Crisis at U-Va.: Drawing back the curtain on a deeply flawed trustee system


University of Virginia Rector Helen E. Dragas talks about the decisions of the Board of Visitors after the board met in a closed meeting, Tuesday, June 19, 2012. (Sabrina Schaeffer/AP)
August 15, 2012

This piece is part of an On Leadership round table on rethinking university governance, in the wake of the U-Va. and Penn State crises.

This summer’s leadership crisis at the University of Virginia, precipitated by some board members’ sense of entitlement and a lack of experience with higher education, drew back the curtain on a deeply flawed system.

And one of those flaws can be traced back to a single number: 77 percent. That’s how many members serving on public university boards were appointed by their state’s governor, according to a 2010 report by the Association of Governing Boards.

This policy of gubernatorial appointment threatens trustees’ capacity to serve in good faith. Trustees should be free of political pressure. They also shouldn’t be entitled to roles of such oversight in return for financial contributions to campaigns or to the university. And though state allocations for higher education are shrinking, there’s little evidence that state power to shape university governance is anywhere on the decline.

A board of trustees should balance responsibility for its school’s fiscal integrity with sensitivity to educational investment in research and critical thinking. This work is not carried out to its fullest if trustees are beholden to special interests. Each trustee must have the opportunity to approach the role of governance with independence, an open mind, discipline, creativity and humility.

Yet only four states—Colorado, Michigan, Nebraska and Nevada—currently permit direct, public elections of board members. It’s an arrangement that offers a way around the appointment model, but even this approach neither minimizes the potential for conflict of interest nor provides adequate checks and balances in the nomination process. It also leaves unaddressed the importance of giving a university’s primary stakeholders adequate voice in the seating of a board.

Theere is a better alternative.

Each university should establish a selection committee whose charge it is to nominate and appoint trustees. The committee would be composed of alumni, business leaders, current faculty and administration, and figures with relevant experience from other academic institutions. The balanced composition would ensure protection of the institution’s financial health and educational missions.

It would do another thing too. The committee’s diverse representation would help correct such glaring problems as the gender disproportion on many current boards. According to the Association of Governing Boards, men occupied 72 percent of  board seats in 2010. This imbalance is egregious for multiple reasons, not least of which is the fact that today more women earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees than men do. The makeup of a public university’s board of trustees is thus, in all likelihood, far from reflecting the makeup of the student body it has been assembled to help oversee.

An additional benefit of this model is that the committee would be agile at securing future board members who are well suited to think through the impact technology will continue to have on higher education—from assessing the value of online education opportunities to analyzing the role social media plays in shaping a student’s university experience.

We saw U-Va.’s Board of Visitors struggle with the issue of technology’s potential to transform education. President Teresa Sullivan’s ouster was due in no small measure to the board leader’s perception that the university administration was not moving fast enough to invest in online education. The push for online ventures may have been justified, but the board’s mishandling of the matter suggests that it did not sufficiently appreciate the complexity of the issues at stake.

Good governance of contemporary American public universities requires a deep understanding of these institutions’ identities. Endowment building and creation of new knowledge are not their only missions. Equally important is their commitment to engaging students in the practice of critical thinking. It is a practice marked by healthy skepticism, respect for other perspectives, pleasure in finding connections among seemingly dissimilar phenomena, joy in asking questions, and, one might argue, appreciation for the mysteries of self and world.

Public universities need to be served by board members whose own ability to think critically is free of constraint. This ability is safeguarded only if trustees are selected in a way that fosters a diversity of views and is responsive to the multiple missions of higher education.

William G. Little is a professor in the department of media studies at the University of Virginia.

The full On Leadership round table on university trustees:

A bruising summer for governing boards

Drawing back the curtain on our deeply flawed trustee system

Three warning signs that university leadership is on autopilot

What we have here is failure to communicate

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