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Who are the Trustees?

The industry rag, The Chronicle of Higher Education, recently ran an article profiling boards of trustees all across the United States. The article’s data came from the results of an “extensive survey” of trustees and presidents.

The results? Predictable, and typical of Dartmouth’s Board, too. Trustees too often feel unprepared for the job, rarely criticize executive decisions forcefully, and are generally homogenous in demographic makeup. The first two common traits are wildly unfortunate, because they lead to poor governance of colleges and universities and the wasting of tuition money. The problem stems, in my view, from something peculiar to academia: Board seats at educational institutions, as opposed to seats on corporate boards, are seen as trophies rather than tasks. Trustees are simply proud to be trustees, and there is not much more to it.

Lassitude like that would never be accepted at a public corporation, where the business is responsible to its shareholders. But since colleges and universities have institutionalized a culture whereby they solicit alumni donations and don’t allow any talking back, academia is largely unaccountable to its stakeholders. And since students are transients, that leaves two power poles: faculty and administrative bureaucracy.

As for just who gets to be a trustee, well, it is no surprise:

For comparison purposes, The Chronicle’s survey covered trustees from the 1,082 institutions or university systems that were part of the 2005 president’s survey. Presidents of those institutions forwarded invitations to their trustees to take the 63-question online survey. A total of 1,478 trustees from colleges located in every state and the District of Columbia responded between October 24 and November 29, 2006.

The survey results seem to confirm the portrait that many on college campuses have of trustees: a group of white, wealthy businessmen. Half of trustees in the survey listed their occupation as business. One-fifth make $500,000 or more a year, and an additional 18 percent make between $250,000 and $500,000. Nearly 90 percent are white, and 63 percent are men.

At Dartmouth, the reform movement has been refreshed considerably by the entrance of petition candidate Stephen Smith, a black man who rose from poverty to the heights of the legal academy, into the race.

But of course, Professor Smith is an Outsider. He is critical of spending decisions and his appreciable diversity—of background, profession, intellect, &c.—are of no value whatever. He dissents, so he is double plus ungood. Just a few weeks ago in the student newspaper, an alumnus opposed to Stephen Smith said that the Professor would never add to the diversity of Dartmouth’s Board because we already have someone from Virginia. It was difficult to tell whether he was making a joke or not, until one read the byline and noted that he was, in fact, the chairman of the small committee which picked the three ‘official’ candidate arrayed against Professor Smith. (Wealthy white folk, all—not that it matters a whit, but one imagines the College establishment would trumpet a diverse candidate if he weren’t so, well, independent-minded.)

One more interesting fact from the Chronicle’s trustee survey? “Fewer than a third of respondents said they had ever been on a board that was dissatisfied with the college’s president.”

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