Leadership & Governance

In Tense Times, Governance Group Promises Tough Medicine for Boards

July 25, 2013

At a time of significant turnover in college presidencies, diminishing financial resources, and abounding sports scandals, a group of higher-education experts hopes to change the way college trustees do business.

The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges announced on Thursday the formation of the National Commission on College and University Board Governance, which over the course of the next year will develop a set of recommendations for college trustees. Philip N. Bredesen Jr., a former governor of Tennessee, will be chairman of the 25-member group, which includes policy analysts, college presidents, and board members from public and private institutions.

A series of high-profile controversies that raise questions about good board governance loom large behind the work of this brain trust.

The Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia was criticized for its botched ouster of a president last summer, and Pennsylvania State University's trustees took heat for failing to ask tough questions that might have shed light on the abuse of children at the hands of Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach. In a report released just this week, a law firm hired by Rutgers University concluded that the institution's Board of Governors had largely been left in the dark about allegations of player abuse made against Mike Rice Jr., the former head men's basketball, who was fired in April.

Richard D. Legon, president of the association and an ex officio member of the newly formed commission, said it would look broadly at the challenges of effective board oversight that underpin the major controversies of the last few years.

"AGB is mindful of, and we are attentive to, the public examples of places where governance has really gone wrong, and that's certainly part of the context," Mr. Legon said. "But the symptoms are fairly widespread."

Jane V. Wellman, an expert on college costs, will serve as the commission's executive director. She said boards need to be more proactive about setting financial priorities for the institutions they lead.

"We've got to connect the dots between spending and student success," said Ms. Wellman, who recently served as executive director of the National Association of System Heads, where she continues to consult. "We can no longer ignore how the money is spent and whether it advances quality and student success."

'Looking Into the Dark Corners'

The commission's members are expected to convene four times and produce a report in September 2014.

Mr. Bredesen said he hoped to stimulate candid debate among the members, culminating in a set of recommendations that may be provocative. While there is no set agenda for the meetings at this point, Mr. Bredesen said he hoped to explore how deeply boards should be involved in touchy subjects like academic-program review. He also suggested that boards need to do more to ensure their policies, in areas such as whistle-blower protection and research conduct, are being followed.

"These boards are probably not used to popping the hood and looking into the dark corners in quite the way that would best serve them going forward," said Mr. Bredesen, who is chairman of Complete College America, a nonprofit group that works with states to increase student attainment of degrees and certificates.

Of the commission's 25 members, college faculty members and students are the least represented groups. Just two members are principally identified as professors, although college presidents typically hold faculty appointments as well.

Most college boards do not include professors as voting or nonvoting members, but a significant number do. At more than one-quarter of private colleges and 22 percent of public institutions, faculty members are represented on the board, according to a 2010 report by the governing-boards association. Students, who are not at all represented on the commission, hold board positions at 71 percent of public colleges and one-fifth of private institutions.

Asked about the commission's makeup, Mr. Legon said, "We will reach out as we need for other resources."

The faculty members on the group include Richard P. Chait, a professor in Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, and Gary Rhoades, head of the department of educational-policy studies and practice at the University of Arizona.

Mr. Rhoades was general secretary of the American Association of University Professors until 2011, when the AAUP's executive committee voted not to renew his contract. The decision created great dissension within the organization, which has the stated purpose of advancing shared governance and academic freedom on college campuses.

Mr. Legon said he wanted to assemble a group of people who "can ask tough questions" and propose thoughtful solutions.

"This is a special moment," he said. "The 21st century has already been very unique in higher education, and I anticipate that will not let up."