The governing boards of public universities have long provided political plums that governors and senior legislators love to hand out. But most state residents probably don’t know the oversight boards even exist until there’s a problem. That’s exactly what happened in the last week as lingering issues erupted into full-blown crises in two states, illustrating why reform of those boards is long overdue.
First, in North Carolina, former U.S. education secretary Margaret Spellings resigned as president of North Carolina’s public university system, ending a tumultuous three-year tenure dogged by controversy and infighting within a board that didn’t choose her.
That was followed by a decision this week from University System of Maryland Board of Regents to keep the head football coach and athletic director at the College Park campus following a football player’s death, but accept the retirement of the campus president, Wallace D. Loh (who a day later wound up firing the football coach). After a severe backlash, board chair James T. Brady resigned on Thursday.
While the politics of these two boards are very different, they are both charged with supervising massive and diverse statewide systems. The North Carolina system has 17 campuses, including major research institutions — North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Maryland’s regents oversee a dozen campuses, from tiny University of Maryland Eastern Shore to the flagship in College Park, which has 40,000 students; 10,000 faculty and staff; a $2.1 billion annual budget and, of course, a Division I athletics program.
The tumult in Maryland and North Carolina revealed university systems that have become almost ungovernable. It’s absurd to think that just a single board made up of political appointees who are volunteers can do an effective job of oversight in an era when universities face a multitude of risks. At any given meeting, these boards face decisions as mundane as approving new academic programs and as consequential as signing off on hundreds of millions of dollars in expenditures.
In my two decades covering higher education, I have found that public university board members often come to these positions with little knowledge of how colleges and universities actually work. If they’re graduates of one of the institutions, they are wed to the way they operated when they were students. Given their day jobs or their political persuasion, they usually have pet issues and rarely pay much attention to anything else on the agenda until it reaches a crisis stage.
The problem is, a number of issues have reached that crisis point in public higher education, requiring vigilance and action by engaged boards. Athletics is certainly one of those issues, as campus leaders at Michigan State University and the University of Louisville have lost their jobs because of sports scandals. At the same time, the financial underpinning of public universities is collapsing as states reduce direct financial support. That leaves these boards in a critical position to figure out how to ensure access for state residents even as they look for new ways to pay for operations.
There is no simple answer to fix public university governing boards. Governors and lawmakers urgently need to name well-qualified candidates for the posts rather than dole out these positions to supporters. Another key reform is to require board members to take courses that explain how institutions operate and how their state fits into the broader higher education landscape. Finally, in addition to “superboards” overseeing a dozen or more institutions, states should consider specialized boards that oversee just flagship universities. After all, the needs of the University of Maryland at College Park are vastly different from those of Frostburg State University.
When Spellings announced last week she would leave the North Carolina post in March, she alluded to conflicts with the board as one of the major reasons for her resignation. “Governance is always being calibrated and recalibrated over and over, and that’s part of the fun of the job,” she said. “The time is right for me to really step back and reflect on how many licks do I hit? How many rodeos do I have? What’s in my future? And move on.”
Public opinion of higher education is at an all-time low, according to polls. People think college costs too much and doesn’t prepare students for the workforce, and they worry about what they see as misplaced priorities on campuses — whether that’s controversies over athletics or free speech.
Governing boards may operate in relative obscurity, but when they make decisions that garner public attention, like those in North Carolina and Maryland, those pronouncements tend to shape the public’s view of higher education. Given the importance of a college degree in today’s economy, campuses can hardly afford to continue to lose public support.
The university systems these boards oversee are far more complex than what existed when the boards were created and the state provided the bulk of the university’s funds. The time has come for states to rethink the role of their boards and raise their level of professionalism to equal the vastness of their operations and the task at hand.