11/13/2014 04:54 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2015

Consequential Boards: Strengthening College and University Governance

The value of American higher education faces multiple risks, and changes in governance are needed to address them. Changes in governance are needed to empower leadership, facilitate good decision making, and balance institutional interests with the public's needs for higher education. Without better stewardship, we foresee a real possibility of a continued slow decline in the quality and capacity of our nation's colleges and universities, and with that, further increases in the social and economic stratification that threaten our cultural and economic future.

The colleges and universities of today are not the same from those of previous generations. Students, faculty, facilities, programs, technology, and finances are all different. Yet institutional governance structures are largely unchanged from those of not just the twentieth but the nineteenth century. Processes are cumbersome and inwardly focused, roles and responsibilities among multiple actors are contested, and information for decision making is poor. The traditions of shared governance and academic freedom so important to institutional integrity and to the role of higher education in a democracy are maintained in policy but increasingly ignored in practice. Signs of pressure on governance are everywhere: polarized boards, faculty votes of no-confidence, rapid presidential turnover, and increased scrutiny from federal and state governments about the quality and finances of a sector that is no longer trusted to govern itself.

To address these and other challenges, the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities organized a national commission to look under the hood of higher education governance and to develop specific, actionable changes in higher education boards to set the course for necessary changes ahead. The Commission is comprised of 26 men and women with diverse experience and often divergent perspectives, all of whom share a collective passion for the importance of higher education to the future of our society. Their report, Consequential Boards describes the challenges facing higher education in our country and the changes needed to restore public trust in the leadership of our nation's colleges and universities. Aimed at both public and independent institutional boards, the commission recommends a number of specific steps needed to address the critical issues facing almost all institutions, beginning with a focus on the unique role of boards in strategic decision making and fiduciary oversight. Recommendations for change include: clarifying the role of boards, streamlining board committees and responsibilities, improving data and decision making about finances (including not just fund raising but a better focus on how money is spent), and rebuilding traditions of shared governance to align them with the realities of today's workforce and finances. They also call for boards to become more accountable for their own performance, by themselves modelling the types of behavior they expect in others.

The recommendations will be controversial with constituencies both inside and outside of the academy, many of whom will prefer to maintain the status quo rather than give up some imagined power to influence decision making. Some college presidents and faculty want boards that don't ask too many questions and focus on fundraising and institutional boosterism. There are legislators and governors, in turn, who want boards that carry out their agendas, whatever those might be. Many alumni want institutions that look like the ones they went to. Students want lower tuitions, along with better facilities.

The days when conflicts about institutional priorities could be safely papered over with new money are over. We aren't going to solve our nation's needs for better performance in higher education by rolling back the clock to a time of generous finances and uncritical public belief in the wisdom of institutional decision makers. The American public recognizes the importance of higher education to our country's future, and they are demanding more from it. Just as corporate board members have a fiduciary duty to shareholders, college and university trustees have a duty to us all. We call upon these boards to add value where it matters most and engage in truly consequential governance.