Academia: Building the Boards
Thursday's Child Has Far to Go
The Chronicle of Higher Education observes that in higher education, many governing boards are less diverse than the student body and the faculty (and I suspect the administrative staff as well), and that the disparity is even more pronounced at private colleges and universities.
The history of trustee/manager boards seems like an interesting thing to look into more generally. As with higher education generally, I suspect that there are assumptions we make about continuity and change that aren’t entirely accurate, particularly in their assumed periodizations. But one thing seems plain to me as I look at the trustees of many private small liberal arts colleges: many of them seem ill-suited to governance of an academic institution, even of the relatively distant and deferential kind that many boards genuinely embrace.
I understand why tuition-dependent private colleges and universities see their boards primarily as a way to connect with their wealthiest alumni, as a donor recruitment strategy. They really don’t have any choice, and I don’t want to second-guess them in this respect. But many boards of exceptionally wealthy private institutions with massive endowments look nearly identical in this respect.
Since the primary governance work that many trustees undertake is financial oversight, overseeing investment strategies and approving budgets, the people in charge of composing boards likely believe that alumni who are personally wealthy and whose professional lives involve investment, corporate management or other leadership roles that involve responsibility for and knowledge of large budgets are best suited to this work. I think they’re right, but only up to a point.
For one, as many commentaries on the financialization of higher education have noted, having a significant number of investment professionals on governing boards not only creates some potential for conflict of interest, it strongly tethers academia to the norms and assumptions of institutions that have played a significant role in intensifying inequality both within organizations and across the society, imposing unneeded austerity and eroding public goods. That may not be a good fit. Moreover, the assumption that these professionals as a group are the best judge of medium-term risk exposure or fiduciary prudence has at least some modest counter-evidence over the last two decades.
But if we’re thinking compositional diversity, sure, you want some of your most trusted alumni in this field on a board. And sure, you want some of your best lawyers and your best non-profit leaders and your best people with political experience. This is where there’s a purpose for boards of trustees that everybody knows but that isn’t going to be narrated officially on websites or in official institutional prose, which is to exert influence and make connections as needed. But this is where the composition of many boards of private institutions begins and ends: lawyers, leaders, financial professionals, corporate executives, millionaires. Occasionally there’s a token famous writer or artist.
Public universities, as the Chronicle observes, sometimes have an elected student member among their managers who has full voting rights (and thus isn’t ushered out of the room every time the real decisions are being debated and made). Private institutions just don’t. That seems like a change worth making.
Even more urgently, boards ought to have a few members who are higher education professionals, and not just retired university presidents. Serving faculty, serving deans, people from the middle of academic hierarchies. Not as observers, not as people who join committees, not as dinner table companions, but as members who participate in all the business of a board. Not from the institution being governed, but from others—but people who can tell the rest of the board how it all looks from the inside, and who have the expertise of experience.
Boards should always have a few people from the surrounding community. They have a stake in the decisions being made about land, about opportunities, about development, and much else. It’s astonishing to me looking at many private boards of universities and colleges how few of them have even one representative from the town or neighborhood or area that they’re located in.
Perhaps most importantly of all, however, boards of both private and public universities need to have a few alumni involved who are not the most powerful or wealthiest or most conventionally successful graduates of that institution. Not necessarily the most bitter or alienated alumni, mind you, but at least a few voices in the room need to be someone who isn’t an acclaimed meritocrat with a big bank account. You want some alums who’ve been in public service their whole lives (both young and old) but aren’t Cabinet secretaries or Senators: the mid-ranking diplomat, the zoning board staffer, the assistant district attorney, the environmental analyst. You want some people who don’t head corporations or major divisions of same, but who are the senior data scientists and coding engineers, the product design leads, the international sales supervisors, the community-relations head. You want some people who are reporters for NPR or Vox rather than editors and owners of major publications, some people who have two modestly-selling novels who teach in an MFA program, some people who make a line of locally well-selling craftwork and teach ceramics in the community arts center. These are people that an institution needs to hear from, and not just in emails or posts on Facebook, but in its governance.
So yes, boards should at least be as diverse in gender and race as their student bodies, their faculty, their staff. But they also ought to reflect a wider range of the experiences and insights of their alumni—and to at least recognize that there are other kinds of expertise you ought to have in the room besides those that are conventionally preferred. One reason that academic institutions have become contributors to widening inequality rather than a counterweight to it is that they continue to unreflectively reproduce a narrow understanding of meritocratic worth in the composition of their governing boards.