The Absent Trustees

The trustees of American universities, who theoretically direct the affairs of the institutions, are important. Or at least they could be important. Their power, for instance, is part of the reason for organizations like the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which exists to try and get higher education to behave differently.

Except it turns out trustees aren’t really interested in innovations. According to an article by Jack Stripling in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

There is unsurprising consensus among college trustees that declining resources are a serious and immediate problem for higher education, but most board members are disinclined to challenge the assumptions of their presidents or to advocate for radical changes in campus operations, a new study finds.

Board members, for instance, are unlikely to propose fundamental changes, like replacing “seat time” in classes for self-paced individualized learning, the report states. They also seem largely unfamiliar with controversial efforts to assess faculty productivity in states such as Texas.

In some ways this is unfortunate—especially because many pundits and policymakers are now advocating for major reforms in higher education—but it shouldn’t really be that surprising. Trustees are mostly appointed for their wealth and their generosity toward certain schools. They’re not around because they’re major intellectual leaders.

Furthermore, as one trustee pointed out to Stripling, “It’s an honor to be on the public board, but it’s an honor that tends to accrue to people in the later stages of life, after they’ve already achieved some kind of prominence at some usually unrelated discipline.”

And usually it’s an entirely unrelated, corporate discipline. They don’t really know how universities work and, in large part, they’re not really interested in learning.

Read the report, by Public Agenda, here.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer