The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

To regain support for colleges, trustees need to step up

(Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Richard D. Legon is president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. He serves on the Board of Trustees of Spelman College and formerly served on the Board of Visitors of Virginia State University. Here, he argues that trustees are key to regaining public trust in higher education. 

As with all developments that seem to arise out of nowhere, the seeds of the national disenchantment with higher education were planted long ago.

Today, we can quantify just how many Americans have fallen away from the long-held view that a college education is a reliable ticket to the middle class and beyond in poll after poll after poll.

Perspective: How higher education lost Washington

There are lots of answers to the question being asked on campuses across the country: How did we get here?

Some, like Jeff Selingo writing for The Washington Post, pin the blame on presidents and chancellors who don’t spend enough time in Washington (though woe betide those who do and are criticized at home for not being on campus enough).

Others thoughtfully and rightly identify the challenges that higher education faces in the areas of affordability, access and responsiveness to changing needs of the workforce and interests of our students.

Some blame perceived elitism of our faculty and administrators, which seems to be in diametrical opposition to the “real American” forces that brought the Trump administration to power.

Still others point to our struggle to tell our story, quantify our outcomes and articulate our relevance.

While the paths to this point are many, the indicators that we’ve reached a nadir in our public perception are perhaps nowhere as clear as on Capitol Hill.

While higher education avoided some significant issues in the final tax bill, the legislation did contain several provisions aimed squarely at colleges and universities. Meanwhile, the long-overdue reauthorization of the Higher Education Act kicks off with a House bill that will also make higher education more expensive and more difficult to access, and limit our ability to root out fraud and abuse.

Here’s how Washington could shape higher education in 2018

Whatever the reason for our industry’s fall in the eyes of policymakers and the public that elected them, we’re now reaping its bitter fruit.

The discussion of how we got here is an important one, but the urgency of this moment requires us to focus on solutions. How do we regain the trust of the American people? Of policymakers in Washington and in state capitals across the country?

When it comes to policy, Selingo suggests that presidents and chancellors need to employ a full-court press with their elected representatives in Washington, and that might help. But institutional leaders carry with them all the baggage that institutions do — questions about value, cost, compensation and relevance.

However, trustees — local and regional business and community leaders charged with the financial oversight and strategic direction of our institutions — carry little of that baggage and are perhaps even better positioned to lobby for our industry than presidents are.

In recent years, trustees have been curiously absent from national discussions about the challenges and issues facing higher education.

In recent polling of college and university trustees, which the AGB conducted in partnership with Gallup, I was shocked to learn that fewer than 25 percent of respondents had contacted their elected officials about a policy issue related to higher education in the last year.

Be it policy debates or the larger narrative on the value of higher education to individuals and society, the lack of trustee voices in national conversations about our industry is, at this point, dangerous.

Those who have the privilege to serve as fiduciaries and stewards for their institutions must embrace their responsibility to be advocates on the state and national level. Higher education must reclaim the public’s trust, but that is nearly impossible unless trustees are activated and become engaged beyond the confines of their own campuses.

As the president of the largest association representing trustees in Washington, I’ve delivered this news to our membership and underscored for them the stakes.

It’s my fervent hope that they’re standing ready to assist. Presidents and chancellors can’t absent themselves from these crucial discussions, to be sure, but higher education can’t afford for trustees to absent themselves any longer.