Today, nearly a decade later, the role of trustees has changed dramatically for Handfi eld and his 35-member board at Bethune-Cookman University. The same can be said for the thousands around the country who volunteer as trustees at various colleges and universities.
“You can’t just sit back and put fi res out,” says Handfi eld, a 1998 graduate of Bethune-Cookman who began his term as chairman of the school’s board of trustees in July. “You (trustees) have to set policies, make sure they are implemented and set checks and balances,” Handfi eld says.
In this troubled economy, trustees are also expected to help fi nd dollars to replace those lost from shrinking tuition and investment income and declining support from cash-strapped corporations, foundations and individuals.
“It’s now become more of a responsibility of the board to step up to the plate,” Handfi eld says.
Handfi eld’s assessment of the new landscape facing boards of trustees is similar to the sentiments widely held by trustees at other universities, higher education analysts and consultants, and trade groups. They say a combination of factors have converged this decade to force trustees into a greater level of engagement and accountability. The factors range from more frequent turnover of school presidents to increased government and accrediting oversight requirements and, now, the economy.
“Today’s fiscal crisis is compelling boards to ask different kinds of questions about strategic priorities and whether the schools are able to support those priorities in today’s economic environment,” says Rick Lagone, president of the Association of Governing Boards (AGB) of Universities and Colleges, the nation’s major group of college and university trustees. “This is a crisis unlike anybody alive has ever seen. It’s new and its impact on higher education is still playing out.”
A New Standard
Schools say little about which trustees give and how much, except when sizable cash gifts are given as part of estate planning or in a bequeath. Consultants who work with college boards say trustees as a whole should give more.
“Many problems begin and end with trustees,” says Charles Stephens, an Atlanta- based higher education consultant, echoing colleagues. “There are no standards of what’s expected of trustee boards, except hire and fi re the president.
“But, the part that’s lacking is helping raise money,” he says, a common situation at schools regardless of their origins, legacies, sizes or regions. “That is a critical issue.”
In June, the Washington, D.C.-based AGB issued a report billed as the fi rst “comprehensive and focused look at higher education governance.” In the report, the group says ” … Board service and the performance of boards now are the targets of much public scrutiny.” It says governance boards are now the focus of policymakers in Congress, state legislatures, and the Internal Revenue Service.
That attention is “clearly raising the bar for board members,” the AGB report says. “Of much more signifi cance going forward will be how we recruit, orient and engage board members, and how they perform their duties,” the report says.
Members of boards of trustees arrive at their tasks in a variety of ways.
About a third, those at public institutions, are appointed by governors or elected. Another third, those at independent private institutions, are closed groups with new trustees elected by existing trustees. Another third, those on boards of religious-related institutions, have a strong presence of people of the religious order backing the school.
The diverse histories of various schools help explain the composition of their boards and how much and how quickly they can adapt to the new challenges facing trustees. Analysts say too many trustees don’t have a clear understanding of their core job as trustees: oversight, not day-today management. Also, too many trustees have little personal wealth and only basic fundraising capacity and reach, a skill that has become essential to their schools’ survival.
Part of the AGB report found that the average length of training for trustees on how to do their jobs was just over a day, at most schools, if that long.
Disagreements between trustees and presidents and their management teams are common, but most are resolved quietly. There have been recent blowups, however, that have evolved into full-fl edged public battles that embarrass the schools as overseers and managers wrestle over who is ultimately responsible for a school and its direction.
Among them, the South Carolina State University board’s fi ring in December 2007 of president Andrew Hugine, who has since sued the board and state; and the demotion of University of Nevada at Las Vegas president David Ashley, following a lengthy public debate among overseers of the school about Ashley’s performance.
At Paul Quinn College in Texas, trustees fi red the school president as the school prepared for its accreditation review by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). That fl ap played a role in Paul Quinn losing its accreditation in July. Trustees are appealing the SACS ruling.
There are several efforts afoot to help schools, particularly HBCUs, get a grip on the complex job of being a trustee.
The Center to Serve Historically Black Colleges and Universities, a program unit of The Southern Education Foundation (SEF), has worked with college trustees and presidents since 2003 on improving their abilities to address accrediting association requirements, specifi cally those covered by the SACS. In June, it gathered nearly 100 presidents and trustees from HBCUs for a conference on “best practices” in governance.
Also, earlier this summer, the Institute for Capacity Building, a unit of the United Negro College Fund, the national fundraising service for most private HBCUs, staged a two-day institute in Maryland for the presidents and board chairs of eight HBCUs. The focus: governance education, ranging from establishing and sustaining good relations between boards and presidents, self-assessments, fundraising responsibilities and accreditation. The UNCF effort mirrors, on a smaller scale, the broader SEF effort. M e a n – while, some schools have been quietly working on restructuring their boards in hopes of strengthening them over time on their own.
At Talladega College, for example, alumni dominated the school’s board a decade ago. Today â€” four presidents and several accreditation processes later â€” Talladega’s board is 30 percent alumni, with a stronger presence of business savvy members and many of the outsiders coming from well-established businesses in the region that alumni feel should have a stake in Talladega’s future.
“We’ve tried to go out and recruit a more diverse group of board members who have roots in the immediate area,” says James Thornton, a 1969 graduate of Talladega and former executive with Sears. He stepped down as board chair in November after nine years in the post.
Even with stable leadership at the helm, accreditation issues behind it and a more diverse board with more fundraising skills, Thornton says raising money is the toughest challenge facing his board.
“It’s just tougher and tougher for people to be as generous as they want to be,” says Thornton.
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