Back to the Drawing Board

Trustee association is putting together a high-profile committee to rethink board structure and role in the face of challenges, including talk about what role trustees should play in academics.

July 25, 2013

While myriad challenges face higher education these days – from pressure on finances to innovations in educational technology to questions about shared governance – only one group in the academy is charged with addressing all of them: the governing board.

But in the past few years, boards seem to have been more likely to make headlines for addressing these challenges poorly rather than well. In some cases, such as the highly publicized governance dispute last year at the University of Virginia, boards have come under fire for moving too quickly and not deferring enough to administrators and faculty. At other times, such as the scandal that emerged out of Pennsylvania State University, the board was criticized for moving too slowly and giving administrators too much deference.

Higher education officials say this string of trustee missteps is arising from changes in the higher education landscape, both from external sources and from within institutions, that are starting to challenge the model under which boards operate.

“We are in a period of substantial change where the choices and the decisions that institutional policy makers – including CEOs and boards – face are more complex,” said Rick Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. “In many cases the nature of the problems themselves is that there is this heightened complexity.“

In hopes of addressing some of these challenges, the Association of Governing Boards is announcing today the creation of a commission tasked with reviewing current governance practices and recommending changes that the group hopes could help boards better confront the financial, educational and legal challenges they face. The group will focus on both public and private institutions.

Over the next year, the commission’s members – including several current and former university administrators and trustees, scholars of shared governance and political figures – will debate whether there are ways to alter boards’ structure or approaches that will help them better address these issues.

“In the corporate world there have been huge changes in governance in the past decade or two, and boards are operating in a different world today,” said Philip Bredesen, former governor of Tennessee who will chair the commission. “The world of higher education needs to pay some of the same attention to how its boards operate.” As governor from 2003-11, Bredesen sat on two state governing boards and now heads the board of directors for Complete College America.

Whether the committee produces substantive recommendations -- and whether those recommendations are picked up and adopted by either state policy makers or boards themselves -- remains to be seen. In recent months a slew of high-profile committees have published reports on various topics – including the future of research universities and the humanities and social sciences – only to see those reports fail to make much impact on immediate policy discussions.

What's the Problem?

The committee will have no shortage of issues to address. Over the past few years, administrators, trustees and governance scholars have highlighted numerous reasons why the governance system seems to be breaking down.

For one, they say, trustees are different than they used to be. With state lawmakers under more political pressure to hold down higher education costs – both to taxpayers and families – their appointees to public university governing boards in recent years have tended to be more political and more concerned with holding institutions accountable. This has sometimes led to public disagreement among trustees when they are appointed by different political parties.

The perception of too much political involvement, as in the case of the University of Texas at Austin, can also generate backlash among faculty members and administrators, who argue that institutions should be given a certain degree of political independence.

"I always said we need more and better accountability, but we needed the freedom from regulation in order to achieve these goals we were being held accountable for," said Charles Miller, who served as chairman of the University of Texas System Board of Regents before the current disagreements arose. Miller, who also served as chairman of the Spellings Commission, will be a member of the AGB commission.

Today’s trustees also come from a different class of businessmen, representing a more entrepreneurial mindset than they typically had in the past. That mindset often comes with more eagerness for quick change, which can lead to them bumping heads with administrators.

"These people are typically younger and less involved in the political process, and that makes them more aggressive and impatient for change," Miller said.  "And when they've taken action -- sometimes it's important action, and sometimes it's not popular -- they can get a lot of pushback."

At the same time as the composition and mindset of boards is changing, institutions face new challenges on the financial front that threaten their long-term viability. For public universities, this often entails a significant decrease in state funding. For private institutions, the financial challenge comes from strain on tuition revenue.

And many say these challenges are arising faster than the current structure of trustee engagement can handle. Most boards meet between four and eight times a year, with little interaction between meetings. Officials said that lack of engagement can make it difficult for trustees to stay informed on some of the more complex issues.

This leads to both institutional administrators and state policymakers encroaching on the direction-setting imperative that trustees traditionally held. And with strategic issues cutting across traditional lines of authority by touching on academic and financial matters, trustees are also regularly questioning some academic issues, leading to conflicts with faculty members.

What’s on the Agenda?

Bredesen, Legon and Jane Wellman, a longtime education policy researcher who will serve as executive director of the commission, said in an interview that they will determine exactly what the commission will look at once it holds its first meeting, noting that they want everything on the table for those discussions. But the three of them did mention some particular topics they are likely to raise.

One area Bredesen said he wanted to broach that will likely prove controversial with faculty members is the role of trustees in academic matters. “These institutions have broader kinds of responsibilities these days, including serving public purposes and ensuring that students are prepared for the right kinds of jobs.”

He said that while he has no interest in encroaching on academic freedom, he believes there needs to be more room for trustees to advocate for starting or ending particular academic offerings related to the institution’s strategic direction, since academic offering are increasingly tied to an institution’s financial viability.

He likened his view on the matter to changes made in hospital governance over the past few decades. In the past, he said, hospitals served as homes for doctors to essentially practice what they want. “Today it is very, very different,” he said. “Boards have stronger roles in setting policy and are prescriptive about what doctors can and can’t do.”

Legon also said he hopes shared governance becomes one focus for the committee. “The whole construct of shared governance needs to be refreshed,” Legon said. “We want to address the nature of shared governance; the question of who are the faculty, how actively they participate as stakeholders, how boards appropriately and respectfully engage with faculty and stakeholders, and who ultimately holds responsibility on these matters.”

And the commission is bringing on some voices that will challenge a more expansive role for trustees in academic governance, including Gary Rhoades, a professor of educational policy studies and practice at the University of Arizona and former general secretary of the American Association of University Professors. Rhoades did not return a request for comment this week.

Other issues Legon, Wellman and Bredesen said they hoped the committee would discuss included the relationship between boards and administrators, whether trustees are receiving the information that could help them make the best decisions, and whether higher education boards have the independence they need -- either from state lawmakers, major donors or other potential influences -- to exercise the fiduciary responsibilities with which they are charged.


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