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College Trustees Hesitant to Proactively Push for Major Reform

For higher education reform to take hold, many say college trustees need to become advocates for change. Yet a new report out today finds many governing boards are caught up instead on short-term challenges on their campuses and defer to the institution's leadership.

Still on the Sidelines: What Role Will Trustees Plan in Higher Education Reform? by John Immerwahr with Jean Johnson, Jon Rochkind, Samantha DuPont, and Jeremy Hess was produced by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization based in New York and funded by the Lumina Foundation. (The Lumina Foundation underwrites coverage of the alignment between K-12 schools and postsecondary education in Education Week.)

The majority of trustees in the study say their role in finding solutions to pressing challenges on college campuses is to choose strong leaders and support them in making good decisions rather than pushing for specific policy and administrative changes. A small minority sees the function of existing boards as part of the problem in higher education.

Although trustees agree that new approaches and solutions are necessary, most say they only feel comfortable with a supporting role rather than a proactive one in promoting or resisting reform within their institutions.

Most trustees interviewed assessed the nature of the problems facing their institutions as external, such as declining state support, rising costs of labor, and inadequate preparation of students from K-12 institutions. Without a reinvestment in public funding or K-12 education improvements, trustees typically respond to the current financial crunch on campus with cost cutting, larger classes, more adjunct faculty, salary freezes, and finding new sources of revenue.

Those pushing for higher education reform often cite problems on campus as more internal —resistance to make major changes, obsolete models of education, and unresponsive systems of governance. While cutting costs and improving efficiency is a start, reformers advocate broader, fundamental changes, such as moving away from "seat time" to individualized learning and using technology to radically reform the delivery of education.

"The message we heard from most of our respondents," said Immerwahr of Villanova University, lead author of the report and senior research fellow at Public Agenda in a press statement, "is that they feel it's most helpful to support their chancellors and presidents rather than challenge them. They identify their role as giving wise counsel, asking challenging questions, and providing valuable links to the community and the legislation, rather than working outside the framework of their administration to initiate change."

The report is based on 39 individual interviews Public Agenda conducted from February to August 2011 with trustees of boards at diverse public and private institutions, who spoke anonymously about their roles and responsibilities.


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