Are Governor-Appointed Boards Healthy for School Systems?

Governors have to use their bully pulpit to put issues of quality, cost and accountability at the top of the agenda — not just to make friendly appointments.

As anyone who follows higher ed knows, a strong, independent board is a centerpiece of American academia’s carefully calibrated system of checks and balances, writes Anne D. Neal at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

“Historically and philosophically a part of our democratic tradition, lay governance brings the perspective of informed citizens to the heart of the university,” writes former University of Wisconsin regent Phyllis Krutsch.

Part insider and outsider, never completely satisfying the advocacy wishes of the university nor the oversight expectations of elected officials, the board’s role is akin to a fiduciary, writes Neal.

“The ideal board takes into account the perspective of students, faculty, parents, administrators, elected officials, and others yet is beholden to none of them. It is mindful of the mission and special purposes of the university, and the trust that it holds.”

Neal writes that the lay board is independent, the mouthpiece or rubber stamp of no one. Its job is to fulfill its fiduciary responsibilities — not to serve special interests.

“This is true whether the board is appointed by the governor or the legislature, or nominated by a nominating committee.”

In Texas, Governor Perry’s lengthy incumbency has resulted in boards filled with his personal appointees, writes Neal. Those boards, in turn, have chosen campus chancellors. Most of those appointments have gone to non-academics, some of whom are former elected officials.

Last week, Inside Higher Ed wrote about this fact, strongly suggesting that there is something very wrong with this picture.

“The academic chancellor seems like a rarity in Texas right now,” IHE notes.

Acknowledging that this is par for the course, that many university systems work just fine without academic chancellors, and that in Texas, it’s important for chancellors to know their way around the legislature, IHE nevertheless maintains that “Many see the appointments as a further politicization of higher education systems that have had a tumultuous relationship with the state’s political elite.”

In Texas, higher ed governance is operating just the way it is supposed to. As a general matter, governors provide leadership; they appoint trustees; they set an agenda for change.

“While some professors may be nervous that governor-appointed boards and their hand-picked chancellors may bring an unwelcome agenda with them, that is, quite frankly, the nature of the democratic process.”

The way to achieve results in a democracy is for elected officials to advocate changes based on concerns of the public, and to empower their appointees to make such changes, writes Neal.

“Faculties always regard trustees and administrators with suspicion. It’s part of the academic landscape. They also tend to believe (as do many trustees) that the main job of trustees is to advocate for their institutions. In fact, trustees are public officials with a fiduciary obligation to represent the taxpayer.”

The new plan, proposed by UT chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, was unanimously adopted by the board, and has drawn praise from a wide range of previously conflicting constituencies even those who didn’t vote for Governor Perry.

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September 2nd, 2011

Staff Reporter

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