University Boards

Illinois state Senator Brady’s suggestion for making public universities private (Illinois SB 1565) hinges on a transfer of power away from politically appointed boards.  The bill posits a nonprofit board structure, not to be confused with that of profit driven institutions.   Boards of public and private nonprofit universities are “guardians” of trust; fiduciaries responsible for institutional well-being.

The Association of Governing Boards (AGB), the “guardian of guardians,” observes that too many university boards are failing, public confidence falling, quality shrinking and sinking.  Public boards are formed in three ways.  Typically members are appointed by governors.   In four states — Michigan, Colorado, Nebraska, and Nevada — board membership is determined by general election, assuring a political board.   Lastly and rarely, boards are self-perpetuating – the board determines its composition.   This is the usual nonprofit board model.

There are some notable hybrids.

The University of Delaware (public) has 28 board members, including eight gubernatorial appointments, and the balance elected by the self-perpetuating board.  The board can remove any trustee.  At UD members are prevented from assuming paid university positions unless they have been separated from the board for a full year.  Cases in public universities exist where board members are appointed to executive leadership positions — president or chancellor for example — with no significant break in service.  This may indicate a campaign from a board member to secure an executive position for personal gain, often cloaked in purported love of institution: “Love” is not leadership litmus.  Apparent conflicts of interest are as damning as the real thing because, if it smells bad, it might be bad.

At Penn State, board members are elected to represent various university constituencies:  the Governor, alumni, agricultural organizations, business and industry, students, faculty, the Alumni Association and the board of trustees (This is the list, no kidding) —  a mélange of constituency representation.  This balkanization of leadership does not guarantee desirable results.  Who acts as agent for the greater university?  “Papa Joe” and Penn State’s football legacy were denigrated by a board representing sundry constituent perspectives.  And academic esteem eroded. Sagacious, comprehensive, university leadership was absent.

Who knows where the truth of any scandalous allegations lies? But the results stink:  Ask any Nittany Lion and a litany of laments flow.

Examples of public university board misconduct abound. Admission scandals at the universities of Illinois and Texas involved special consideration for “family and friends” of elected officials. Chicago State is a smorgasbord of reprehensibility condoned through tacit agreement evidenced by board inaction. A smoldering example is South Carolina State University, the only historically black college in the state, where performance was found so wanting the state legislature voted no-confidence in the board.  It seems university leadership was bungled in every way: budget deficits, faltering enrollment, and pitiful performance in retention and graduation. Yet, through political pressure, the flimsy status quo was maintained for a season.  But, eventually the sin was found out.

Some universities, through boards and executives, react nonchalantly to the noxious reality of looming budget cuts.  Last week, LSU was bawling “bankruptcy” Chicken Little style:  Did the board discover only last week that Governor Jindal might propose cuts to higher education?  In contrast, Wisconsin boards are taking tough action to reduce expenses, while Governor Walker’s budget is yet to be inked.

Private universities are not immune. NYU President John Sexton misused university funds for Conde Nast-like travel and living arrangements. The board dawdled.

Public or private, board leadership is essential to robust university operation. In too many cases, board leadership is weak or immobilized by political re-action rather than academic action. Tuition, fees, unemployment, under-employment, and debt levels skyrocket.  Mission accomplishment goes begging.

Something is broken.  It’s leadership.  It starts and ends at boards.

Politics is about constituency representation.  The only constituency group that matters in higher education, public or private, is the one that holds stock certificates — we typically call them degrees.   Their value rises and falls based on the actions of current and future boards and little else.  Altruism to that end must prevail.

Brady’s idea might impact university board behavior, ultimately causing more focus on academic excellence and mission accomplishment for positive public prosperity.

Oh! Happy day!

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