Good governance is a noble idea, but governing boards–trustees, regents, visitors–have until recently been generally regarded as entities residing outside the administrative org chart. Trustees–perhaps because they are generally not chosen from academic ranks–are regarded by faculty members as curious creatures with uncertain motives and powers. To the extent that they are regarded at all, they are given wide berth. I say “until recently” because there seems to be a growing movement to pit university administrators against their governing boards. Fanned by sensational stories about board intrigues, high-profile dismissals of college presidents, and clashes with powerful external interests, governing boards have all of a sudden become visible and controversial.
This is a happening at a time when standing outside the administrative org chart might be one of the few places to see what is really happening to an institution. The number of failed or unsustainable Institutions is rising, new technology is disrupting established business models, and the social contract with higher education is under pressure. The American public believes that governing boards need to play a larger role, but boards–whose members are often boosters and donors–may not have the necessary skills to do that. It is a new era. Like Mr. Smith, governing boards that want to assert their power will make many people uncomfortable. I think that discomfort is largely due to uncertainty about how governing boards want to operate in this new era. Old understandings about university governance have been crumbling, and CUNY Board Chair Benno Schmidt decided it was time to chart a new path forward.
Schmidt–a former president at Yale–and his Governance for a New Era Project has just issued a blueprint for governing boards. In the interests of full disclosure: I was a member of Benno’s project, along with sitting presidents, trustees, and other faculty members.
Our comments about the oversight responsibilities of trustees are not intended to diminish the responsibilities or powers of top institutional or academic leaders. The role of the chief executive officer is naturally crucial to the successful advancement of higher education institutions. And trustees must be able to rely on the president or chancellor in the development of policy and the operation of the institution. It is essential that chief executive officers be perceived as having trustees’ trust and confidence and that the flow of information be facilitated by the administration. Except in rare situations of crisis or in the selection of top administrators, trustees, who have final fiduciary authority, act through campus leaders who have day-to-day responsibilities for institutional management.
The signers of this document have come together to craft a bold new approach to governance— governance for a new era—recognizing that it is urgently needed if American higher education is to maintain the diversity and excellence that have for so long made it the envy of the world. We are a bipartisan group of diverse and independent leaders beholden to no organization in our participation in this governance project. Each of us might express these values in different ways, and we recognize and expect each institution to modify and adapt these principles to its own mission and culture. But the values we outline are ones that we all share and ones that we believe all trustees and all leaders in higher education must aggressively pursue, today and long into the future.
It is impossible for me to conceive of a path forward for American higher education that does not involve every component of an academic community jointly pursuing what the university’s mission. I hope the Schmidt report is read and discussed by faculty, administrators, and alumni.