02/15/2013 03:27 pm ET Updated Apr 17, 2013

College and University Board Independence Strengthens the Nation

This isn't a political essay, although some readers may interpret it to be so. Rather I would like to comment on the essential values of higher education and the trust that we place in the boards of colleges and universities -- in particular, those that govern public institutions -- to steward those institutions in ways that benefit the long-term interests of our nation.

Public colleges and universities, on the front lines of meeting the nation's call for increased numbers of graduates, remain challenged by fiscal realities, namely severely reduced state appropriations and cuts in federal research support. Tuition increases, cost containment, and productivity enhancement can help balance budgets, but those efforts frequently attract attention from policy makers and the public.

In fact, governors are increasingly questioning the cost and relevance of these essential academic institutions. Some want to target workforce development and immediate returns on research spending as the predominant priorities of their state's colleges and universities. From where has such short-term thinking come? As Hunter Rawlings of the Association of American Universities, and his associate, Lillian Aoki, stated in a recent Huffington Post column, "Higher education is not one-size-fits-all; many students go to college to gain an education that will open up a lifetime of opportunities."

Public colleges and universities clearly should take responsibility for workforce development, and, in fact, community and technical colleges and the career-focused programs of our four-year universities do so. But our political leaders should not sacrifice what makes our public institutions invaluable to America's overall needs: preparing students to make lasting contributions to our democratic (and increasingly diverse) society and instilling lifelong learning skills that enable them to cope with inevitable life and career changes over the long haul.

Some proposals discussed in state capitals have gone so far as to require colleges to report starting salaries from their graduates' first jobs. But do we want to penalize institutions if their graduates spend two years in the Peace Corps, Teach for America, or AmeriCorps? Jobs are not careers. Such short-term thinking also ignores the reality of our current marketplace and economy -- not to mention what is best for the future of our country.

There are some 10,000 board members -- appointees, but volunteers all -- who hold ultimate authority over public colleges and universities. State economies and citizens look to the good work that these board members do on behalf of the institutions they oversee.

Governors and legislators who select and confirm the people who serve on public institution governing boards should expect their appointees to weigh all considerations and use their best judgment for the long-term good of the institutions that they oversee, as well as of the states and communities those institutions serve. Elected leaders, regardless of their views on what higher education should or shouldn't be doing, must value independent judgment on governing boards.

Why would a political appointee, as most public board members are, require full independence from those to whom they owe their position? Because otherwise, higher education becomes overly politicized, and its ability to serve the long-term interests of society is compromised. What distinguishes our higher education governance model is the buffer it can provide institutions from unrealistic expectations and political intrusion.

Governors certainly have the right -- indeed the obligation -- to frame priorities for their respective states and higher education systems. And, by all means, they should not hesitate to express their concerns to the boards of their state's colleges and universities. But the independence of our great public university system's oversight is what fuels its success. If our governing boards are composed of "yes men and women" who view their role as that of being the voice of the governor or other political leaders, then board members will do damage to higher education. I've witnessed such efforts at intrusion by state elected leaders from both major political parties.

I implore governors and legislators to select board members based on their wisdom, judgment, impartiality, appreciation of the enduring values of higher education, deep concern about the future of their state or community, and demonstrated understanding of how to lead a complex enterprise. Today, added to the everlasting necessity to balance state needs and priorities with institutional aspirations, our public higher education institutions must grapple with new financing models and educational delivery methods, including online education. Boards must help steward their institutions through such changes.

Our institutions of higher learning have been governed by boards acting independently since our Colonial period. Let us not compromise that most essential (and historic) value--one that has largely worked well--for temporary political expediency.

Richard D. Legon is president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) in Washington, D.C. He is a board member of Spelman College and previously served on the board of Virginia State University.