Why Are the Boards of Public Colleges More Problematic than at Private Institutions?

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September 4, 2013; InsideHigherEd.com


A new survey of 523 college presidents has been completed by Gallup and Inside Higher Ed, and the findings are interesting. All the questions and answers from the Gallup/Inside Higher Ed Presidents’ Panel can be viewed here, but one fascinating takeaway is that there are big differences in college presidents’ perception of the board that depend on whether the institution is public or private:

Generally, the 102 presidents of four-year public colleges were more negative about their board members than the 197 respondent presidents of private four-year colleges. This report indicates that 45 percent of those presidents from four-year private college “strongly agreed” that their colleges were well governed by their boards, while only 20 percent of the presidents of public four-year colleges strongly agreed.

Ronald Ehrenberg, the director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, suggests that the difference in how board members are appointed may explain the above finding, in that in public institutions’ board members are often elected or appointed by governors or other state officials, while most private boards are self-perpetuating. John Casteen, president emeritus of the University of Virginia, said some public colleges suffer from board members with no higher-ed experience but a history of political donations.

Aligned with the above finding is the fact that 68 percent of four-year public college presidents would pick new board members if they could, but in private institutions sixty-seven percent of private college presidents said they would not. And the findings extend even further, with 63 percent of private four-year college presidents strongly agreeing that they “see eye-to-eye” with their boards most of the time, compared to only 27 percent of public four-year college presidents who strongly agreed.

The findings are being published on the heels of high-profile disputes involving boards at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Virginia.—Ruth McCambridge

  • Michael Wyland

    As noted in the article, public universities are far more likely to have “constituency” boards or boards with members present for reasons other than mission alignment with the institution. Political appointees and statute-mandated ex-officio (either voting or non-voting) members are two common problems.

    The Freeh Report on Penn State, issued in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, made note of Penn State’s board being too large and populated with political appointees, current office-holders, and other members not selected by Penn State’s board itself. See this NPQ article for more and links to the Freeh Report: http://www.nonprofitquarterly.org/governancevoice/20779-freeh-report-on-penn-state-provides-little-guidance-on-nonprofit-governance.html.

    This problem with constituency boards is not limited to public universities, of course. Nonprofits of many types that are organized around significant government funding, often fall prey to this difficulty.

  • Heather Iliff, Maryland Nonprofits

    This is a very interesting finding, and mirrors what I find when working with other quasi-governmental nonprofit agencies that have members appointed to their board by the government or entities other than the board itself. Often these ex-officio voting members (i.e. appointed by nature of their position) send a deputy in their place to board meetings (a form of proxy voting that in our state of Maryland is not legal for nonprofit directors), bring the interests of their institution to the board rather than the interests of the nonprofit (which is their fiduciary duty), and rarely participate actively in things like events, fundraising, etc. Inherent conflicts of interest can cause outright conflicts on the board. When nonprofits operate similar to governments, they adopt the inefficiencies and gridlock that plagues government. Another example is when members of a board are elected by the community, they come to the board reprsenting the community interests and often fight with each other to get scarce resources to go to their particular community, rather than adopting the fiduciary stance of doing what is in the best interest of the nonprofit. They drive CEO’s crazy becaues they try all kinds of behind-the-scenes methods of influencing resources and attention of the organizaton.