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Public University Trustees
The "passive culture" of governing boards


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 boards.

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 citizen perspective.

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.

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