Who Are Community College Trustees?

New survey finds limited racial diversity and more wealth than some experts expected.
April 6, 2009

PHOENIX – A new survey presents a detailed profile of the local and state boards that govern the nation’s community colleges. Today’s trustees are wealthier, their boards are smaller and fewer have term limits than some educators and researchers have thought.

The Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) unveiled snippets of a comprehensive survey it conducted last fall among almost 750 local boards from 39 states and 34 state boards. More than 1,600 trustees and almost 290 system chancellors participated.

J. Noah Brown, ACCT president, told a group of administrators gathered Sunday at the American Association of Community Colleges convention that this data set was one of the first of its kind. Administrators at two-year colleges have long made assumptions about the composition of governing boards, he said, but they have not often had the numbers to either confirm or disprove them.

As for trustee diversity, the survey found that 82 percent are white, 9 percent are black, 4 percent are Latino and 2 percent are Asian. The remainder are either American Indian, mixed race, or chose not to respond.

Narcisa A. Polonio, ACCT vice president for education, research and board leadership services, said the organization hopes to gather longitudinal data in the future to see how the demographics of these boards change with time. Though the figures on race did not surprise her, the income breakdown of these trustees did.

More than half of the surveyed trustees made more than $100,000 annually. Almost 18 percent made more than $200,000 annually. Most at the meeting were surprised at the relative wealth of these board members, given that community colleges have typically placed less emphasis on fund raising potential as a qualification for board service than have other sectors of higher education.

“As a president, you like to have board members who make a lot of money, because they always want to make sure that their CEO’s make a lot of money, too,” quipped Walter Bumphus, chair in Junior and Community College Education Leadership at the University of Texas at Austin. He noted that presence of relative wealth on these boards is likely due to many having had the means to be fund raisers for the governors who appointed them.

Brown argued that more community colleges should urge members of their boards to make lead gifts in key fund-raising projects.

“If they believe in the mission, they should write a check,” Brown said.

Nearly 32 percent of the surveyed trustees were from the business sector, which is perhaps to be expected given the fiduciary responsibilities of these leaders. Of interest to many who reviewed the data, the second most popular profession among trustees was education, at about 29 percent. The remaining percentages came from a range of professions, including government and legal services, health care, and manufacturing.

“The numbers of educators shocked me,” Polonio said. “Most presidents will ask, does this help me or does this lend itself to micromanaging because [my trustees] are in the same field?”

Almost a third of the boards surveyed have 10 or more members. Most of the boards are smaller – with as few as five members – and favor odd numbers to break ties in close votes. Polonio said boards tend to be larger in the East but was still amazed at the small size of some governance boards, especially those that serve large numbers of students.

The Maricopa County Community College District in Arizona, for example, is one of the fasting growing systems in the country. It has 10 colleges and serves more than 250,000 students. Maricopa’s governing board, however, has only five members.

About 40 percent of the surveyed boards have student trustees. This, Polonio said, is still a controversial decision for most boards, and these student members often have truncated voting rights.

Though the term-limit movement rushed through many states in the 1990s, Polonio noted, it did not affect the community college trustee world much. Just 13 percent of the surveyed boards have term limits. More than 42 percent noted that their board’s standard term is four years.

Nearly 53 percent of trustees are appointed – generally by their state's governor – and nearly 50 percent were elected; some boards have mixed memberships of elected and appointed members. The Kentucky Community and Technical College System’s Board of Regents, for example, has eight members appointed by the governor and six elected by the system’s students, faculty and staff.

More than half of the trustees surveyed are between 60 and 80 years old. Only 30 percent of the trustees, however, are retired.

More than 66 percent are male, and nearly 34 percent are female. Polonio claims that this is the highest ratio of women to men in the leadership of any sector in the country.

Further details from this survey will be released by the time of the ACCT convention in October.


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