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July 25, 2013 1:46 PM What’s the Problem with College Trustees?

By Daniel Luzer

PSUTrustees

Are trustees screwing up college governance? The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges apparently is planning to create a national commission to review college governance and make recommendations.

The problem AGB aims to correct is a little ambiguous, however. According to an article by Jenna Johnson in the Washington Post:

College governing boards — typically called trustees or regents — have been at the center of national controversies in the past few years, prompting questions about member selection, structure, accountability and operating practices.
Just as there have been examinations of corporate governing boards, the time has come to take a deep look at how universities and colleges are run, said Richard D. Legon, president of the governing board association. The commission plans to publish its recommendations in September 2014.

But, wait, what is the general problem here? Johnson:

Several governing boards have made national news in the past few years. The University of Virginia Board of Visitors continues to face questions about its operating practices after a failed ouster of the school’s president last year.
And the Penn State University Board of Trustees has come under fire for not asking enough questions about a grand jury investigation of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, convicted last year of abusing boys.

“These incidents are a sign of systemic problems,” Former Tennessee governor Philip Bredesen, who will lead the commission, told Johnson.

It’s unclear how the commission can recommend comprehensive changes, however. While in general it appears higher education governing boards aren’t big innovators (indeed, that’s sort of the point, they’re mostly rich alumni devoted to maintaining their school, not people who embrace every new education fad), the recent scandals actually don’t speak to any larger systemic problems a commission can address.

The Penn State trustees are coming under fire because they weren’t interested in figuring out what was going on with regard to Jerry Sandusky. They weren’t involved enough.

The UVA Board of Visitors, in contrast, is in trouble because its board chair tried to fire the school’s president when she resisted the board’s attempts to institute more untested technological innovation, innovation opposed by faculty and students. The board was too involved.

There are many recent scandals, of course, but are the scandals a sign of anything new? In fact college trustees have generated occasional scandals as long as they’ve been around. I look forward to reading what AGB discovers, but the truth is that trustee boards are particular to schools, and behave very differently according to their structural power and the personalities of their members. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer