Once invisible, college boards are in the spotlight

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This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on inequalities and innovation in education. Learn more about higher education.

With the exception of the desert sun shining through the picture windows, the courtroom was like a Washington committee room, with the same stern sense of formality.

Behind a long table covered with a blue cloth and a neat row of nameplates stood the Board of Regents of Higher Education of the Nevada System. Their witness at that meeting in Las Vegas? University of Nevada Reno President Marc Johnson.

Johnson was standing at a desk and speaking one question after another.

Why has tuition fees on its campus increased three times faster than inflation since 2010 (due to legislative budget cuts).

Why did administrative and sports salaries seem high (because “what you pay is what you get”).

Why do classrooms go unused on Fridays (because teachers expect time for research).

Why does Johnson want to hire more teachers (because enrollment is up and some teachers teach three classes per semester compared to two at similar schools).

At the end, President Kevin Page thanked Johnson.

“Thank you for being one of the first to go,” Page said, in a comment foreshadowing more such grills for presidents on every campus in the state.

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

And it is more and more common.

Populated largely by wealthy alumni and politicians, university and college governing and administrative boards have historically operated largely out of sight. But as tuition fees rise, along with questions about what students and their families are getting for their money, boards are finding themselves in the unusual spotlight – or taking matters into their own hands – as are boards. corporate directors did so following Enron. scandals of the time.

Critics on one side of this issue say that boards of directors have started to meddle too much in matters that are not their responsibility, sometimes for political or ideological reasons. On the other hand, people are saying that boards of directors are not sufficiently involved in the important decisions that affect the higher education sector, which stands at $ 407 billion.

Related: Think Tuition Fees Are Rising Fast? Try the room and board

“Sitting down 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, who wants boards to do so. more, not less.

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

In an era of rising costs, low graduation rates and questions about preparing students for employment – and despite high-profile examples of what a former university president calls interference ” clumsy ”- administrators in general are criticized for being too complacent.

Alumni and professors attacked the board of directors of Sweet Briar College, for example, for agreeing to close the cash-strapped school without a fight. A county attorney even filed a lawsuit to have that advice withdrawn.

And in a finding that suggests there is no rush to contain costs, two-thirds of board members nationwide argue their own establishments are charging a fair price, albeit more half agree that higher education has become too expensive, according to a survey by the Association of Boards of Universities and Colleges.

Related: Colleges Call on Congress to Cut Regulations They Say Raise Costs

The governing boards of private universities are elected by former students or perpetuate themselves; those in public institutions are generally appointed by governors and legislatures. Nearly a third receive no financial training, and more than a quarter admit they don’t exercise much budgetary or financial control, according to another survey by the Association of Boards of Directors.

“Too much [trustees] have seen their roles narrowly defined as boosters, cheerleaders and donors, ”the trustees and alumni council accused in a report last summer drafted by a task force chaired by the former president of Yale, Benno Schmidt. “They don’t have to be intermittent or passive trustees of a billion dollar industry essential to preparing America’s next leaders.”

Boards can no longer act as buffers for university presidents, said former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, who chaired the National Commission on College and University Board Governance, which has recommended in November that boards play a bigger role.

Many directors or regents meetings follow the same pattern: “The president makes his presentation, you have other presentations on all the wonderful things people do, you have lunch and it’s time to go home”, Bredesen said. “You can get by when nothing changes, but the world has changed. The meeting room should move from a country club to a place where they can work. “

But boards of directors have also come under attack for being too aggressive and for igniting high-profile power struggles in states such as Virginia, Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi, California. , Iowa, Louisiana and Oregon.

Related: The Unexpected Reason Some In Higher Education Fear Free Community College

“As governors often choose boards, boards sometimes become vehicles for governors’ views, which in turn means they sometimes become more intrusive than before,” said Hunter Rawlings, chairman of the Association of American Universities and former president of Cornell University, who blasted “clumsy” intrusions by some public university boards.

Conflicts between boards of directors and presidents appear to be increasing.

For example, in a closed-door meeting, the University of North Carolina board of governors gave the system chairman, Thomas Ross, the green light. Members declined to explain the decision, fueling speculation 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 Visitors’ Council fired the institution’s president, Teresa Sullivan, allegedly for acting too slowly to embrace online education; she was reinstated two weeks later after a public outcry.

University of Texas-Austin President William Powers announced he would retire after fierce battles with that system’s board, which tried to force him to step down after defending discrimination positive in admissions and fended off criticism from allies of then Governor Rick Perry. Powers also ordered the children of lawmakers and other influential people to be accepted over objections from his admissions office.

The Florida State University board of trustees has appointed John Thrasher, a longtime powerful state senator, as chairman, despite strong opposition from faculty and students who said the board Directors had followed the orders of Governor Rick Scott, who appoints six of its 13 members and whose re-election Thrasher campaign ran.

And the board of trustees of Mississippi public universities and colleges 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 details.

Related: Students Demand Answers After Ole Miss’s Board oust Chancellor

“There are reckless things that are 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 that you are supposed to be there to think in the best interests of the whole institution, not a lobby on behalf of narrow interests. “

Chandler McKinley, a sophomore at the University of Mississippi, said he didn’t know much about what his state’s board had done until his controversial decision, which also sparked a outcry among students, faculty and alumni.

Now, McKinley said, he’s doing it.

“They are there to serve the people,” he said on the university’s Oxford campus. “They are appointed or elected because of us. And I hope they realize that they have left the majority of people unsatisfied.

As for Jones, the Chancellor, he retaliated by urging people to start paying attention to the group behind his ouster.

They are expected to “closely monitor the process of finding the next chancellor,” Jones said in a statement. The board “will make a better decision knowing that you are engaged and that they are responsible.”

There is consensus on at least one thing, said Jane Wellman, higher education policy analyst and adviser to the National Commission on College and University Governance: The way universities are run is changing. switch.

“Without being derogatory, the reality is that we have had advice that has been more ceremonial than not, and has acted as overseers and keepers of the seal,” Wellman said. “University presidents and professors probably liked this and don’t particularly appreciate tighter oversight. But that’s not the reality now. Boards need to do more than fundraise and hire the president, then sit down. “

Kayleigh Skinner of the Hechinger Report in Oxford, Mississippi, contributed to this story, which was produced by The Hechinger Report, an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on inequalities and innovation in education. Learn more about higher education.

PBS NewsHour’s coverage of higher education is supported by the Lumina Foundation and American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.


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