Trustees of public universities are stewards of a public trust that rests nobly on the notion that an enlightened citizenry is vital to a democratic society. They have a fiduciary duty to represent the citizens and taxpayers who support public institutions of higher education, as well as the students who attend them. But even though the best interests of students and taxpayers revolve around college access, affordability and graduation outcomes, too often presidents and boards are more focused on the rankings, reputation and popularity of the institution itself.
In my career as the president of two state universities and a consultant to nearly 50 higher-education institutions, I’ve observed dozens of college presidents skillfully co-opt their governing boards into approving costly projects that make schools look more attractive. (Of course, every college president has to increase costs sometimes. But the goal is to make sure it is necessary, while keeping expenses as low as possible for students.)
Trustees, who typically meet four to eight times each year, are entertained as if they are visiting heads of state, flattered for their service and financial contributions to the institution. College presidents sweeten requests for new buildings and research centers, as well as additional student affairs programming, with cleverly branded words like “promise” and “excellence.” What board would want to withhold promise and excellence from its beloved student body?
College presidents also tranquilize trustees into agreement with impossibly large volumes of reading material. Trustees get binders full of documentation about institutional successes that are padded with expensive plans for increasing growth and reputation. Most come away impressed by their president’s expertise and vision and assured that — thanks to their efforts — the university is on the right track.
The unfortunate truth is that while most college presidents care deeply about their…