The Corner


College Boards Must Reassert Themselves

A student wears a protective mask, following the recommended precautions as students prepare for Spring Break and an extended period of online classes due to the coronavirus outbreak at Syracuse University in New York, March 13, 2020. (Maranie Staab/Reuters)

If it often seems as though our colleges and universities have no adult leadership, allowing radical faculty and crazed students to run wild, that’s because the people who are supposed to be the sensible leaders — the trustees — are usually asleep at the switch.

The Martin Center has just released a new study on this problem, written by Jay Schalin. It is entitled “Bolstering the Board” and Jenna Robinson writes about the study in today’s article. 

She writes:

Legally, for the most part, boards are still the ultimate authorities. The statutes and charters that put them there are still in force. But, in practice, they have been shoved aside by more self-interested factions. Decisions made at lower governance levels are given no scrutiny before boards vote them into policy. And policies enacted at the board level are ignored by consensus or by obstinate individual employees — or are negated by the need to conform to accrediting agencies or federal guidelines. Today, most college and university boards have been reduced to rubber-stamp committees.

Absolutely right. Most trustees just want the perks and steer away from work and confrontation.

Schalin identifies the root of the problem as the tradition of “shared governance” with the faculty. The trouble is that trustees have been shirking their responsibilities for a long time.

Robinson sums up his argument this way:

The main reason that boards need to be in control for higher education, Schalin says, is that many important decisions in higher education must be made at the societal level. The board is the only major stakeholder that is more in tune with the rest of society than with academia; it is they who should have the final word on the intellectual direction of the institution. The faculty originally was able to force shared governance because they had intellectual expertise that the board lacked; it was assumed that such expertise was necessary to make good decisions about the curriculum. But it is becoming all too apparent that such expertise is often subject to tunnel vision and groupthink.

For the study, go here.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.


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