Better Boards

In my most recent book, We’re Smothering Our Universities, I hypothesized a scene wherein the famous artist, Michelangelo, was forced to paint the Sistine Chapel under the supervision of a political board comprised of non-artists. My conclusion was that Michelangelo would have quit the job fairly quickly rather than adjust each ceiling tableau to fit the whims of aesthetically challenged supervisors.  Creative people tend to work best when we trust them and leave them alone.

Am I saying, by analogy, that we should allow our public universities to operate without boards?

In part, yes. Modern universities are operating under too many levels of scrutiny, including regional accrediting agencies, state auditors, legislative committees, NCAA compliance officials, and the U.S. Department of Education. These groups tend to ask many of the same questions; however, they demand that universities format information via differing formats and definitions. So, while one agency might want to know enrollment figures as of the fourteenth business day following the first class in the fall, another might ask for a total unduplicated headcount of students covering all twelve months of the fiscal year. (There are numerous other enrollment definitions in use.)

I can recall that at McNeese State University, where I was serving as president until my retirement in 2017, our enrollment could range anywhere from 7,000 and 10,500 students, depending on which definition of enrollment we were asked to use. When a legislator or newspaper reporter asked for our “current enrollment,” I often worried that the number I was giving them would be different from a number they might read if they picked up a government document that was using a different definition. And then they might conclude I had lied to them.

But just for the sake of argument, let’s assume that some sort of oversight board is necessary, if only to hire, evaluate, and replace the chief executive officer as necessary. I’ll even accept your observation that someone needs to be watching the taxpayer money that is being appropriated to the university, even when that money represents less than half of the university’s operating revenues.

How, then, should members of that board be selected?

In the final book of my three-part series, Let the Champions Run (and Watch Our Universities Soar), due out in May or June of this year, I will be making the case that a university’s governing board should be comprised of representatives from its major constituencies. That means a modern board should have at least one member representing each of the following:

  • faculty (meaning anyone the faculty wanted to serve as their advocate on the board, even if that advocate was not a past or current faculty member)
  • other employees (by election, and again, regardless of a candidate’s current or past status as an employee or not)
  • students (perhaps chosen by the SGA, whether the representative was a student or not)
  • alumni (to be selected by vote of the alumni association)
  • private donors (perhaps chosen by the university’s foundation board)
  • local government (to ensure positive town-gown relationships)
  • taxpayers (perhaps in the manner most board members are currently selected)

One representative from each group would result in a seven-member board. Two from each group would mean a board of fourteen members. (Most current public boards are in that size range.) Percentages could be adjusted state-by-state, depending on relative numbers. For example, in a state where more than 50% of the university’s resources were being contributed by the taxpayers, it might make sense for more than 50% of the board to come from the taxpayer category. But in states that have allowed state appropriations to decline to percentages flirting with single digits, it no longer makes sense for taxpayers to hold a majority oversight share.

The first six constituencies are those who care the most about the university. Why is it, then, that in so many states, the governor is free to select all board members from the ranks of only the last group–that of taxpayers? As I suggested in a recent blog post, those members are often chosen solely on the levels of their campaign contributions.

There may be other constituencies that a university might wish to include, and that would be fine. My point is that the boards monitoring our public universities should be comprised of individuals most likely to care about the success of the institutions under their care.

Under the current board appointment systems in most of our states, our most creative administrators and faculty members are starting to feel like Michelangelo in my story. They’re pondering how long they can stay.