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No Boredom in Board-dom

College governing boards are becoming pretty uppity, actually thinking they have a real, not ceremonial role to play in governing universities. Next thing you know, Britain’s constitutional monarch, Queen Elizabeth will decide to suspend Parliament and fire the Prime Minister. To be sure, there are limits to the attempts by boards to assert leadership—the University of Virginia board capitulated to the university community by returning power to them that the board rightfully possess by Virginia law.

Nonetheless, boards have become more aggressive in using their most important power—easing out or firing the university president. Illinois has done it not once but twice in the last few years, sending both Joe White and Michael Hogan packing. From the East (Penn State) to the South (Louisiana State) to the West (Oregon), presidents have been ousted. At other schools (e.g. University of Texas), strains between the university administration and the governing board have been very visible and have led to all sorts of campus conflict.

To be sure, these are challenging times. Public concerns about rising college costs have passed the threshold needed to become a major national issue. Big-time intercollegiate athletic corruption reeks and is beginning to stink up the enter higher-education enterprise, as folks in State College will tell you. Public universities are undergoing an involuntary and painful privatization, and the gap between them and the well-endowed private schools is growing rapidly. The job market for graduates has been bad for years, leading to more people questioning the need for a college degree. In short, the life of a university president is not easy these days.

There has long been a disconnect between what the academy itself thinks its mission and priorities should be and what the general public thinks. Boards, very often, have mindsets closer to that of the general public than that of the university community. Occasionally, that leads to clashes, although the university community is usually pretty good at co-opting and neutralizing trustees, making them comparatively docile. They do this by withholding vital information of an embarrassing nature, minimizing the actual number of board meetings, trying to co-opt who is selected for boards, etc.

In my judgment, boards on average do too little, not too much, although there are activist boards that do more harm than good. All schools, including so-called private ones (excepting for profit colleges), depend a lot on government largess. These institutions need to be accountable to someone other than themselves. As it is, colleges have made radical changes in how they operate, with little board involvement or even formal approval. Over the last half century, teaching loads have sharply fallen—did trustees approve this by vote? In most cases, no. Administrative staffs have become bloated, creating what Benjamin Ginsberg calls the “administrative university.” Did trustees sanction this? Sometimes technically they did by their budget votes, but in most cases I doubt they knew that they were voting to weaken the purely academic part of the enterprise.

In a growing number of cases, there is criticism of the boards by loyal alumni. Dartmouth College’s fights over seats on its governing board, and the brouhaha at the College of William & Mary over the Wren cross are good examples.

I am impressed with some alums at Colgate, who want a Better Colgate, and are angling for alumni election of a good hunk of the governing board. Their concerns arise from the fact that Colgate is slipping by many measures—from 2008 to 2011, the school dropped four spots in the U.S. News & World Report ranking and seven in that done by Forbes (full disclosure: I direct the compilation of the Forbes rankings). The Better Colgate folks are extremely frustrated at the near complete secrecy surrounding board actions, the lack of public attendance at meetings, the hiding of board committee reports, etc.

Question: Why are institutions benefiting from federal and/or state funds, or that benefit from tax-exempt status for university gifts, not required to operate out in the open? Why are not board minutes, committee reports, etc., routinely available to the public? I am rooting for the Better Colgate folks who, against heavy odds, are close to getting one of their renegade members on the Colgate board. Transparency should be required of anyone using, directly or indirectly, federal or state government funds.

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