Thursday, July 23, 2009

Boards of trust in the news

This article on the recent AGB survey about trustees makes some good points, but I can't agree with them all.

The first major point is that AGB did not survey trustees but instead senior administrators. There is nothing wrong, I think, with surveying those who work with trustees - I have been using data from a survey of fundraisers myself - but it should not be our only or even primary source of information about trustees. There are two reasons for this. First, there are facts we can only get at by surveying trustees themselves ("How much time did you spend last year in your role as a trustee?"). Second, there are questions of opinion and subjective questions that administrators and trustees might have very different outlooks on. These would include, "Is the president doing a good job?" and "How hard is it to recruit new board members?"

However, the author then objects to the finding that board members spend over half their time listening to staff. This strikes me as an inevitability. Board members must know what's going on at their institutions. As part-time volunteers, it's impossible for them to know as much as full-time employees (who, with the exception of the president, specialize in one particular aspect of the institution). If we want them to spend 40 or more hours a week in their trustee role, we have to pay them - at which point they are employees instead of trustees, and they are no longer on the same side of the agency problem. Now, perhaps trustees ought to be able to go to administrators and and ask questions rather than be served pre-digested information, but it's nearly impossible to eliminate their dependence of "information supplied by the institution." What other source is possible?

Next, the author chastises keeping boards in the dark. Fair point. Of course, board members themselves ought to share some responsibility for letting themselves be kept in the dark. If only 64% of private boards tell the full board (rather than, presumably, the compensation committee) the president's compensation, are the board members asking?

Finally, the last couple of paragraphs excoriate the state of American higher education in general. The implication is that nothing short of dramatically changing trusteeship will fix it, but since the charges include so many things and no specific solutions are suggested, I'll leave it alone.

But the last two sentences are worth noting: "The rising cost and declining quality that we see today in higher ed result, too often, from the belief that administrators are the real governance structure and that trustees exist to serve the institution first and the public interest second. It is time for trustees to wake up to this mindset and reassert their central governing role." I feel like something is missing as it is formulated - it's a simple fact that administrators ARE the real governance structure. What I think is being objected to is the notion that they OUGHT to be. As far as to what trustees serve, researchers, academics, and board members themselves have come to no agreement on that - on the rare occasions they think about it. And as far as I know, no one has done a survey of that yet.

1 comment:

turducken said...

Here is another critique of the original article.