Editor’s note: Required Reading for all Boards of Trustees of Orthodox Christian Educational Institutions…Helpful advice for Hellenic College/Holy Cross Seminary Board Members, Brookline, MA
Source: The Wall Street Journal
By Allen C. Guelzo
For everyone from kindergartners to collegians, the aisles at the big-box stores are filling up with back-to-school pens, calculators, paper and notebooks. But there is one educational contingent that won’t find much help in the pens-and-paper department: incoming college trustees. Only about half of public institutions provide training for newly arrived board members. Here’s some unsolicited advice from someone who has spent a few decades with wing tips on the ground.
Learn the language. Like any business, higher education has its own language stem and a lot of land-mine vocabulary—diversity, vocationalism, tenure, teaching load. People who live inside higher education are masters of words, but not necessarily of clarity. Learning the dynamics of higher-ed-speak is indispensable. That will be particularly true when phrases common in the business world—incremen-tal budgeting, strategic planning—turn out to have entirely different meanings on campus.
* Make time. Being a trustee of a college or university requires more attention to more problems than ever before. Sexual harassment, free-speech confrontations, presidential turnover, money and new students, students and new money—all these issues will demand your attention. It’s no longer possible, even for trustees of small colleges, to regard the job as consisting of four volunteer weekends a year. Think instead about how to arrange visits between board meetings, touring on-campus research institutes, sitting in on classes, and making yourself and your colleagues visible and available.
Ignore the resistance. The first response you are likely to receive for these efforts will disappoint you: suspicion. It will come first from the faculty, already primed to mistrust authority figures. Its members will wonder what dark agenda is driving you. But faculty suspicions will fade quickly. In fact, eventually professors will be relieved to find trustees who respect their work and take a genuine intellectual interest in it. You will be dismayed to find more suspicion coming from administrators. Years ago, I worked for a president who frankly regarded board meetings as his greatest annoyance. He cheerfully encouraged his underlings to tell the trustees whatever would make them happy. If you encounter this, push back. It is a sign of deceit.
* Seek mentors. Many colleges and universities impose term limits on their boards. This pumps new outlooks into the veins of an institution, but it also leaves new trustees wishing they had more experienced hands to seek advice from. Look for the veterans on your board, and identify a trustee with a particularly deep interest in one facet of academic life—for example, state and federal regulations, winch impose staggering overhead costs—and make yourself into that trustee’s successor. In some colleges where trusteeship is taken seriously, new trustees are actually assigned mentors, and an internal governance committee might do a biannual assessment of a new trustee’s performance.
* Read the books. Faculty publications and breakthrough books on higher education will enable you to see your institution in the larger, and more ominous, context of higher education’s challenges. About trusteeship itself, turn to “How to Run a College” (2018) by Brian Mitchell and Joseph King. For administrative sclerosis, study Benjamin Ginsberg’s “The Fall of the Faculty” (2013). “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” (2011), from Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, is an excellent primer on the failures and successes in learning. Once you’ve read the books, ask embarrassing questions: How does hiring more-and-more adjuncts affect teaching and learning? What are faculty actually rewarded (or punished) for doing? Does the college need to do everything? And, above all, why does this institution exist?
* Find—and follow—the money. This is what people frequently think is the trustee’s first, and sometimes only, responsibility. It is true that the trustees are the first line of a university’s financial defense. The future is not an indefinite series of tuition increases. But it also means, for that same reason, that you are the air-brake on the many varieties of politically correct hooliganism and administrative pusillanimity that have defaced campuses like Middlebury, Lewis and Clark, Reed, Berkeley, Evergreen State and the University of Oregon. If you find the money, you have a responsibility to ask how the money is spent and on whom.
American colleges and universities were once little more than finishing schools for the wealthy. At the end of the Civil War, there were only 112,000 undergraduate students in the U.S., according to the National Center for Education Statistics. A century and a half later, the Education Department estimates the student population at 20 million, and the bachelor’s degree is regarded as the middle class’s key of promise. Whether it can—or even should—stay that way will rest on the shoulders of college faculties, administrations, government overseers and even parents. But it will rest mostly on you. Welcome back to school.
Mr. Guelzo is a professor of history at Gettysburg College.