Call for Trustee Activism

August 19, 2014

Citing a "failure of higher education governance," a group convened by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni has called on trustees to play a much more active role in overseeing their institutions.

The group issued a report suggesting serious erosion in the quality of American higher education. "Substantial numbers of recent college graduates lack a fundamental understanding of their history and heritage; many suffer from vast gaps in their skills and knowledge and are ill-equipped to compete in the fast-moving global economy," the report says. "Meanwhile, completion rates at both two-year and four-year colleges are often shockingly low. Tuition continues to rise far above inflation...."

The report adds: "There is no doubt that leadership of higher education is out of balance. Trustees should take a more active role in reviewing and benchmarking the work of faculty and administrators and monitoring outcomes. Too many have seen their role narrowly defined as boosters, cheerleaders, and donors. They should ask the questions that need to be asked and exercise due diligence. They must not be intermittent or passive fiduciaries of a billion dollar industry critical to the preparation of America’s next leaders."

Benno Schmidt, chair of the board of the City University of New York and former president of Yale University, led the panel that issued the report. The panel also included such current higher education leaders as Frank T. Brogan, chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education; Michael M. Crow, president of Arizona State University; and Tom McMillen, a member of the board of the University of Maryland System.

The report was issued at midnight, making it impossible to reach experts who might comment on (and in many cases disagree with) many of the panel's conclusions, which are likely to be controversial. Many higher education leaders have rejected similar calls in the past. But it's also the case that information distributed by the council has in the past been influential with many trustees. And the report comes at a time when a number of Republican governors have appointed trustees with directives not that different from those being called for by the new study.

Some of the recommendations of the report are consistent with critiques offered by many experts on higher education. For example, the report questions the way many colleges and universities seem to constantly add academic programs. (Many college leaders criticize this trend as well, though frequently exempting their own institutions.)

"A lack of clarity of institutional purpose -- or a failure of governing boards to ensure that institutions adhere to their stated purpose -- is a major contributor to the rapidly rising cost of higher education over the past several decades," the report says. "Competition among colleges and universities has caused many -- regardless of the mission or community they are intended to serve -- to adopt a 'bigger and better' model of growth, as opposed to a focus on quality and prioritization. Institutions of all sizes and specialties strive to add academic programs (and non-academic amenities) in hopes of attracting larger enrollment bases. Yet few institutions have the resources to sustain this strategy and level of growth."

The report also urges trustees to be more engaged on issues of athletics -- and not simply to promote athletic spending. "Trustees must be willing to withstand pressure to grow athletic programs that are a net drain on resources, and they should ensure that salary contracts for coaches reward academic performance first and athletic success second," the report says.

While many faculty members might well cheer the idea of trustees questioning athletic spending, many professors will likely object to statements in the report about the faculty.

For example, the report says that there is "evidence that self-interest and personal ideologies can drive departmental directions rather than the interest of the students and preparation of citizens. And studies show that there are fields -- such as military history, constitutional history, and diplomatic history -- that are fast disappearing from college curricula."

The report calls for trustee involvement to assure "intellectual diversity" and to protect the academic freedom of students. Such calls in the past have alarmed faculty leaders, who have said that these types of statements are built on unfair characterizations of the faculty as enforcing some kind of ideological test in teaching. Many experts on the professoriate don't dispute that faculty members lean to the left of the American public, but say that there is no evidence of students being punished for non-liberal views or of conservative ideas being squelched in the academy.

Here's what the new report says: "To inform themselves, trustees should annually ask for a report from the president or provost outlining disciplinary diversity. This report can include a list of new hires and tenure and promotion decisions in each department (and their disciplines and fields). Does the history department, for example, have expertise and offer coursework on the Founders, the American Revolution, and the Constitution? It is trustees’ duty, in rare but urgent circumstances, to demand action if they believe a department places limitations on the representation of disciplinary fields and academic viewpoints its research and teaching should otherwise encompass. The president and provost must be prepared to explain how they will ensure intellectual and pedagogical diversity going forward."

The report also criticizes administrators -- and the way they report (or don't) to board members and the public. "As fiduciaries, trustees must make their decisions based on data. Massive 'data dumps' of opaque charts and 'death by powerpoint,' i.e., show-and-tell presentations from faculty and administration, are not the answer; instead, trustees need to insist on a dashboard of key, carefully defined measures, including: graduation rates by demographic including students who transfer; tuition rates; administrative versus instructional spending; building utilization (both classrooms and laboratories) by time and day of the week; low enrollment majors; general education courses and enrollments; and athletic spending (including student fees and institutional spending)."

And the report questions the use of search firms to pick presidents -- which is the norm for how institutions select leaders. "It is time for boards everywhere to consider carefully whether search firms really add value to the process," the report says. "There is a growing case that their use gives rise to a conflicted, expensive, and inefficient process that undermines college communities and diminishes trust among their constituencies."

The report urges boards to take charge of searches and to give more consideration to candidates from outside academe. "The trustees alone are the ones who can and must see that the search is done right. They must lead in developing the vision for what they want and articulate the vision to the community. They should consider a wide range of types of candidates, including those outside the academy. The ranks of business and government are full of skilled, public-spirited executives who believe in higher education and would consider serving as college presidents."

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