Last week Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, wrote a thought-provoking commentary aptly titled “The Potty Trained Trustee” in Inside Higher Ed. Like Ms. Neal’s organization, her commentary is sufficiently outside the mainstream of “HigherEdThink” that I’m sure Ms. Neal will be dismissed as a crackpot by “The Academy.” But I am convinced that several of her main points are correct and deserving of some attention.
- First, Ms. Neal castigates the Association of Governing Board’s (AGB’s) “Survey of Higher Education Governance.” I must admit that I had been puzzled when I first saw a list of AGB’s supposed five major higher education issues, according to board trustees, several weeks ago. Not only was the football team’s record (or even athletics more generally) missing from the top of the list; it was not even ON the list. (Seriously, I wouldn’t expect athletics to be at the top of the list, but I would expect it to be on the list.) It turns out that, in an effort to figure out what trustees think is important, AGB surveyed, not trustees, but presidents and other administrators.
- Ms. Neal also criticizes HigherEdThink on the proper role of boards: “According to this view, higher ed administrations are the governance structure. Trustees for the most part should keep to their place and do as they are told by administrators. One might call it the potty-trained trustee….” She goes on to illustrate how pervasive the conventional wisdom is by pointing to a question on the survey that assumes that presidents select their own board members (their bosses!!!), which they frequently do. She also – very rightly – points out that private sector boards have been headed diametrically in the opposite direction over the last few years thanks to Sarbanes-Oxley, Enron, etc. and wonders why higher education has not been paying any attention.
- Third, Ms. Neal identifies the first of two issues concerning which board members should be paying particular attention: Current levels of higher education expenditure are unsustainable. Higher education costs are increasing at a faster clip than health care costs and a much faster clip than either personal income or consumer prices. Ms. Neal knows this trend cannot continue. She also knows that too many administrators’ heads are buried in the sand when it comes to meaningful cost controls. She thinks boards made up of people who have had to operate within a profit-and-loss statement’s bottom line could provide meaningful leadership on this front.
- Fourth, Ms. Neal identifies a role for board members in the academic arena. She thinks board members need to push The Academy to evaluate learning meaningfully and address issues like grade inflation. As Ms. Neal is well aware, the pressure to evaluate learning has come almost exclusively from outside The Academy in recent years, and no one can seem to tell you much about whether a student learned anything while attending college.
Over the next several weeks and months, I will discuss at greater length some of the main points that Ms. Neal raises. All are very relevant to West Virginia’s higher education system and some are key to escaping from the received wisdom of “HigherEdThink.”
PS: My favorite statistic from the AGB report: For 64% of private institution boards, the full board is told the president’s compensation … which logically means that in 36% of cases, the full board is not told and does not know the president’s compensation. How on earth could you claim to be fulfilling your fiduciary duty to the institution if you aren’t told the president’s salary? It makes you wonder what else those trustees are not told – a lot, I suspect.