Reforming the Governance of Our Universities

Here’s my challenge to you:

Choose any public university. Now figure out the names of the folks who serve as members of that institution’s governing board. It might be called a Board of Trustees, or a Board of Regents, or a Board of Visitors, or a Board of Supervisors.

Some universities will have more than one governing board. For example, when I served as President of McNeese State University, there was a Board of Supervisors that monitored the nine universities comprising the University of Louisiana System, of which McNeese was a member. There was also an umbrella board known as the Board of Regents that made funding decisions and set broad policy direction for all colleges and universities in the state, including the University of Louisiana System.

Now find the answer to the following question: How did those individuals–the ones you found for your favorite university–get appointed to that position? Sometimes the process can be found by going to the board’s website.  But that’s only the surface answer.

In almost every state of the union you will discover statutes that authorize the governor to appoint a majority of the board members. Rarely do those statutes require any qualifications other than residency, which sometimes involves congressional districts.

To get to the real answer you’ll need to ponder the following question: How likely is it that these board members were considered for their respective appointments because of their contributions to the political campaign of the governor who appointed them?

During my eleven years as a university president the answer to that question was always Very Likely. And also very sad.

It was nothing short of tragic to witness those political appointees–some of whom had struggled to finish their bachelor’s degrees–looking down at those academic leaders from on high. And, in some cases, challenging highly educated university administrators about curricular decisions far beyond their own level of understanding.

It was even worse to watch those board members who felt they were appointed to further a political agenda or ideology. “Let’s teach those pointy-headed intellectuals a lesson!”

I’ll be spending several blog sessions on the need for reformation of our public board appointment processes.

But for now, it’s a worthwhile exercise just to gather the facts.