Needed: Independent-Minded Trustees

Trustees shouldn’t step too far out of line, says Richard D. Legon, the President of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, in a recent piece for Inside Higher Ed.  Legon refers to the case of Wallace Hall, the University of Texas regent who investigated corruption in the UT system by requesting troves of public records. He now faces impeachment in the Texas Legislature. To Legon, Hall erred because “board governance is a team sport.”

Individual board members should ask tough questions. And different trustees bring different knowledge, skills, and interests to the boardroom, so they will necessarily seek out different kinds of information.  “Team player” is a slippery term that includes trustees who work hard to build consensus and those who simply enjoy a cushy perch. The former is admirable; the latter undermine American higher education. When administrations aren’t forthcoming, trustees are not obligated to take a “no” for the “team.” Public university trustees do not, ultimately, serve the “team”—the board or the administration. They serve the public. That’s why trustees who question the status quo deserve support—not impeachment.

In the Hall case the legislature appears to be pursuing a vendetta against a trustee who discovered damaging information about the university’s powerful, politically-connected president. At least one of the legislators who led the charge to investigate Hall was implicated in scandals that Hall uncovered.

Trustees should be encouraged to seek out the information they need to pursue their duties. They should insist on high standards. Public authorities should hold them to high standards, too—and make trustees’ continued service contingent on meeting those standards.

Mr. Legon’s go-along, get-along approach to board leadership leads weakens higher education.  ACTA’s approach, which emphasizes engaged, active, accountable boards, turns institutions around and leads them to excellence.   If American higher education is to regain its place as the “envy of the world,” team sport trusteeship must make way for trustees with an individual sense of conscience.

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