College trustees are board members, and then some

November 25, 2011

The opinions expressed are her own.

Recent news around Penn State and the “Occupy” Movement on university campuses has thrown the role of the college and university trustee into the headlines and it is worth having a closer look at the role of the board of trustees and what it means to sit on the board of a higher education institution.

Like all boards, college and university boards have a general obligation to be caretakers of the organization and look after the interests of all its stakeholders, but in the higher education sector this role is layered with more complexity than it is for most corporate entities. After all, they are shaping the minds of future generations and it is the last opportunity to do that in a collective setting before a class of future scientists and artists, politicians and teachers, entrepreneurs and journalists spreads out into the world.

The role of the trustee of a college or university is not for the faint of heart, as the university board carries a long list of complex issues that require the trustee’s attention. There are a myriad of competing pressures that higher educational institutions face, no matter where they are in the world. Some are long standing issues, and some are new, and many are heightened by the economic crisis.

The economic factors that impact institutions including dwindling public funds and spiraling costs juxtaposed with economic hardship hitting students and the increasing need for financial aid. Feelings are heightened because of a sense of ownership by students, alumnae, faculty & staff.  Idealism runs high.

They must strive to provide an environment, with modern, purpose-built facilities, committed and engaged staff, an inquisitive and curiosity-driven culture, all in an international context, that allows them to turn out the next generation of professionals and leaders in all sectors of society. Also, they are expected to produce world-leading research, and also have input into informed public debate and policy. They have a long standing commitment to make their alumnae and current students proud, and also to assure parents that this is the best place to send their children. They must have balanced books and raise money for capital investment, student experience, research, and continued growth and expansion. Coupled with all of this, is the complexity of an institution in constant motion, transition and growth: the student constituency changes, there is often frequent faculty and staff turnover, particularly of those faculty who are untenured. Also, there is a drive to be successful in sports, something that perhaps has a huge focus in the US (though anyone who has experienced the Oxford Cambridge Boat Race can attest it is felt elsewhere in the world as well).

Balance with all of this, the obligation to educate is overarching, and it is a real opportunity to lead through example of deed rather than just through word in the classroom. This applies to all areas from responsible investment policies to creating sustainable infrastructure, as well as creating an environment for freedom of speech.

To accomplish all of this requires a very capable executive team, but, like in the corporate world, it also needs a board that can engage with them, challenging and encouraging them to ensure that they are doing what is necessary to future proof the institution, and to ensure that they doing both the tactical “grounding” work, but also the future proofing strategic “stargazing” work.

Like corporate board, boards of colleges and universities have audit, finance, governance, and nominations committees, but in addition they often require other committees that reflect their different or added responsibilities, such as an investment committee, development committee, student affairs committee, and more.

These boards tend to be very large, indeed perhaps too large. The people who serve on college and university boards often come to the table with different levels of skills, experience, and motivations. Along with independent members, who are themselves often alumnae, there are official alumnae representatives, as well as student, staff and faculty representatives. (I should note that when I was in college I served for a couple of years as a student representative on the board of trustees. It was my first exposure to the boardroom and a window into a world not normally given to an 18 year old. It was the first time I began to have an appreciation for what a boardroom is, and indeed what it is not, all about. It was an incredibly valuable experience and one that, as I look back, has helped shape some of my own thinking about the boardroom.)

Above all else, serving on these boards should not be an ego trip or a post sold to the highest donor, but should be undertaken mindfully, wholeheartedly, and with a strong mix of passion and dispassion.

For the board of the University of California system, that means ensuring that the administration is not complicit in pepper spraying peaceful students, but turns times of tension and conflict into opportunities for dialogue and into a teaching and learning moment.

For the trustees of Penn State, who are grappling with the scandal of pedophilia and its subsequent shameful cover up, that means not willfully turning a blind eye to serious issues. The “see no evil hear no evil” posture is not going to fly. Time magazine asked Penn State trustee Ron Tomalis if he’d seen the Harrisburg Patriot-News article, where the grand jury details of the Sandusky case were made public; he said he had, but the trustees chose not to act on it because their were “secret grand jury proceedings” happening concurrently, even though their content was clearly no longer much of a secret.

It is time for all of us to look again at the boards of educational institutions and to make sure they are fit for purpose. Colleges and universities are like small cities (sometimes even large ones) and governing them takes responsibility and a strong sense of purpose.

Do these boards have the most capable independent directors? Are they asking the hard questions that need to be asked and are they holding the institutions to a higher standard? Are the board members genuinely engaged and committed? Is the balance of power in the room correct, or does the administration keep uncomfortable or inconvenient truths from the board members?

Higher education institutions are amongst the most challenging to lead, and they require the best possible people in the board room. It is time for us all to look at that more carefully.


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This is a welcome addition to a conversation that’s long overdue. Higher education governance and accountability has remained immune from public scrutiny, largely, in my view, due to the mistaken belief that the stature accorded such institutions (and their people) exempts them somehow (miraculously) from abusing or misusing their power.

It’s a mystery / mastery thing.

But as we’ve seen with other governing boards where the assumption is, “They know what they’re doing. They’re smarter and more successful than I am,” this just ain’t so. Fallibility knows no bounds.

Even as the governance structures vary (as do appointment methods – the governing boards for some public universities are elected, as is the case in several US states, including my home state of Michigan), the core obligations do not. At a time when commercialization seems to have trumped purpose, when market values drive decision-making far more than they should, when far too much autonomy lies with academic departments, and when current and future digital alternatives will pop the current higher-ed-industrial-complex bubble — really, how can we continue to tolerate escalating prices when higher ed’s mechanics and outcomes remain so blurry, a black box of uncertainty? — let’s make this the beginning of a sustained and serious effort to assure good governance in these agents of civilization.

Bravo, Lucy!

Posted by MarcyMurninghan | Report as abusive

[…] there is a drive [at universities] to be successful in sports, something that perhaps has a huge focus in the US (though anyone who has experienced the Oxford Cambridge Boat Race can attest it is felt elsewhere in the world as […]

Posted by University Diaries » Oh, yes, quite the same thing. | Report as abusive

I believe your post will go a long way in supporting the call for a more serious approach to Board Development in universities.

Personally, your post sets me up nicely for my first engagement as a trustee of a University in London. So thank you for a great post.

Posted by ohcsolutions | Report as abusive

This is an important call for serious fiduciary responsibility on the part of boards that tend, for various reasons, to behave more in an advisory than a governance role. There are many reasons for this, which I see as an extension of a general problem of nonprofit boards. My direct experience was as an officer of a small private university who attended many board meetings and met extremely a smattering of smart business people, some from Fortune 100 companies, who entirely lost their fiduciary senses and saw themselves operating basically as a booster club for the president. On another occasion I reviewed the strategic plans (ahem, “strategic plans”) of a network of c. 100 private colleges. 57 I read and tried to digest for the network. Perhaps 3 or 4 would be recognizable as serious efforts at strategy in a business environment. None was much good. Most had board endorsement of one kind or another. Many were essentially presidential efforts at giving cover for change when they came into office, or quelling faculty/board dissent (“help get thus monkey off my back,” said one president to me in an interview). I am happy to believe that in larger private and in public institutions things are very different. They are different species; but I suspect the same genera.

Posted by NigelCameron | Report as abusive

That was an interesting article with interesting posts.

Posted by M.C.McBride | Report as abusive

I commend the author for her valuable insights. Institutions entrusted with the education of a nation’s leaders must be overseen by minds capable and willing to identify impending failure and respond succinctly and appropriately.

Alas, hardly any board of trust saved its institution of higher learning from risky investments that were supposed to fund the extravagant infrastructure expansion of the past twenty years and helped prevent the catastrophic portfolio losses in the financial crisis of 2008.

Image and perceptions attained overarching importance. Conformism and emulation are ubiquitous. Everybody seeks comfort in copying the Ivy League. Monolithic thinking reigns. The educational bubble is still to burst.

Read more here: 2/financial-crisis-higher-education.html

Posted by PeterMelzer | Report as abusive