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National commission will review how colleges are governed, recommend changes

The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges plans to announce Thursday the formation of a national commission to review how schools are governed and make recommendations for change.

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.

For decades, many of these boards were filled with boosters and major donors who were often criticized for being too quick to rubber-stamp proposals and too slow to ask difficult questions. As higher education undergoes rapid, significant change and confronts financial challenges, the makeup of the governing boards is also shifting.

Former Tennessee governor Philip N. Bredesen Jr. (D) will lead the commission, which will be made up of current and former college presidents and board members, business leaders, faculty representatives, association leaders, and industry experts. The group will include former University of Virginia president John Casteen III, University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. Kirwan and a former chairman of the University of Texas Board of Regents, Charles Miller.

Although the commission has yet to pick the topics it will tackle, Bredesen said that “there isn’t anything that’s not on the table.”

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.

“We want to lift the hood, if you will, on board governance, which is something that hasn’t really happened in 300 years,” said Legon, a trustee at Spelman College.

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. The University System of Maryland Board of Regents apologized last year for meeting in secret to discuss an athletic conference change, a violation of state law. In a few states, boards appointed by conservative governors have become adversaries of university administrators, publicly clashing on a range of issues.

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, Bredesen said, and a signal that a comprehensive review is needed.

Jenna Johnson is a political reporter who is covering the 2016 presidential campaign.

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