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).