Higher Education

Once invisible, college boards of trustees are suddenly in the spotlight

Some critics say boards don’t do enough; others that they meddle too much

The University of Texas Board of Regents meets on Feb. 12, 2015.

The University of Texas Board of Regents meets on Feb. 12, 2015.

Except for the desert sun pouring in through floor-to-ceiling windows, the hearing room evoked a Washington committee chamber, with the same sense of severe formality.

Behind a long table covered by a blue cloth and a neat row of nameplates sat the Nevada System Higher Education Board of Regents. Their witness at this meeting in Las Vegas? The president of the University of Nevada, Reno, Marc Johnson.

Johnson stood at a lectern and parried one question after another: why tuition fees at his campus had increased three times faster than inflation since 2010 (because of legislative budget cuts); why administrative and athletic salaries seem high (because “what you pay is what you get”); why classrooms go unused on Fridays (because professors expect time to do research); why Johnson wants to hire more faculty (because enrollment is up, and because some faculty teach three courses per semester compared to two at similar schools).

When it was over, the chairman, Kevin Page, thanked Johnson.

“Appreciate you being one of the first to go,” Page said, in a comment portending more such grillings for the presidents of every campus in the state.

It was a rare example of a university or college board of trustees publicly pressing for answers from the people who run the institutions they oversee.

And it’s growing much more common.

Populated largely by wealthy alumni and political appointees, university and college boards of regents and trustees have historically operated largely out of sight. But as tuition escalates, along with questions about what students and their families are getting for their money, boards are finding themselves in an unaccustomed spotlight — or are taking matters into their own hands — just as corporate boards of directors did in the wake of Enron-era scandals.

Critics on one side of this issue say the boards have started meddling too much in affairs that aren’t their responsibility, sometimes on political or ideological grounds; on the other side, that boards don’t get involved enough in important decisions that affect the $407 billion higher-education sector.

Related: Think tuition is rising fast? Try room and board

“Sitting back as passive tourists is no longer a recipe for success in higher education,” said Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which wants the boards to do more, not less.

“If they’re not in charge, who is?” Neal asked.

At a time of rising costs, low graduation rates, and questions about students’ preparation for jobs — and despite high-profile examples of what one former university president calls “ham-handed” interference — trustees in general are being criticized for being too complacent.

Alumni and faculty have attacked the Board of Directors at Sweet Briar College, for example, for agreeing to close the cash-strapped school without putting up a fight; a county attorney has filed a lawsuit to have the board removed.

And in a finding that suggests there’s little urgency to rein in costs, two thirds of board members nationwide contend that their own institutions charge just the right amount, even though more than half agree that higher education has become too expensive, according to a survey by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

Related: Colleges appeal to Congress to cut regulations they say drive up costs

The governing panels of private universities are elected by alumni or are self-perpetuating; those of public institutions are typically appointed by governors and legislatures. Nearly a third receive no financial training, and more than a quarter admit that they do not undertake much budgetary or financial oversight, according to another Association of Governing Boards survey.

“Too many [trustees] have seen their role narrowly defined as boosters, cheerleaders, and donors,” the trustees and alumni council charged in a report last summer written by a task force chaired by former Yale President Benno Schmidt. “They must not be intermittent or passive fiduciaries of a billion-dollar industry critical to the preparation of America’s next leaders.”

Boards can no longer serve as rubber stamps for university presidents, said former Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen, who chaired the National Commission on College and University Board Governance, which recommended in its own report in November that boards take a larger role.

Many meetings of trustees or regents follow the same pattern: “The president gives his presentation, you have some more presentations about all the wonderful things people are doing, you have lunch, and it’s time to go home,” Bredesen said. “You can get away with that when nothing is changing, but the world has changed. The boardroom needs to move from being a country club to a place where they can work.”

But boards have also been attacked for being too aggressive, and for igniting high-profile power struggles in states including Virginia, Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi, California, Iowa, Louisiana and Oregon.

Related: The unexpected reason some in higher ed fear free community college

“Since governors often choose boards, the boards sometimes become vehicles for the governors’ views, and that means in turn that sometimes they become more intrusive than was previously the case,” said Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities and former president of Cornell University, who has blasted the “ham-handed” intrusions of some public university governing boards.

Instances of conflict between boards and presidents seem on the upswing.

The University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors in a closed-door meeting gave the boot to system president Thomas Ross, for example. Members have refused to explain the decision, fueling speculation that it was political: Ross is a Democrat who worked for a liberal foundation, while the board is appointed by the Republican-controlled legislature.

A committee of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors fired U.Va. President Teresa Sullivan, purportedly for moving too slowly to adopt online education; she was reinstated two weeks later after a public outcry.

University of Texas at Austin President William Powers answers questions at a news conference Friday, Sept 14, 2012, in Austin, Texas.

University of Texas at Austin President William Powers answers questions at a news conference Friday, Sept 14, 2012, in Austin, Texas.

University of Texas-Austin President William Powers announced he would retire after relentless battles with that system’s Board of Regents, which tried to force him out after he defended affirmative action in admissions and pushed back against criticism from allies of then-Governor Rick Perry. Powers was also found to have ordered that children of legislators and other influential people be accepted over the objections of his admissions office.

The Florida State University Board of Trustees named John Thrasher, a powerful longtime state senator, as president, in spite of deep opposition from faculty and students who said the board was following orders from Governor Rick Scott, who appoints six of its 13 members and whose re-election campaign Thrasher ran.

And the Board of Trustees of public universities and colleges in Mississippi announced in March that it would not renew the contract of University of Mississippi Chancellor Dan Jones, citing financial problems at the university’s medical center but refusing to give specifics.

Related: Students demand answers after Ole Miss board ousts chancellor

“There are some reckless things being done in the notion of university governance,” said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean for leadership studies at the Yale School of Management, who studies this topic. “Just like in the corporate world, good governance means you’re supposed to be there thinking about the best interest of the total institution, not a lobby on behalf of narrow interests.”

University of Mississippi sophomore Chandler McKinley said he didn’t know much about what his state’s board of trustees did until its controversial decision, which also resulted in an uproar among students, faculty, and alumni.

Senior Mary Marge Locker reads the University of Mississippi student newspaper, The Daily Mississippian. Many students and faculty members are unhappy with IHL’s decision not to renew the contract of Chancellor Dan Jones.

Now, McKinley said, he does.

“They are here to serve the people,” he said on the university’s campus in Oxford. “They are appointed or elected because of us. And I hope that they realize that they’ve dissatisfied the majority of the people.”

As for Jones, the chancellor, he fired back by urging people to start paying attention to the group behind his ouster.

They should “follow closely the search process for the next chancellor,” Jones said in a statement. The board “will make a better decision knowing that you are engaged and that they are accountable.”

There’s consensus about at least one thing, said Jane Wellman, a higher-education policy analyst who was an advisor to the National Commission on College and University Board Governance: The way that universities are run is changing.

“Without being pejorative of it, the reality is that we’ve had boards that have been more ceremonial than not, and played the role of being the overseers and the keepers of the seal,” Wellman said. “College presidents and faculty probably liked it that way, and don’t particularly welcome stronger oversight. But that’s not the reality now. There’s a need for boards to do more than raise money and hire the president, and then sit back.”

The Hechinger Report’s Kayleigh Skinner in Oxford, Mississippi contributed to this story, which was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

Reproduction of this story is not permitted.

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