After the terrible Penn State scandal broke, millions of questions were asked, among them, “Where were the trustees in all of this?” Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Every college governing board should interpret Penn State’s troubles as a clear warning of what happens when institutions lose sight of their educational mission.”
American colleges and universities have indeed lost sight of their educational missions, and not just because of the mania for winning sports teams. The curriculum has eroded, academic standards have slid, classes have become intensely politicized, and concerns about the school’s “brand” often trump everything else.
But is it realistic to expect boards of trustees to do anything about this? I think not.
Sure—trustees ought to try and might on occasion prevent school officials from making a bad decision. The trouble is that few trustees are motivated to insert themselves in battles to make significant changes at their college or university.
A recent study done by Public Agenda, “Still on the Sidelines: What Role Will Trustees Play in Higher Education Reform?” yields some insights into the thinking of trustees. Even though its sample of trustees was small (just 39 individuals), the statements reported give us a good idea of their thoughts and experiences. Here are several quotations from the “strong minority” who complain that boards rarely take a leadership role and merely “rubber stamp” whatever the administration wants.
“The university trusteeships are sought-after positions because there are benefits that go along with it, and so you’ve got people there for all the wrong reasons. You don’t have people sitting on these boards that are really interested and engaged in making change.”
“Trustees don’t really want to spend the substantial amount of time it takes to get up to speed on issues to [the point] where they can actually debate with an officer at the college.”
“This isn’t a case of bad people, but the system is set up to crush individual initiative [so that trustees] defer that initiative to the board chairman, and the chairman is led around the nose by the chancellor.”
“If you raise questions that other board members or administrators are uncomfortable with, they throw out the idea that ‘you are micromanaging.’”
Dartmouth College trustee T.J. Rodgers, the president and CEO of Cypress Semiconductor, amplified on those sentiments when he was interviewed in 2007 by the Wall Street Journal on his experience—which he calls “horrible.”
Rodgers wanted to pursue “just one substantive issue” namely “the quality of education at Dartmouth.” Unfortunately, he never got anywhere with that. Right off the bat, he was demonized by numerous Dartmouth faculty members who accused him of being retrograde, racist, sexist, and other epithets that had no basis in fact, but served as easy justifications for treating him like a pariah.
It is important to note that Rodgers was chosen in an unusual way. Dartmouth trustees had overwhelmingly been voted in by alumni from a slate of candidates selected by the administration. Knowing that he’d never make that list, he petitioned alumni to get enough signatures to put his name on the ballot.
He won, and that started a trend. In succeeding years, several other reform-minded candidates also won. Before those “outsiders” could get enough strength to affect board decisions, the Dartmouth administration pushed through a change in rules meant to prevent the election of more upstart candidates. Therefore, Dartmouth’s board will remain dominated by trustees who, in Rodgers’ words, “go to the board meetings to have a couple of banquets and meet a few students and feel good about ourselves and brag to compatriots that we’re indeed on the board of trustees of Dartmouth.”
The Dartmouth experience covers the two main reasons why boards of trustees cannot be expected to do much good.
First, the incumbent administration usually has a great deal of sway over the composition of the board. Presidents and chancellors would much rather deal with a “rubber stamp” board than one with a mind of its own, so they assert themselves to advance candidates who will be “supportive.”
Second, the sort of individual who is most apt to want a board seat is someone who, as Rodgers observes, simply wants to enjoy the perquisites of membership. People like that are unlikely to push back against policies that the president likes but which undermine the educational integrity of the school, such as an “anything goes” curriculum.
Rodgers’ experience in running Cypress Semiconductor is relevant to the problems with college boards. In 1996, he received a letter from Sister Doris Gormley, who was the Director of Corporate Social Responsibility for her order. She wanted Rodgers to appoint new trustees to the Cypress board who would give it racial and gender diversity.
His reply is the stuff of legend. His company’s board, he stated “is not a ceremonial watchdog, but a critical management function.” In order for it to fulfill its function, its members had to know the industry. To add members who could not help him make sound business decisions, but just for the sake of “diversity” would be, Rodgers argued “fundamentally wrong.”
The lesson here is that whereas the businessman T. J. Rodgers could get a board composed of people who could help make good strategic decisions, the college trustee T. J. Rodgers was like Gulliver bound down by the Lilliputians. Dartmouth’s governing cabal got the board it wanted—a ceremonial one.
No, not every CEO is like Rodgers, demanding a board composed exclusively of experts who will argue back and oppose decisions they think are bad ones. Such a board, however, is almost inconceivable in the non-profit world of higher education. Lacking the guide-star of a Profit and Loss Statement, colleges are apt to wander off course and with boards composed mostly of people who want to enjoy the ride, there is nothing to put them back on course.
It appears that American higher education is going to become much more competitive than in the past. If so, many traditional schools may crash for the lack of a governing board that’s willing and able to help the president when the waters get turbulent.