By Phyllis M. Krutsch
MY EXPERIENCE as a member of a system-wide public university
governing board, and my discussions with other board members across the country,
leaves me with a very different impression of lay governance than the one that currently
predominates in higher education circles.
Recent opinion pieces in The Chronicle of Higher Education and elsewhere have
described citizen governance as inappropriately intrusive and politically motivated.
On a continuum between ãmicromanagingä and ãrubber-stamping,ä
the prevailing characterization lies closer to micromanaging. It is my observation,
however, that the style of most public university governing boards might more accurately
be described as perfunctory policymaking ÷closer to the rubber-stamping end
of the spectrum.
While I believe in the promise and importance of lay governance, I have profound
concerns about its current effectiveness. Stewardship of public universities should
involve goals that are more ambitious than preserving the status quo or the portion
of the state budget devoted to higher education. It should be concerned with dynamic
improvements to a structure that is more responsive to faculty interests than either
productivity or the general education of undergraduates.
Robust citizen governance is a prerequisite to developing creative solutions to
the challenges of access, affordability and quality in higher education. Board meetings,
agendas and committee structures should reflect the ãnew workä described
by Taylor, Chait and Holland in their 1996 article in the Harvard Business Review÷a
strategic focus on issues that matter, not mindless approval of reports and appointments.
In addition, as recommended in the report on the academic presidency by the Association
of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB), a reconceptualization of
shared governance is essential if university presidents and other administrators
are to effectively carry out the policies developed in concert with their governing
Underlying the disparate diagnoses of the problems with citizen governance is
a widespread confusion about the several purposes of this uniquely American institution.
In the case of public universities, it has two principal functions: 1) to be responsive
to the public interest by bringing the perspective of informed citizens to the heart
of the university by setting missions, policies and budgets, and by selecting and
evaluating institutional leaders; and 2) to thoughtfully and knowledgeably advocate
for the needs of the university to elected officials and the public.
In balancing its multiple roles, a citizen governing board is ideally a more independent
body than either university insiders or elected officials would prefer. Indeed, those
inside the university are often dissatisfied with the nature of the advocacy, while
elected officials frequently complain that regents and trustees have been co-opted
by university administrators.
I am not sure, however, that we public university trustees earn high enough grades
for either our policymaking or our advocacy. Too often we do not fully appreciate
our statutory responsibilities, are insufficiently knowledgeable about our campuses
and higher education issues, and spend our time on peripheral items that fail to
address issues central to academic quality, fiscal effectiveness and the public interest.
Too often we abdicate statutory responsibilities to appoint and evaluate institutional
leaders, and allow presidents and other administrators÷in ways large and small÷to
bypass our policymaking authority.
Often we are only marginally involved in developing budgets and the priorities
expressed within them. It is not surprising that we are less effective advocates
than we should be when state budget issues are decided.
In most states, the statutory authority for active trusteeship is unmistakable.
It is the passive culture of trusteeship that accounts for the fact that many governing
boards believe that their role is to acquiesce to the wishes of those inside their
institutions÷without questioning in earnest what is in the best interests
of students, taxpayers or the public at large, and without considering the larger
purposes for which their universities exist.
In my opinion, the recently expressed concern that elected officials are dominating
trustees is greatly overstated; that perception more accurately reflects the fact
that trustees are interested in, and are beginning to address, some of the same issues
that concern politicians and the general public÷issues such as time-to-degree,
teaching loads and quality of undergraduate education.
Groups such as the National Alumni Forum (NAF) in Washington, D.C. have formed
in response to alumni and trustee interest in addressing those key issues from a
Many trustees are simply unaware of the sweeping nature of their governance responsibilities.
When copies of the pertinent section of the state statutes were distributed at a
recent conference for public university trustees in Virginia, many said that they
had not realized the scope of their statutory obligations.
It was fairly early in my seven-year term as a regent that I began to develop
an interest in governance issues. I was told, more than once, that the most important
function of a trustee was to ask good questions. Over time, I began to realize that
that characterization was profoundly incomplete. While careful and focused inquiry
is essential to fulfilling our role, it is primarily a means to an end÷information-gathering
as a prelude to policymaking.
State statutes in Wisconsin assign to the board of regents the responsibility
for appointing and evaluating system and campus heads. In practice, I had a difficult
time connecting that responsibility to our somewhat limited end-of-the-process role.
If overall accountability lies with the citizen governing board, and if micromanaging
is neither desirable nor effective, then it seems clear that boards should utilize
the levers that are available to them.
A serendipitous appointment by the board president to be the liaison to the AGB
meant that I would attend annual conferences, would have the opportunity to meet
and speak with board members from other states, and would listen to discussions about
key higher education issues. At the same time, at our monthly board meetings, I was
noticing a discrepancy between our stated governance responsibilities and the way
we did business. On occasion, the information I received about an upcoming decision
was presented in such a way that a ãreasonableä person could come to
only one conclusion÷a conclusion and course of action that seemed to have
already been determined, but needed regent approval to be carried out.
Far too many important higher education issues never made it to board agendas
for consideration. Broad ranging discussion at the meetings and/or presentations
by those outside the university were infrequent, as were in-depth development sessions
on complex issues.
Changes in how we viewed our role, and improvements in how we did business, occurred
as board members thought carefully about our fiduciary and moral responsibilities.
The board felt strongly that, as the policymakers, we should be exposed to balanced
information from a variety of sources and perspectives. We should have sufficient
opportunity to discuss and reflect so that we could fulfill our role to represent
the broad public interest in our stewardship of Wisconsinâs public universities.
Being more knowledgeable than the general public about the campuses, higher education
issues and fiscal realities, and without any vested interest in a particular way
of doing things, we believe we had a truly valuable role to play.
Listening to national discussions about issues such as access and affordability,
it often seems that the valuable and unique perspective of the citizen governing
board is not heard. During the last federal budget period, DuPont Circle higher education
organizations mounted highly visible and concerted efforts to increase taxpayer spending
for higher education, particularly for federal financial aid. Conspicuously absent
was a parallel call by those organizations for public colleges and universities to
make serious and disciplined efforts to increase the number of full-time students
who graduate in four years (without an overload in credits). Increasing four-year
graduation rates for full-time students would do far more for affordability and access
(without additional cost to taxpayers), and would have the added bonus of making
existing financial aid dollars benefit larger numbers of needy students.
Time and credit-to-degree issues are now beginning to be addressed, but a more
assertive trusteeship balancing university and public interests would have noticed,
and acted years ago, when public universities began to promulgate six-year graduation
rates, displacing the traditional four-year completion rates.
Whether it is time-to-degree, accreditation, educational outcomes and assessment,
or a host of other issues, the concerns and responsibilities of public university
trustees revolve around the triad of access, affordability and quality. There have
been great public costs incurred÷fiscally, academically and in goodwill÷when,
over the past number of years, acquiescent governing boards have deferred to those
who have shortened academic calendars, reduced teaching loads and general education
requirements, paid insufficient attention to costly increases in time and credits-to-degree,
allowed mission creep, and presided over the proliferation of a curricular and organizational
structure favoring the interests of those who teach over focusing on what students
should know and be able to do when they graduate.
Today, there are many regents and trustees of public universities who believe
that they can (indeed, that they are obligated to) perform an essential role in the
enterprise of American higher education. At recent gatherings of regents and trustees,
and in the workings of the board I served on for seven years, I sense a heightened
responsibility and accountability.
When I talk with fellow board members across the country, I find a more nuanced
understanding of multiple roles, a willingness to ask new questions and to bring
broader and longer-term perspectives to deliberations and to boardrooms. I am cautiously
optimistic that an era of perfunctory policymaking is coming to a close.
Phyllis M. Krutsch was a member of the Wisconsin System Board of Regents from
1990 to 1997.