Rethinking Public Higher Education Governing Boards Performance: Results of a National Study of Governing Boards in the United States

By Kezar, Adrianna | Journal of Higher Education, November-December 2006 | Go to article overview
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Rethinking Public Higher Education Governing Boards Performance: Results of a National Study of Governing Boards in the United States


Kezar, Adrianna, Journal of Higher Education


  Recently the Governor of Oregon asked for resignations of 4 of 11
  members of the State Board of Higher Education citing that members had
  lost sight of important initiatives such as economy development and
  affordability. This is not an isolated trend and also occurred in
  Wisconsin under Governor Jim Doyle and New Mexico with Governor-elect
  Bill Richardson.

  At the University of Akron, without discussion, the board of trustees
  eliminated the faculty senate's planning and budget committee and
  altered rules governing financial crisis, reducing the faculty role
  because the faculty had unionized.

  Rockland Community College has two presidents because there is
  conflict between whether the board of trustees for the community
  colleges or the state university trustees have authority over
  appointment of the president.

These stories are just a few examples of what has been identified as questionable performance among higher education governing boards in recent years, demonstrating the need to examine board performance--the focus of this article. As Conger, Lawler, and Finegold noted, "investors, governments, communities, and employees are scrutinizing board performance and challenging decisions" (2001, p. xi). Board performance is a critical topic for higher education in the 21st century. Governing boards are invested with the ultimate authority to make policy and key decisions for America's colleges and universities (Birnbaum, 1988). The United States is unique in that it does not have a central ministry that develops policy; instead, it developed lay governing boards that play a policymaking and accountability role. (1) The United States follows the tradition of lay boards of citizens for Calvinist institutions established during the protestant reformation movement, borrowing from the model of Scottish lay boards. The first lay board was established at Harvard in 1642. Within public institutions, each state provides a charter for higher education institutions, and in exchange for a tax-exempt status and public support, these institutions agree to be governed by a governing board that is elected or selected according to the legislation of that particular state. In some states, governing boards are elected by the citizens, and in others they are selected by the governor. States vary in the composition of governing boards as well as in the membership and duration of terms. Some states have multicampus or system governing boards that govern more than one institution. (2) Although there are variations among states about how public higher education governing boards are structured, they maintain the same role--to supervise higher education institutions for the public good--and have similar responsibilities, such as hiring and evaluating the president, establishing and terminating programs, maintaining fiduciary responsibility, and ensuring the institution fulfills its mission.

The future of higher education is entrusted to governing boards and the stakes are currently very high. Boards will need to consider and take action on a host of complex issues in the coming years. The challenges facing higher education require high-performing boards, ones that are prepared to wrestle with expanding access in a time of declining funds, increased regulatory requirements, global pressures, and an increasingly competitive environment. These challenges emerge within a society where the ethics and efficacy of boards, based on the Enron scandal and Sarbanes-Oxley legislation, are in question. Fundamentally, people are wondering whether boards can be trusted to make quality, ethical decisions that represent the public good--their given mission.

Although there is a tremendous need for leadership, governing boards have been criticized in the past decade for a host of problems ranging from being slow to respond, overstepping their authority and threatening shared governance, engaging in conflicts of interest, focusing on micro-management, making partisan decisions, engaging in divisive politics and infighting, acting as a rubber-stamp for institutional ambitions, and driving away able presidents through their meddling (Demb & Neubauer, 1992; De Russy, 1996; Sample, 2003; Wilson, 2001).

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