08/25/2014 07:50 am ET Updated Oct 25, 2014

Putting the "Trust" Back in Trustee: The Role of the Trustee in College Governance

Last week, a group convened by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni issued a report examining the role of trustees in college and university governance.

The report, titled "Governance for a New Era: A Blueprint for Higher Education Trustees," suggested the trustees should take a more active role by establishing definable institutional metrics, promoting academic freedom, enhancing program quality, and holding administrators and faculty more accountable for their contributions to their institutions.

On a "nuts and bolts" level, the report passes the test of what are reasonable standards of governance. Trustees have three areas of primary authority: to serve as financial stewards; protect institutional integrity as legal guardians under the charter, by-laws, and articles of incorporation and organization; and hire, nurture, and replace the president, as needed.

As the report suggests, it is reasonable to establish a dashboard of institutional metrics, support a balanced academic program, and ask for standards by which excellence is measured and promoted among faculty and staff. It is also fair to assert that trustees - together with faculty and administrative leadership - must be more aggressive when governing given the enormous stress under which colleges and universities operate.

The question is not so much whether trustees should seek to become better at what they do, but rather how they propose to do so. And in this regard, there are three problems with the report.

The first is that the college and university governance is seen in this report through a political and ideological lens. Arguably, there is nowhere where politics is played more intensively on smaller turf for less at stake than at American colleges and universities. It can be a blood sport. But good governance presumes that institutions that operate wisely keep the politics out of the board meetings whenever possible and from spilling out beyond the doors of the faculty senate.

In the end, it is less about the need to increase trustee authority than to retain board chairs, presidents and faculty leaders who know how to balance competing claims through strong, sensitive and transparent leadership.

It is also true that governors, and others who live in intense political climates, appoint like-minded individuals as trustees. In a sense, it reflect both the narrowness of their experience as politicians and a strategy to move the agenda at what some of them perceive as inertia-ridden, conservative colleges and universities interested in protecting the status quo. And, it is also true that faculties often have vocal ideologues that can impede good governance, although they may not represent the majority views of their colleagues as a whole.

Colleges and universities have campus community personalities as different as the individuals who make them up. But should college governance really be held subject to petty partisan politics? Are the political inequities described in this report more anecdotal or fact-based and ultimately do they damage the institution's growth, reputation and standing?

Indeed, do campus political inequities represent a failure in trusteeship authority or a need for trustees to communicate more clearly with faculty and staff what their expectations are and how they wish them to be measured within acceptable lines of authority?

Before trustees push an institutional agenda with renewed vigor, it may be a better strategy to look at how colleges build their boards. Trustees are part-time volunteers with their hands outside and noses under the tent, as one president suggested. It does not equip them to be in-residence experts based upon four weekend visits to the campus. As the report suggests, trustees are often only as good as the information provided upon which they must set policy.

Put another way, trustees must begin service as neophytes who must be educated about non-profits operating under shared governance with multiple constituencies in the world of social media. It can be an overwhelming experience. Education is key to good governance, whether trustees, administrative staff and faculty are the students in the seats.

Finally, when the smoke clears many of the issues that the report identified can be handled by the dashboard metrics that the college or university develops. It can be daunting to move American higher education forward on a clear course when its institutions behave like the Titanic and the leaders see only the icebergs ahead. But they do control the ship. It might be better policy to put the checks and balances into their metrics than to point endlessly to the icebergs on the starboard side.

If change is to occur - as it must - as American colleges and universities adapt to the dramatic shifts affecting them in the 21st Century, it will happen only if trustees, faculty, and staff approach each other as equals. Name calling under the guise of ideology or politics only causes the offended parties to dig in their heels deeper.

There will be a shakeout in which some colleges and universities will do better than others. Those that prosper will put into place much of what this report suggests is needed. Yet their efforts must be built upon respect, a sense of openness and urgency, and a belief that even the captains of ships like the Titanic will have the common sense to avoid the icebergs on the open seas.