Essay calls on college boards, not others, to deal with problematic administrator behavior


In Texas, a House of Representatives panel found grounds for removing a regent from the University of Texas system. The regent, appointed to the post of governor, has requested a huge amount of documents related to the performance of the president of UT-Austin – some say several hundred thousand pages, often through requests for open records. He thinks there is a need to sort this information out, but his detractors are calling his requests a witch hunt.

At the College of Charleston, board members chose a candidate for their next president who did not emerge from the formal research process. He is a politician whose name was put forward by the state legislature and who has never worked in higher education, which has sparked protests from students and faculty alike. While we wish this new president every success, the willingness of policy makers to usurp the college board raises important governance questions.

It is hard to ignore these incidents and other less than efficient work that occurs in some of the boardrooms of our colleges and universities. Such behavior highlights the distinct form of governance of higher education boards in the United States: volunteer citizen councils that oversee the work of colleges and universities. And this raises a fundamental question: how far does the authority of a board member extend?

The 50,000 men and women who sit on the board are the public’s closest connection to our country’s colleges and universities – institutions that hold the key to the future not only of the students who attend them, but also of the entire nation. Each member should be confident that they can learn about information that is relevant to the policy considerations of the board. At the same time, there are limits. The individual members of the boards of directors do not hold any specific or individual authority; it is the board, as a fiduciary body, that holds and implements its legal authority. It’s a bit of a balancing act.

The challenges of this balance are particularly evident in the case of the Texas Regent. The situation raises a number of difficult but important questions:

  • How much information is sought by a board member to inform decision making and oversight?

  • When does the demand for information border on excess or reach the point of diminishing returns?

  • Is it effective management to search until something is found, or rather to ask concise and relevant questions?

  • Is there a risk of substituting political considerations for good surveillance?

  • And, more importantly, is such an effort actually in the public interest? Or does it look, on some level, like an individual’s personal agenda – one that lacks the point of service and stewardship of the board? So who should watch for such behavior?

Other recent incidents of directors perhaps, if not likely, overstepping their authority raise similar questions, and their colleagues on the board should answer them. Higher education faces enormous challenges; its governing bodies must find ways to improve their overall performance and focus on the increasingly uncertain future of higher education.

Going against the norm and being the one voice for what is right in many ways defines who we are as a nation. Yet board governance is a team sport and fiduciary principles require a corporate approach. It is not that individual administrators should not raise difficult issues, but the genesis of those issues should be considered and discussed. When board members take advantage of their role to make a point – perhaps even representing the interests of others, including policy makers who are not board members – it is a violation of much-needed independence on the board of directors and calls into question our governance model.

At the same time, monitoring the performance of board members belongs to the board room. Boards of directors hold the ultimate power to set policies for the institutions they oversee. While states may allow the removal of a board member of a governing body of a public institution by the appointing authority, the best oversight of board members’ behavior comes from peers who should also be attached to the fiduciary principles that define such a service.

Of course, the challenge is to ensure that boards of directors recognize what it means to be a trustee and the standards expected of the board (and its members) to defend the interests of the institutions they oversee. Boards must protect their independence and act on behalf of broader interests than those who appoint them. We cannot afford to let boards of directors fail in their self-control.

The future of the country, dependent in many ways on the success of our colleges and universities, requires the oversight of boards of directors whose members are fully aware of the extent of their fiduciary responsibilities. Serving the country’s higher education sector as an administrator, in a public or private institution, is important and rewarding, and it is an honor. But those of us who have this honor must understand both the extent and the limits of our authority and influence.

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