Assignment Getting Tougher for Trustees: Too Many College Board Trustees Lack Oversight Skills and Fundraising Capacity That Are Essential to the Survival of Their Schools

By Stuart, Reginald | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, August 20, 2009 | Go to article overview

Assignment Getting Tougher for Trustees: Too Many College Board Trustees Lack Oversight Skills and Fundraising Capacity That Are Essential to the Survival of Their Schools


Stuart, Reginald, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


When Miami attorney Larry R. Handfield joined the board of trustees of Bethune-Cookman University, the oversight drill for trustees of the small, historically Black liberal arts institution in Florida was routine as it was for most schools around the country: ensure the president was not running amok with the school's money or mission, help put out occasional "fires," and secure or deliver a favor to and from the school on occasion.

Today, nearly a decade later, the role of trustees has changed dramatically for Handfield and his 35-member board at Bethune-Cookman University. The same can be said for the thousands around the country who volunteer as trustees at various colleges and universities.

"You can't just sit back and put fires out," says Handfield, a 1998 graduate of Bethune-Cookman who began his term as chairman of the school's board of trustees in July. "You (trustees) have to set policies, make sure they are implemented and set checks and balances," Handfield says.

In this troubled economy, trustees are also expected to help find dollars to replace those lost from shrinking tuition and investment income and declining support from cash-strapped corporations, foundations and individuals.

"It's now become more of a responsibility of the board to step up to the plate," Handfield says.

Handfield's assessment of the new landscape facing boards of trustees is similar to the sentiments widely held by trustees at other universities, higher education analysts and consultants, and trade groups. They say a combination of factors have converged this decade to force trustees into a greater level of engagement and accountability. The factors range from more frequent turnover of school presidents to increased government and accrediting oversight requirements and, now, the economy.

"Today's fiscal crisis is compelling boards to ask different kinds of questions about strategic priorities and whether the schools are able to support those priorities in today's economic environment," says Rick Lagone, president of the Association of Governing Boards (AGB) of Universities and Colleges, the nation's major group of college and university trustees. "This is a crisis unlike anybody alive has ever seen. It's new and its impact on higher education is still playing out."

A New Standard

Schools say little about which trustees give and how much, except when sizable cash gifts are given as part of estate planning or in a bequeath. Consultants who work with college boards say trustees as a whole should give more.

"Many problems begin and end with trustees," says Charles Stephens, an Atlanta-based higher education consultant, echoing colleagues. "There are no standards of what's expected of trustee boards, except hire and fire the president.

"In many instances, the trustees are not the folks who have adequate capacity to fulfill their fundraising responsibilities," says Stephens, a former development ofricer for the United Negro College Fund.

"At other institutions, the trustees simply won't give. Trustees take very seriously their responsibility in hiring and firing and making sure things go well in terms of use of the funds they have.

"But, the part that's lacking is helping raise money," he says, a common situation at schools regardless of their origins, legacies, sizes or regions. "That is a critical issue."

In June, the Washington, D.C.-based AGB issued a report billed as the first "comprehensive and focused look at higher education governance." In the report, the group says " ... Board service and the performance of boards now are the targets of much public scrutiny." It says governance boards are now the focus of policymakers in Congress, state legislatures, and the Internal Revenue Service.

That attention is "clearly raising the bar for board members," the AGB report says. "Of much more significance going forward will be how we recruit, orient and engage board members, and how they perform their duties," the report says. …

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