Jill Derby’s piece in IHE on Monday about college trustees with political agendas is well worth the read, but I suspect that many of the people who most need it won’t read it. That may be true of this piece, too, but hope springs eternal.
Trustees occupy an in-between space politically, which can lead to all sorts of misunderstandings. In the case of public colleges, they’re usually either appointed by elected officials or, in some places, elected by the voters directly. In either scenario, they’re effectively reporting to people who have a great many other things on their minds, most of which have little to do with higher education. Among those other things may be partisan politics, state or local budgets, and personal political ambitions.
The job of the trustee -- and I really can’t stress this enough -- is to ignore all of those. The job of the trustee is to protect and improve the institution’s ability to fulfill its mission. While they may have been appointed by political officials, or even voters, their job is not to please the people who appointed them. It’s to support the college’s fulfillment of its mission.
By that definition, a trustee appointed to eviscerate a college’s budget in order to fund somebody else’s tax cut is violating the fiduciary duty of their office. That’s because sacrificing the college to somebody else’s agenda is not what trustees are for.
This isn’t just a personal view, although it is also that. Fiduciary duty is inherent in the legal definition of trusteeship; “fiduciary” shares a root with “fidelity,” which is at the core of trust. Trustees are entrusted with furthering the ability of the college to fulfill its mission. Using the college as a tool to fulfill somebody else’s mission, particularly at the expense of the college itself, runs afoul of fidelity to the mission of the institution they’re sworn to uphold.
That doesn’t mean that trustees should never endorse budget cuts and their fallout. It means that budget cuts and the damage they do should be only and entirely towards the goal of strengthening the long-term health of the institution. If the goal is to free up money for a trustee’s political sponsors to dole out in tax cuts, that doesn’t strengthen the institution.
In other words, trustees need to understand the paradoxes of their roles. They are chosen either by elected officials or by election, yet they need to be indifferent to political agendas. They need to be conscientious stewards of resources over the long term. And they need to understand and respect the boundary between trusteeship and administration.
Trustees can, and should, set broad directions and goals. They should hold presidents accountable for performance against clear expectations. They should set long-term directions for the institution as a whole. Then -- and this is the hard part -- they need to let presidents and administrators do what needs to be done to achieve those goals. That means, among other things, not second-guessing operational decisions on a regular basis. It means delegating authority, and then respecting the delegation.
In this sense, colleges are different from many public agencies. Although colleges may be public, they aren’t arms of the state in the same sense that, say, the Department of Corrections is. They have their own integrity that must be respected if they’re going to be effective at fulfilling their missions. Colleges that subordinate their own missions to something else -- whether it be short-term economic trends, stockholders, or whichever political party is in power at a given time -- find themselves stranded when the winds shift. I worked at DeVry during the bursting of the first tech bubble in the early 00’s; I saw the fallout of that mistake firsthand. Yes, there should be collaborations in areas like workforce development, where community colleges have historically been leaders. But those collaborations need to be within the mission of the college.
The boundaries I’m endorsing here are far from original, and far from partisan. They’re well-established -- one might almost say ‘traditional’ -- and they serve a clear purpose. Trustees who accept their positions in the name of owning the libs, or funding tax cuts, or getting vicarious revenge on teachers who annoyed them long ago, are violating their oaths of office. And they do damage far beyond their terms in office.