Trustees Must Act, Report Says

A group chaired by CUNY Board of Trustees chairman Benno Schmidt recently published a report entitled, “Governance for a New Era.” (I was part of the group, which included a variety of trustees, presidents, administrators, and faculty members.) The report, which has received considerable attention, urges trustees (and, working under the direction of trustees, senior administrators) to fulfill their oversight role—in the process providing a necessary check and balance too often absent in today’s universities.

The report’s basic premise: principles of shared governance and academic freedom require trustees—no less than administrators and faculty members—to do their jobs. Trustees, in short, need to provide active, effective leadership—and meaningful, not toothless, oversight. And in increasingly politicized public universities, only trustees serve as the voice of the taxpayers who help fund the institution. Indeed, at public schools that rely on political support, effective trustee oversight sometimes can save the faculty from themselves.

The report touches on a variety of items. It urges governors to appoint thoughtful overseers at public universities, rather than pay off political favors. The document notes that trustees must exercise their responsibility to set the mission for their institutions—and to update that mission as changing circumstances dictate. (After all, “the role and mission of a university are not static.”) It urges trustees to carefully evaluate new academic programs, rather than succumb to a campus mission creep. The report calls on trustees to withstand pressures from students, alumni, politicians, and (sometimes) the media “to grow athletic programs that are a net drain on resources, and they should ensure that salary contracts for coaches reward academic performance first and athletic success second.” And, very importantly, the report reminds trustees to take account of their constituencies. For instance, “The board of a public institution is the duly constituted representative of the people and has a primary duty to the public.” At least at public schools, then, faculty who criticize trustees exercising their appropriate oversight (a not uncommon attack line from the anti-quality leadership of the CUNY faculty union) have no grounds for complaint.

The report makes clear that trustees also have an important role in protecting both academic freedom and intellectual diversity on campus. The document, correctly, notes that while professors and administrators in general have admirably protected the academic freedom rights of faculty members, “they have often failed to guard the academic freedom of students.” Trustees must protect students’ rights on campus, a task on which CUNY has been a leader—while also reminding the public that academic freedom entails both rights and responsibilities for the faculty, and attempts to expand academic freedom beyond recognition (for instance, by equating the concept with collective bargaining rights) risks undermining public support for the concept.

On matters regarding a climate of freedom on campus, the report urges trustees to stand up against “disinvitation” efforts targeting controversial (or in some cases, perfectly mainstream) commencement speakers. And the document recommends that trustees safeguard intellectual diversity on campus, and pedagogical diversity within academic programs. These, of course, are areas in which faculty (to put it charitably) have come up badly short in recent years.

This approach does not require trustees “micromanaging” individual departments or run-of-the-mill personnel decisions. It does mean that trustees are responsible for setting out broad goals—such as achieving greater intellectual or pedagogical diversity on campus—and evaluating administrators according to their ability to achieve these goals. (“To inform themselves,” the report recommends, “trustees should annually ask for a report from the president or provost outlining disciplinary diversity,” while requiring “the president and provost . . . to explain how they will ensure intellectual and pedagogical diversity going forward.”) Trustees also must be willing to exercise their authority on the rare occasions—at most universities, likely no more than a handful of times in a decade—in which indefensible personnel actions are made. But when faculty attempt to purge obviously qualified people, or when they attempt to hire obviously unqualified people, trustees cannot simply retreat to a position of rubber stamp. Such hands-off absolutism would not advance the well-being of the university, nor would it fulfill trustees’ fiduciary obligations by preventing lawsuits the school likely could lose.

Doubtless advocates of the academic status quo, especially among the faculty, won’t like some of what this report has to say. But the report takes seriously a concept often unthinkingly tossed out by status-quo types—“shared governance”—and seeks to apply it to the 21st century university. Trustees, as this report reminds us, have a role in preserving the university’s values, just as faculty members, administrators do. If we’re to take seriously “shared governance,” trustees must fulfill their obligations of oversight, and the principles laid down in the Schmidt Report are a good place to start.

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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