Trustees of public and private research universities have a fiduciary responsibility to act in the best interest of their institutions. However, actions that appear to be in the private interests of their institutions may not be in the social interest and these institutions are also expected to serve society as a whole. In deciding what optimal policies are, trustees must weigh their institutions’ private interests against the interests of society as whole. Seven examples are provided below.
Undergraduate Financial Aid
Increasingly, and with a few exceptions (such as my own university), public and private research universities are competing for prestige in the market for undergraduate students by offering non need-based grants to admitted applicants. However, evidence suggests that the increased use of merit aid may “crowd out” need-based aid and lead to fewer students from lower and lower-middle income families enrolling at these institutions. How should trustees trade off enhancing their institution’s prestige as an undergraduate institution versus maintaining the social goal of remaining accessible to students from all socioeconomic backgrounds?
This is an important issue because our nation’s public and private research universities spend more per student on undergraduate education than their comprehensive university counterparts. Considerable research suggests that students who attend institutions at which more resources are devoted to their education achieve higher earnings after graduation and are more likely to be admitted to top professional schools, which also contribute to mobility and prestige, than comparable students who attend institutions at which fewer resources are devoted to their education. With few exceptions, the shares of students attending our nation’s most selective public and private research universities that are Pell Grant recipients are woefully low.
Similarly, to the extent that institutions are under pressure to enhance their graduation rates, because these are used as another metric of institutional prestige and success, they can do so by devoting more resources to help the most disadvantaged students that the universities enroll succeed. Alternatively, they can do so by reorienting the nature of their institutions’ student bodies; as an example a number of urban research universities are moving away from their roots as institutions that serve disadvantaged urban residents by building more on-campus housing and using merit aid to attract less disadvantaged students from outside their cities to their institutions. Trustees must ask which strategy makes most sense for the institution and which is in the public interest. Suppose that to achieve any given level of graduation rate success is cheaper for the institution if it goes the merit aid route, rather than spending resources recruiting talented students from lower income families, providing need-based aid to them, and then providing extra support services to help them succeed at the institution. From the perspective of a trustee, is the appropriate policy choice obvious?
Creating the Faculty of the Future
American colleges and universities, including our nation’s research universities are increasing their usage of adjuncts and other forms of contingent faculty. Partially, this has resulted from financial pressures facing the institutions and uncertainty about future budgets. Partially, it has resulted from research universities encouraging their tenured and tenure-track faculty to “buy back” their teaching time so that they can devote more time to research and generate more research ( and potentially more commercialization revenues) for the university.
While adjuncts and other non tenure-track faculty save universities money, research also shows that, on balance, they adversely impact upon undergraduate students in the form of reducing graduation rates, increasing drop out rates, and reducing student interest in taking subsequent classes in the same field . That’s not to say the adjuncts aren’t working hard and that many of them aren’t deeply committed to teaching -- but people teaching from semester to semester, frequently at multiple institutions and without offices or meaningful support, face great difficulties in being as effective in the classroom. In addition, the reduction in the share of undergraduate teaching done by tenured and tenure-track faculty at research universities deprives these students of role models who might encourage them to go on to Ph.D. study and the reduction in the share of faculty positions that are tenured and tenure-track at research universities reduces the attractiveness of pursuing Ph.D. study to undergraduates attending these institutions. Put simply, although each research university trying to maximize its research output is operating in its self interest, these employment practices may hurt undergraduate education and have contributed to the decline in Ph.D. going behavior of American college students.
Should trustees take a more forceful position and argue for the importance of having more of the undergraduate teaching at research universities done by the tenured and tenure-track faculty, even if this means that less research will be produced at the university? Should trustees argue for the importance of maintaining the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty so that their institution’s students will be more likely to go on for Ph.D. study, even if this is not the deployment of faculty that will minimize the cost structure of their university?
Tenure and the Absence of Mandatory Retirement
Research universities make a commitment to faculty members when they award them tenure. Tenure is important to both faculty and the university both because it protects academic freedom and because it provides an incentive for faculty members to work for the best interests of the university and to participate in faculty governance. However, with the passage of the 1987 amendments to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, since 1994 tenure has become effectively a lifetime employment contract because tenured faculty members cannot be compelled to retire. The end of mandatory retirement for faculty surely has contributed to the growing use of contingent faculty.
The tenure system was originally adopted in the United States with mandatory retirement as an important part of the system. One would think that with the elimination of mandatory retirement that universities and their faculties would devise systems of post-tenure review processes to assure that tenure is not seen as an unfettered lifetime employment contract. Indeed, the American Association of University Professors position is that post-tenure review systems are consistent with a tenure system as long as the evaluations of faculty members are done by their peers, these reviews are seen as formative (seeking at the first level to improve performance) rather than summative in nature, the reviews are not used to shift the burden of proof from an institution (to show cause for dismissal) to the faculty member (to show cause for retention), and the reviews are conducted according to standards that protect academic freedom.
To date, post-tenure review processes have been adopted primarily at public universities, often under threat of legislatively imposed mandates. No president or provost at a private research university wants to even raise the issue with his or her faculty because of the concerns that doing so would cause the administrator to lose the support of the faculty (making it harder for him or her to lead the university) and that some faculty (but presumably not the most talented) would flee to other universities. So even though adoption of post-tenure review systems by all research universities would help to demonstrate that higher education is trying to maintain “quality control”, which is socially desirable, it is very unlikely to occur. Should the trustees of individual private research universities play the role that the legislatures play with respect to public institutions and urge the president of research universities to push for the development of post-tenure review system?
The 'U.S. News & World Report' Rankings and Controlling Costs
The annual U.S. News ranking of research universities as undergraduate institutions is partially based on the amount that each university spends per student. Any university that unilaterally cuts its spending or holds down the rate of increase in its spending relative to its competitors will fall in the rankings -- even if the spending cuts have no impact on the undergraduate experience. Previous research has shown that an institution that falls in the rankings finds in the next year that it receives fewer applications, has a lower admitted student acceptance rate, has lower SAT scores for its entering students and must increase the size of the financial aid packages that it offers to attract students, other factors held constant. No trustee should want to see his or her university fall in the U.S. News rankings.
While spending more per student does, on average, lead to better outcomes for undergraduate students (see my discussion above), given concerns about runaway costs and tuition in American universities, one would think that running an institution in an efficient matter and cutting out waste would also be a social goal.
Should trustees of public or private research universities put pressure on their institutions’ administrators to hold down costs as a way of increasing economic efficiency and reducing future increases in tuition? What is more important, their institution’s position in the rankings or operating the institution in a way that does not waste resources?
Commercialization of Research
The Bayh-Dole Act encourages universities to obtain patents on faculty research findings from research funded by government grants to provide universities with a financial incentive to speed the flow of faculty research findings into commercial use. Many research universities have established offices of technology transfer to facilitate the development of licensing arrangements and joint ventures to help accomplish this goal. While most universities actually have not yet shown a profit on such arrangements, a few have hit it big.
Even if such efforts ultimately enhance the revenue flow coming into universities, commercialization efforts may have downsides as well. These include limitations placed on access of other researchers to new research findings and limiting poor countries’ access to scientific breakthroughs that have the potential to improve their populations’ economic well-being and health. For example if the rights to market new strands of disease resistant crops or new medicines to combat serious diseases are licensed to third parties, there is no guarantee that these parties will sell them to poor nations at prices that are at all affordable. Should trustees of research universities encourage their administrators to seek commercialization contracts that would guarantee access to such discoveries to people from poor nations, even if this means a reduction in commercialization revenues coming into their universities?
Training Our Nation’s Teachers
A number of our nation’s selective private research universities have eliminated or deemphasized undergraduate teacher education programs. One reason is that teachers’ salaries are lower than the earnings in alternative occupations that graduates of these institutions enter and thus potential teachers may be unwilling to take on the large debts that are often necessary to finance attendance at these institutions. Another reason is that schools of education typically do not generate large volumes of external research funding and that the alumni of these schools typically do not have the financial resources to generate large gifts to the institutions.
A number of studies suggest that, on average, students learn more when they are taught by teachers with high academic ability. Other studies suggest that students from selective academic colleges and universities are more likely to enter teaching if there is an opportunity for them to become at least provisionally certified as a teacher as part of their four-year undergraduate program. Given concerns about the quality of elementary and secondary education in the United States, encouraging, rather than discouraging, bright college students to enter teaching careers is very important for our nation’s well-being.
Rather than reducing their role in training teachers, should research universities, especially the most selective ones, be developing programs to encourage their students to enter the teaching profession? One possible policy would be to develop loan forgiveness programs for graduates who enter teaching; these would be analogous to programs that a number of leading law schools have adopted for their graduates who enter public interest law careers. To develop funding to support these programs will require the development of increased annual giving or increased endowments for these purposes; to do so will invariable reduce the funding available for other initiatives that the institution may perceive to be in its private interest. Should trustees of research universities urge their administrators to move in this direction?
The Land Grant Mission
Many public universities were founded with explicit land grant missions and historically have received funding from state and federal governments to help them carry out these missions. Through agricultural, cooperative, and industrial extension services, they have been major transmitters of knowledge to American farmers, consumers, workers and industry. Cuts in state and federal funding have limited the ability of land grant universities to carry out their land grant missions. The universities cannot “load” the costs of these activities onto the backs of undergraduates in the form of higher undergraduate tuitions. They have been forced to become more entrepreneurial and to use the “profits” that they generate from groups that can pay for their services (e.g. large corporations) to subsidize the provision of services to underserved populations. However, forced to generate their own revenues, it is natural for them to spend a larger share of their time on commercial activities and less on serving the public at large.
If a land grant university were to devote more resources to extension and public service activities, these funds would again have to come from annual fund raising and from raising endowments to support these activities. More generally, if other public and private research universities are serious about their social mission, they too should be engaged in activities to benefit society more broadly, such as working to improve elementary and secondary education, and will need similar sources of funding to do this.
While a recent Washington Monthly  ranking of universities took involvement in extension and public service activities into account, this ranking is currently not one to which many people pay much attention. So devoting resources to these activities will mean doing less of other things. How do trustees, who have fiduciary responsibility for operating budgets, decide what the appropriate balance is between these activities and what many view as the core missions of the university -- undergraduate and graduate teaching and research?
Ronald G. Ehrenberg is th Irving M. Ives Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Economics at Cornell University, director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, and a faculty trustee at Cornell. The views expressed in this piece are solely his own. A longer version, with citations, is available on the research institute's Web site  as a working paper titled “Key Issues Facing Trustees of National Research Universities in the Decades Ahead.”