Americans were shocked as students, faculty, and administrators at the country’s leading universities apologized for and even defended Hamas’s terrorist attack on Israel. The public backlash offers a rare opportunity for university reform.
We will leave it to future historians to sort out how America’s institutions of higher education fell so far from their founding visions. The urgent question now is how to fix the problem. One aspect that lies within universities’ power to fix is the ineffective oversight offered by university boards of trustees.
“Too many [trustees] have seen their role narrowly defined as boosters, cheerleaders, and donors,” the American Council of Trustees and Alumni declares in “Governance for a New Era,” a 2014 document. Trustees too often are passive figures, intermittently “dialing it in” as they enjoy the status conferred by their appointments.
The first step to reforming boards of trustees would require universities to ensure that those appointed to their boards are not selected for self-serving reasons. Universities desperately need trustees who focus their institutions on equipping students with the knowledge and cognitive skills required to flourish. Universities can and must identify properly motivated trustees.
Second, universities should ensure that their boards have a firm grasp of why and how their university functions. Universities are complex operations. Trustees often admonish universities to run themselves “like a business.” This perspective has some merit, but universities are in the business of creating public goods and social value by generating knowledge and developing future leaders—both long-term goals that don’t always align easily with bottom-line thinking. Trustees need to understand this.
Ideally, each board member would offer a unique set of capabilities and perspectives. The board should include the voices of faculty, students, administrators, and alumni. Ensuring the board has representatives from each of these cohorts gives it insights into academic matters and on-campus issues. For example, all Florida state school boards of trustees include one faculty member (selected by peers as faculty senate president) and one student member (selected by peers as student body president). Of course, while a board can benefit from having such representatives, it also can be challenged by conflicts of interest and provincial concerns of these interested parties. It is crucial that boards balance these interests.
Beyond student and faculty members, boards should also include trustees with financial and operational skills. You may not be able directly to map the operations of a public research university with those of a private enterprise, but universities can benefit from the private sector’s knowledge of how to run a tightly organized business. Skilled business executives’ insights and financial knowledge could be valuable very helpful, especially given the byzantine, government-influenced financial systems in which most universities operate. A good board can make sure that financial monitoring and reporting systems provide timely and useful information to university management.
Finally, universities could appoint external faculty to their boards of trustees. External faculty bring experience from other universities, sometimes with more efficient, effective, and innovative processes. They may have dealt with key issues such as academic freedom, intellectual diversity, and setting educational strategies. The most desirable external faculty will have considerable experience obtaining grants and gifts for research and programs. External faculty trustees who come from out of state reduce the potential for board cronyism, provided they do not have in-state business interests.
Reversing the rot in higher education is analogous to getting a supertanker in the ocean to make the proverbial 180-degree turn—it will take time and energy. One place to start is making sure that the people on the bridge—the trustees advising the universities—possess the motivation and skill to see it through.