NotesFAQContact Us
Search Tips
ERIC Number: ED527533
Record Type: Non-Journal
Publication Date: 2011
Pages: 35
Abstractor: ERIC
Reference Count: N/A
Still on the Sidelines: What Role Will Trustees Play in Higher Education Reform? A Public Agenda Report for the Lumina Foundation
John Immerwahr
Public Agenda
Nearly all observers agree that America's system of higher education is facing what Daniel Yankelovich has described as "a far different world than the one that existed in even the recent past." The new normal seems to be defined by escalating operating costs and declining funding and by more students seeking higher education with less preparation for college-level work. While the demand for an educated workforce has never been greater, America is falling behind some of its international competitors in post-secondary education. While critics (and many legislators) call for greater productivity and innovative uses of new technologies, many higher education leaders argue that the approaches that have worked in other industries will not produce comparable savings in higher education. Clearly the trustees of higher education institutions will play a role in responding to these challenges. In a few states--especially Texas and Arizona--higher education trustees and directors, who for years have been outside of the spotlight of public attention, are now on the front lines of controversial higher education reform programs. But where do the majority of trustees stand on these issues? What are the main problems that they see for their own institutions, and what responses do they think are appropriate? And above all, what do they see as their role? Do they see themselves as pushing the institutions they serve in new directions, or do they see their role as a more supportive one, giving their best advice on the questions presented to them, but letting college and university presidents and other institutional executives define the parameters of the discussion? To answer these questions, Public Agenda (with support from Lumina Foundation) held detailed and off-the-record conversations with thirty-nine directors and trustees from a wide range of higher education institutions. Assured that they and their institutions would not be identified, they spoke candidly about their perception of the issues their institutions face, the leadership capacities of their presidents and chancellors, the knowledge level and abilities of their fellow board members, and their own role in decision making. This study thus adds an important new voice to Public Agenda's studies of other essential higher education stakeholders, including college and university presidents ("The Iron Triangle," 2008), business and legislative leaders ("Taking Responsibility," 1999), faculty and chief financial officers ("Campus Commons," 2009), the general public ("Squeeze Play," 2010), and young adults--including those with experience in higher education and those without ("With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them," 2010, and "One Degree of Separation," 2011). The author's and his colleagues' overall conclusion is that most trustees are currently focused on the short-term challenges facing their institutions and that most have not yet fully engaged with broader issues of higher education reform. The prevailing view that emerges in this series of interviews is that trustees generally feel that they can support the institutions best by working within the framework presented to them by administration rather than questioning it. The trustees expressed a wide body of views, often depending on their own background and the type of institution that they were associated with. The interviews suggest an emerging debate between the perspectives shared by a large number of the trustees versus an alternative vision held by comparatively few. Although this study centered on exploring how the trustees define the major challenges to their own institutions and higher education overall, the research also tried to capture the trustees' perspective on two controversies roiling the field--the role of for-profits and the relevance of the concept of productivity in discussions of higher education reform. Many respondents criticized for-profit higher education institutions for their high prices, problems with loan defaults, inadequate programs, and, as one person said, for "being better at getting students in than getting them out." Others, however, saw them as pushing higher education in productive ways by experimenting with new modes of education and creative uses of technology. Many outside critics are calling for greater productivity from higher education institutions. While virtually all of the trustees support the idea of greater efficiency, the idea of applying the concept of productivity to higher education was new and unfamiliar to many respondents. (Contains 3 footnotes.) [This report was written with Jean Johnson, Jon Rochkind, Samantha DuPont and Jeremiah Hess.]
Public Agenda. 6 East 39th Street, New York, NY 10016. Tel: 212-686-6610; Fax: 212-889-3461; Web site:
Publication Type: Reports - Research
Education Level: Higher Education; Postsecondary Education
Audience: N/A
Language: English
Sponsor: Lumina Foundation for Education
Authoring Institution: Public Agenda
Identifiers - Location: Arizona; Texas