College Trustees Shouldn't Sit Around Like Potted Plants

For higher education, the fat years are behind and lean years loom ahead. Small, tuition-driven schools will have to make adjustments or go bankrupt.

Doing so is hard, and the difficulty is compounded by the way colleges are run. We have “shared governance” among the administration, the faculty, and the board of trustees. In today’s Martin Center article, Michael Bills, who is a trustee and recently wrote a dissertation on the problems of college governance, discusses the need for strong leadership in times of crisis.

Bills writes, “The problem is that the board has shunned its fiduciary duties by abdicating responsibility to the president and the faculty.” While the trustees are supposed to have ultimate decision-making authority, we usually find a messy, political battle among the three groups that share power.

In Bills’ view, trustees tend to suffer from four problems: problem blindness, deference to the president, loss aversion, and unrealistic optimism.

Something that trustees should consider is replacing the president if he or she doesn’t seem up to the “turnaround” job. “My suggestion,” writes Bills, “is that they begin by dusting off the job description used when hiring their current president. Does that job description look like a turnaround president? Does your president have the skills and temperament to lead your institution through this crisis?”

Presidents who have been absorbed in virtue signaling to prove their dedication to “progressivism” should probably be given the boot.

Bills concludes, “Institutions that survive this crisis will be the ones that recognize and act upon this power. Boards of small, private, tuition-dependent colleges are going to have to be more engaged, inquisitive, and assertive than ever before. Old, ineffective, hands-off strategies like ‘back him and sack him’ aren’t going to turn around a struggling institution.”  

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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