What Trustees Think

Board members at comprehensive universities are often frustrated by their own lack of knowledge or understanding about the institutions they're tasked with leading, a new report finds.

December 9, 2015
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Trustees of comprehensive public universities don’t feel as though they have an adequate understanding of the finances at the institutions they lead, and many of them are concerned the boards they serve on merely rubber-stamp the proposals presented to them by administrators.

These are two findings of a report from Public Agenda that surveyed trustees and presidents on the roles of public university and university system governing boards, and the challenges facing them.

The report found that trustees often feel stifled by open-meetings laws and the public nature of their positions. It also highlighted tensions between trustees and university administrators, namely presidents. Some presidents reported feeling as though trustees don’t understand their universities’ missions, while some trustees said administrators are reluctant to lose control over big decisions.

“I worry that we’re just too much of a rubber stamp, that we’re not informed enough and we’re not active enough,” one trustee told Public Agenda.

Public Agenda, a nonprofit that seeks to bring a nonpartisan lens to tricky issues in higher education and other public policy areas, conducted confidential, in-depth interviews with 42 trustees representing 29 boards responsible for a total of 143 public comprehensive universities. The group also interviewed 45 presidents about board governance for its report, “A Difficult Balance: Trustees Speak About the Challenges Facing Comprehensive Universities,” released Wednesday.

Alison Kadlec, Public Agenda’s director of higher education and one of the people who compiled the report, highlighted how in a survey prior to the recession, most governing board members saw their role as a more limited one: to hire the president and approve building plans. But since the recession, Kadlec says, trustees now see their role as more complex, according to their responses in this most recent survey. Many believe that with dwindling state resources and heightened calls for college affordability, they’re now tasked with pushing universities to rein in their spending, become more fiscally prudent and limit tuition growth.

Comprehensive universities face particular challenges in the financial arena, as they are struggling with rising costs and limited funding, yet are under political pressure not to raise tuition for their students, most of whom hail from nearby regions.

“They're in a position where they have to figure out how to do more with less,” Kadlec said of trustees. “They understand more about their need to understand more than they have in the past.”

Yet the Public Agenda report found that many trustees don’t feel they have the knowledge -- or even enough adequate information -- to make important financial decisions.

“It's not like they have their heads in the sand by any means -- they really do understand the financial pressures that their institutions are facing,” said David Schleifer, a senior researcher with Public Agenda. “They get that, but a lot of them said that they're successful in other fields, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they understand higher education finances.”


The majority of trustees are bankers, lawyers and businesspeople -- more often than not they have a robust understanding of the financial models in their own fields.

But they soon come to understand that the financial model of a university is often more complex and much larger and more integrated than the financial systems they’re used to dealing with in their own careers. And boards must weigh a number of factors when making financial decisions, including elements like deferred maintenance, debt service and multiple union contracts. The culture -- where academic freedom, shared governance and faculty consultation are paramount -- is also different from the workplace settings they’re used to.

Explained one trustee:

“I come out of business environments where one acts with speed, with clarity, with purpose, with precision. I find that in the university environment, because of union relationships or political relationships, change is very difficult to effect. From a board point of view, it is frustrating.”

Added another, who was frustrated with the pace of change at universities:

“People embrace the slow speed of higher education, which doesn’t make sense in a market that is under attack with rising costs and the burden of student debt.”

And the report found that many trustees think universities could benefit from adopting a more businesslike model.

Explained one:

“Higher education has really got to get serious about prioritizing. They should focus on cutting costs from the things they don’t do well. Education has never been in this position of having to think like a business. We don’t like it but we have to do it.”


As trustees report that they don’t have enough knowledge of university finances, they also express frustration with how financial and other information is conveyed to them.

“No one feels like they're being given false information, but there's definitely an awareness that when they're getting information from senior administration and staff … there's a certain amount of spin or strategy or framing,” said Schleifer.

One board member called the university he or she oversaw a “monstrous entity” comparable to one of the largest corporations in the world. Yet all the board members of that university have full-time jobs and aren’t experts in higher education -- so they rely on administrators to suggest strategies and make clear why an institution should pursue a certain path. Many resent the reliance they have on administrators, and are skeptical that the information they are being provided is the whole story.

Explained one trustee:

“There’s inevitably a certain amount of spin or strategy. It’s very, very hard for the board to get accurate information about the decisions we have to make. It’s the biggest shortcoming of the board that we don’t have a professional staff capable of analysis that works just for us. We have only the staff of the system, which is the same entity that is asking us to make the decision about them.”

Another trustee recalled attending a national conference where he and his fellow trustees discussed their lack of trust in the administrators feeding them information.

He explained:

“The staff likes to treat you like mushrooms: keep you in the dark and shovel you with manure. They just want to tell you, ‘Here’s a stack of papers and you don’t need to read it all, just look, here’s what we think you ought to do.’ If the trustees don’t read it all -- and these are busy people -- a lot of times they’re saying, ‘OK, I’ll go with the staff recommendation.’ Sometimes some of us read and get into it. Then the staff says, ‘Uh-oh,’ and gets all worked up, because it becomes much more difficult and they don’t run the show. The inmates shouldn’t run the prison.”


Board members also report feeling constricted by open-meetings laws. Many reported to Public Agenda that they felt open meetings -- particularly ones attended by journalists -- impeded their ability to have forthright conversations and ask questions. Public boards are governed by open-meetings laws, and in most states decisions about tuition or other financial measures must be made during a public session (although states often have provisions that allow boards to meet in closed session when discussing personnel and other sensitive issues).

Trustees told Public Agenda that it is difficult to fully discuss thorny issues in public.

“It’s ironic. You think about transparency and you think that's an unquestioned good. That more transparency is a good thing,” said Kadlec. “But to listen to the trustees, we heard that there are some unintended negative consequences of transparency that impact the ability of trustees to have candid conversation.”

Explained one trustee:

“One of the things that presidents don’t want to talk about at open meetings is cost-effectiveness. As soon as you start talking about it, the press treats it as though you’ve already made those decisions. Then you get people all stirred up and the Legislature all stirred up and you haven’t even done anything yet. And then presidents respond by doing things behind closed doors instead.”

Added another:

“The board seems to operate under a lot of restraints, some of which have been created by the challenge of deliberating in a public setting, others by the need of the staff and the administration not to lose too much control over many of the sensitive matters which we are dealing with.”

The result, Public Agenda found, is that university boards often feel like they’re rubber-stamping the proposals of administrators.

Explained one trustee:

“We pretty much rubber-stamp 95 percent of what the staff brings. Every once in a while some board member will raise a question, but then the staff pretty much justifies what their recommendation is. That’s the bottom line.”

What the Presidents Think

Presidents, meanwhile, have their own set of concerns when it comes to board governance. Presidents of universities within large systems said that because trustees are charged with looking at the big picture, they often don’t understand the nuanced difficulties facing each individual institution. Some presidents reported feeling as if their governing boards didn’t understand their institution's specific mission.

One president said the process of communicating with board members is akin to speed dating:

“You go from one trustee to the next, make sure they see you, try to make them interested in what you’re doing, and then you move on to the next one. You try to see as many trustees as you can so they will put a name to a face and will support your proposals because they like you. It is just absurd.”

Presidents of stand-alone institutions that aren’t a part of a larger system face a different set of problems. Many are concerned about board overreach and micromanagement. Some complained about their trustees getting too deep in the weeds, with one saying it is easy to get sucked into “the daily care and feeding” of trustees.

Said one president:

“The trap for these people is that they’re very successful and used to managing stuff and knowing the details. But we need them to think big, not details.”

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Kellie Woodhouse

Kellie Woodhouse, Reporter, joined Inside Higher Ed in 2015. She covers business, funding and leadership in higher education. Previously she was a higher education and University of Michigan reporter for The Ann Arbor News and AnnArbor.com for three years and a general assignment reporter for The Baltimore Sun Media Group for two years. She interned at The Sun and National Geographic and graduated from the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism, where she was a staff writer for the daily student newspaper, The Diamondback. She has won press awards for investigative, public service and government reporting, as well as feature writing and ongoing coverage of a news event.

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