members of the governing boards, according to a new survey by Gallup and Inside Higher Ed.

About three-fourths of college presidents said they were confident their institutions were well-governed by their boards, but answers to other questions suggest that confidence is limited at best.

A surprising number of all presidents would change things if they could and are dubious of some board members: 40 percent of college presidents -- including 68 percent of public four-year college presidents -- said they would replace board members if they could, and 11 percent of college presidents clearly disagree that their institutions are well-governed at the board level.

Presidents’ view of other institutions’ boards is quite dim: only 3 percent of college presidents are strongly confident American colleges are well-governed by boards.

The results come from an online survey by Gallup of 523 presidents at a variety of higher ed institutions, including public and private four-year institutions, community colleges and for-profits. Survey topics included affirmative action, the Obama administration’s existing "scorecard" for rating colleges, campus safety efforts, colleges’ cooperation with K-12 schools, and governance at the board level.

Within the results about board governance, there was a stark difference between the attitudes of presidents at public and private four-year colleges. The 102 four-year public college presidents surveyed were for the most part more negative about their board members than the 197 private four-year college presidents.

For instance, 45 percent of the four-year private college presidents strongly agreed they were confident their institution was well-governed by its board. Only 20 percent of public four-year college presidents thought that.

“I think the difference in how the board members are chosen goes a long way to explaining these findings,” said Ronald Ehrenberg, the director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute. Most public boards are appointed by governors or other state officials, or are elected, while most private boards are self-perpetuating.

While 68 percent of four-year public college presidents would pick new board members if they could, the exact opposite was true for four-year private college presidents. Sixty-seven percent of private college presidents said they would not select different board members, even if given the choice.

John Casteen, president emeritus of the University of Virginia, said the survey’s findings are “consistent with what I would describe as the consensus in the business.”

He said some public college boards can end up populated by board members with a history of political donations to the governor who does the selecting rather than because of any higher ed experience. He said there is nothing in the board member appointment system in some states that tells board members they need to be looking out for the public trust.

“At least in Virginia, the Legislature has simply not wanted to get involved in decisions about who gets to sit on the board,” Casteen said. “That results in a situation where board members are much less well-prepared to do their work.”

He said the survey points to what happens as a result.

“If I were a governor trying to do a good job, I would read that and say ‘Uh-oh, I need to figure this out,’ ” Casteen said.

The poll comes as board action has attracted an unusual amount of attention, including high-profile disputes involving boards at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Virginia.

Most of the questions about board governance asked presidents to use a five-point scale to describe their thoughts. On the scale, 1 represented strong disagreement with a statement while 5 represented strong agreement.

Brandon Busteed, who leads Gallup’s education work, said the polling firm has found that a 5 – the strongest level of agreement -- means what it says. After that, though, a 4 often means “maybe” and a 3 is a “soft no,” he said.

By that measure, 11 percent of presidents are not confident their own institution is well-governed at a board level, while 14 percent gave a “soft no.” Of the rest, 74 percent of presidents said they were confident their institutions were well governed by boards, but 36 percent ranked their confidence as 4 and 38 percent ranked it as a 5.

Because presidents rarely say anything negative about their boards in public, Busteed said he was surprised by what the presidents said in private.

“It’s only a third that say they’ve got a solid board, which, to me, is a pretty pathetic approval rating,” he said.

In a separate but recent survey, Gallup looked at the relationship between public school superintendents and school boards. Superintendents have roughly the same attitudes as college presidents, but Busteed said that was surprising given that superintendents are dealt a hand by voters in school board elections that is more unpredictable than the constituencies that pick college board members.

Peter Eckel, the vice president for programs and research at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, the longstanding organization of governing board members, said he was encouraged by the results. He noted the 74 percent of presidents who agreed they were confident their board was doing a good job.

“I think it’s a great finding. I think it shows that the clear majority of presidents work to create constructive relationships with their boards and they are doing the hard work that boards are supposed to be doing,” he said.

Eckel said his organization is working on a more detailed survey of college presidents’ relationship with boards. It will be released later this fall. He said he expects to see differences in attitudes among public and private college presidents as well as differences between more and less experienced presidents.

About half of all the presidents in the Inside Higher Ed/Gallup survey said they strongly agreed they and their boards were in agreement on most decisions, a figure that includes community colleges and four-year institutions. But there was a big distinction again between the attitudes of public and private four-year college presidents: 63 percent of private four-year college presidents strongly agreed they saw eye-to-eye with their boards most of the time. Only 27 percent of public four-year college presidents said the same.

In an astonishingly low figure that resembles the adage that Americans love their congressional representative but hate Congress, only 3 percent of the presidents in the Gallup survey strongly agreed with the statement, “I am confident that higher education institutions in the U.S. are well-governed at the board level.”

Eckel said the low number was due in part to governance issues that have placed boards in a bad light over the last year and a half, including the tussle at the U.Va., in which the board ousted a popular president and was forced to reverse itself amid a campus revolt. He also said presidents are likely to only share problems with each other rather than successes, so presidents form their vision of other institutions through horror stories rather than victories.

“Rarely do you get a phone call from a colleague that says, 'I had a great board meeting!' ” Eckel said.

Anne D. Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which urges boards to take a more active role to make decisions about  curriculums and to control costs, noted that just 41 percent of college presidents strongly agreed their board members were very knowledgeable about higher ed issues. Part of this is presidents' own fault, she said.

"The president has information and controls access to it," Neal said. "So if the trustees are not well-informed, certainly some of the blame has to be placed at the foot of the presidents, or it certainly represents a failure of communication between the presidents and lay board members who are, at the end of the day, volunteers."

The Inside Higher Ed/Gallup survey was conducted from mid-June to early July. Its margin of error is plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.

Among its other finding:

  • About a fourth of the presidents said their campuses had armed security guards or police. Of those, a third said their institution has considered adding more and 54 percent of presidents reported recently increasing the security and safety budget on their campuses.
  • Only 1 percent of presidents said President Obama’s College Scorecard was effective and 51 percent also said it does not accurately reflect their institution. A scorecard is at the heart of Obama’s recent proposal to curb college costs by tying federal financial aid to a rankings system. But the current scorecard will need to be modified before and if that ever happens. The poll was conducted before the president made his new plans public.
  • A tenth of college presidents believe minority enrollment would decrease on their campuses if new limits are placed on affirmative action.
  • Half of college presidents said their institutions have strong working relationships with K-12 school districts and 67 percent of presidents said their institutions grant prior-learning credits.

 

 

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