The Proper Role of Trustees

December 15, 2011

An odd, interesting report is out recently from Public Agenda titled “Still on the Sidelines,” raising questions about whether the Trustees of colleges and universities are assertive enough in pressing for change. The Inside Higher Ed account is headlined “Trustees Take a Pass.”

Here’s a broad summary statement from the report: “Our overall conclusion is that most trustees are currently focused on the short-term challenges facing their institutions and that most have not yet fully engaged with broader issues of higher education reform. The prevailing view that emerges in this series of interviews is that trustees generally feel that they can support the institutions best by working within the framework presented to them by administration rather than questioning it.”

Funded by the Lumina Foundation, the report, is based on in-depth interviews with 39 trustees from a broad range of kinds of institutions.  That’s a smallish base from which to draw conclusions about trustees, but perhaps the study’s conclusions do accurately reflect the views of the trustees of U.S. colleges and universities.

The conclusions don’t, however, square with my experience.  Yes, by and large the trustees I worked with said yes to most proposals presented to them by this president and Earlham’s other senior officers.  But at every Board meeting, we experienced strong questioning about what we were doing and how we were doing it.  Every Board meeting changed the way we as administrators (I hate that word) framed the agenda.  So what we presented at the next Board meeting, or the next, had been seriously altered by the discussion.  The agenda changed, our sense of urgency changed.

And there’s a deeper issue.  I know of few colleges or universities that have succeeded through making bold moves.  Most bold moves have been punished in the higher education marketplace.  Yes, the external context in which higher education functions is changing.  Yes, revenues are an issue everywhere.  The market is sending very strong signals about the necessity of change.  Change is needed, but the way forward is murky, and full of hidden snags.  Most institutions will be best served by making incremental changes, not bold ones.  And those incremental changes are likely to come from proposals put forward by presidents — presidents who are regularly engaged in conversations with trustees and others.

This isn’t an argument for complacency.  I believe there are many things wrong with higher education we need to address, and some of them I think we are addressing too slowly.  I am sure there are trustees who are “still on the sidelines,” but I have my doubts this report is really getting at how changes will be made wisely.

I have the sense that there is a hidden premise in the report: a sense of impatience with the lack of swift change, and therefore a frustration that trustees aren’t doing more.  But it’s one thing to say that the whole system needs to change, and quite another to say that any specific institution should be the first to move.  For better or for worse, we really do have a market (yes, an odd market) in higher education, and institutions, their presidents and their trustees have to be listening carefully to the signals from that marketplace.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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