During one of the most tumultuous periods of higher education transformation, some of the individuals most responsible for governing universities appear content to sit back and let others call the plays, a new report finds.
In “Still On The Sidelines ,” released Wednesday by Public Agenda, a New York-based nonprofit research organization, researchers -- through a series of anonymous interviews with 39 trustees -- concluded that the majority of board members believe their role is to select and support good institutional leaders, rather than to directly question university administrators and initiate reforms, even as they recognize that higher education faces unprecedented challenges.
“We are a policy board,” the report quoted one anonymous chairman of a two-year public college board as saying. “We don’t get involved in the day-to-day operations. Our president comes to us with different proposals and ideas, which we discuss and, if appropriate, approve or deny.”
“I think the primary ideas have to come from your executive with support from your trustees, and with ideas coming from the trustees,” another community college board chairman said. “Frankly, I can’t think of too many ideas that have come from the trustees that were not first proposed by the administration.”
At a time when many in higher education are questioning whether traditional models of financing a university and educating students need to be revamped, the Public Agenda report indicates that most trustees are not willing to broach such issues on campus or engage in the wider debate. The report’s findings also raise questions about the breakdown of responsibility between institutional administrators and governing boards, as well as how involved trustees should be in managing the daily operations of campus and shaping an institution’s strategic vision.
The major division that emerges from the report involves who is responsible for the problems facing higher education, and what the board’s role should be in tackling such issues. The majority of trustees believe that the biggest problems facing the industry -- which they list as declining state support, rising costs, and inadequate K-12 education -- come from outside their institutions.
“I jokingly refer to the top three issues facing the university as funding, funding, and funding,” said one public research university system trustee. “It’s absolutely that -- trying to manage in an area where we have less and less revenues and trying to recognize the efficiencies we have to make, but also not compromise our commitment to excellence.”
This majority group tended to believe that the best way to tackle these problems is through the tried-and-true methods colleges and universities have employed in the past, such as cutting administrative costs, increasing class sizes, and hiring more adjuncts. “We’ve said as a board that we’re going to do our best not to cut anything academic until we have to,” said one public comprehensive system board chairman. “Most of our budget cuts and efficiencies have been done from an administrative side, from a system side, and less on the classroom side.”
These trustees are largely content to let administrators do the major legwork, the report finds.
The report also highlights a minority who, while they recognize the same challenges as their peers, believe that the real problems facing institutions are internal. For them, institutional reluctance to make major changes and rethink how colleges educate students is what’s standing in the way of progress and exacerbating challenges such as funding shortfalls.
“I think what trustees need to do these days is to force the institution to deal with the realities as trustees perceive it from outside, not just the internal dynamic of 'shared governance,' ” said one public comprehensive university board member in the report.
Richard Novak, senior vice president for the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, which represents more than 34,000 trustees across the country, said the structure of the report -- pitting the opinions of two groups of trustees against one another, portraying one group as a dejected minority -- obscures what is really going on in board rooms.
Board members have diverse opinions, he said, but they tend to work as a single unit, and differences of opinion lead to compromise. "If you went and talked to 39 individuals from the same board, what you would see is a very fluid conversation and a give-and-take among members," he said. "You would see movement along the line to where these rabble-rousers are. On good boards, differences of opinion are handled with civil discourse."
Novak said that raising questions about how active a board should be relative to a president can get in the way of groups working together for a positive goal. “I sort of hesitate to say this, but there is this battle going on for the hearts and minds of trustees, and how active they should be in forcing change," he said.
"We need to be careful about that. The institutions that make the most positive change are those where the board and the administration, while they’re distinguishable entities and challenge each other, ultimately work together.” Too much emphasis on change without an understanding of the strategic purpose of the change isn't going to help an institution in the long run, he said.
In a column  in the most recent edition of the association’s magazine, Richard D. Legon, the association’s president, writes that boards need to be probative and provocative. “Board members should ask the questions that need to be asked — those that might be awkward, those that might be perceived as provocative, and even those that might demonstrate limited familiarity with an issue,” Legon writes. “Holding back out of excessive trust or the desire to go along, while polite, fails the expectation of board-member independence.”
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni , a group that advocates for a more traditional curriculum and increased academic rigor and against political correctness on campuses, has long argued that governing boards should take a more active role in driving institutional change.
In an interview, Michael Poliakoff, the council’s vice president for policy, recited a quote by former Yale University President Benno Schmidt about the role of trustees. “Change in institutional strategy can only come from trustees,” Schmidt said. “The faculty cannot be given responsibility for strategy. The faculty is far too compartmentalized, too divided, and too distracted to control strategic planning. Any change of significance will affect the interest of some faculty, and very small numbers of faculty can block any faculty action that threatens them. Strategy must be the purview of the trustees. Reviewing an institution’s academic strategy and deciding whether change is called for is a trustee’s most important responsibility.”
Because trustees tend to represent the public, students, and alumni, yet maintain independence from each, they have a freedom to push changes that might be stifled by administrators or faculty members, Poliakoff said.
The Public Agenda report said that, while most of the trustees interviewed had a good understanding of their institutions and the problems facing higher education in general, they were not engaging in the broader discussion about higher education reform. But the report does not rule out hope that the situation will change. Trustees are beginning to push innovative cost-cutting measures on their own campuses that could inform the wider debate, and seem open to hearing solutions from other corners of the industry.
How to get boards more engaged in policy solutions, however, is not an issue the Public Agenda report tackles. Poliakoff said many current boards’ shortcomings can be fixed through better selection. “Trustees need to be chosen for their potential to engage with the institution,” he said. “Nobody should want boards that are passive.”
And by and large, he said, boards are becoming less passive and more engaged in the discussion about the future of higher education. "I think 'Still on the Sidelines' might not be a good title for the report," Poliakoff said. "Every day more and more trustees seem to be interested in moving this industry forward. Maybe it should be something like 'Leaving the Sidelines' or 'In the Arena.' "