Virginia Education Secretary Wilbert Bryant's recent comment that the commonwealth's public college trustees should think of themselves as "foot soldiers" whose duty is to promote Gov. James Gilmore's agenda showed a lack of understanding of trustee responsibilities.

No one suggests that trustees should ignore the opinions of state officials. A significant portion of public college and university funding comes from taxpayers, and with that money comes the need for accountability. But enlightened state officials recognize the advantages of taking an arm's-length approach both to setting policy and to monitoring management at institutions of higher education.

Citizen trustees provide that arm's length. The key for public college trustees -- and the point that seems to be poorly understood by some in Richmond -- is that for this system to work, trustees must be able to make independent judgments about the matters that come before them.

Trustees provide a layer of insulation from the abrupt political turns and ideological shifts that often occur in state government, because they answer directly neither to the governor nor to the presidents of their institutions. Citizen boards need this autonomy in order to serve the broad public interest and be effective advocates for the needs of their institutions -- two essential matters not mutually exclusive.

No single political party or leader has had a monopoly on proposals that are dangerous to higher education. At times, trustees also have had to prevent curricular excesses proposed by faculty or students. In the middle of recessions, they have had to ask for more funds, even though such spending might raise uncomfortable budget questions for a fiscally conservative governor. In state after state through history, trustees have thwarted short-run policy actions that would have caused irreparable harm.

One of the most difficult tasks trustees face today is balancing the viewpoints and needs of the state -- as articulated by its elected leaders -- with those of the institutions they hold in trust for current and future generations. The best judgment in such cases will come from trustees who are collectively responsible and independent and who can set aside ambition, politics, regional loyalties and other biases in favor of the public good.

Effective trusteeship is the only viable alternative to direct governmental control of higher education. Consequently, citizen trustees must be selected with great forethought, not for their personal ideologies or loyalties to one political party or another -- and certainly not as "foot soldiers" for anyone's agenda.

-- Richard T. Ingram

is president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.