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Where Are the Trustees?
In a NYT piece entitled No College Kid Needs a Water Park to Study, the former president of the University of Montana and Old Dominion University, James V. Koch, spends most of his time lamenting the ineptitude of Trustees, and the ease with which Presidents manipulate them. The most frequent question that I receive, when alumni write in about yet another wrongheaded decision of the administration, is “Where are the Trustees in all this?” Here is President Koch’s answer:
In my career as the president of two state universities and a consultant to nearly 50 higher-education institutions, I’ve observed dozens of college presidents skillfully co-opt their governing boards into approving costly projects that make schools look more attractive. (Of course, every college president has to increase costs sometimes. But the goal is to make sure it is necessary, while keeping expenses as low as possible for students.)
Trustees, who typically meet four to eight times each year, are entertained as if they are visiting heads of state, flattered for their service and financial contributions to the institution. College presidents sweeten requests for new buildings and research centers, as well as additional student affairs programming, with cleverly branded words like “promise” and “excellence.” What board would want to withhold promise and excellence from its beloved student body?
College presidents also tranquilize trustees into agreement with impossibly large volumes of reading material. Trustees get binders full of documentation about institutional successes that are padded with expensive plans for increasing growth and reputation. Most come away impressed by their president’s expertise and vision and assured that — thanks to their efforts — the university is on the right track.
The unfortunate truth is that while most college presidents care deeply about their institution’s success, an important part of their job is to shake free more resources. They seldom initiate serious campaigns to contain costs.
This means it falls on trustees to be better prepared to help challenge costly proposals that don’t add educational value. When it comes to state schools, the states themselves should educate trustees to understand their responsibilities to the citizenry and students. Training on big-picture issues and higher-education trends, such as the financial trade-off between instruction and research, the costs of intercollegiate athletics, and the expansion of amenities, would help trustees develop courage to ask college presidents probing questions that look beyond institutional narratives and cherry-picked rhetoric.
Our nation’s governors must also play a role. As they appoint public university trustees, they can and should mandate training to make university boards responsible to taxpayers and students. I don’t mean to imply that trustees should devote themselves to ritual opposition to presidents, who usually possess an unmatched understanding of the institutions they lead.
But presidents are not infallible.
You can say that again. Dartmouth’s Trustees must see how weak Phil Hanlon is in so many areas of endeavor. And if they fear making qualitative judgments about academic matters, at least they can count the poor results of fundraising, the sad condition of so much of the campus, and the disappointment of students and faculty with the second highest tuition in the Ivies and the lowest salaries. Why don’t the Trustees bring in a more accomplished leader?
Addendum: The above piece is a journalistic treatment of a seminal work by Judge José Cabranes on the general ineffectiveness of university Trustees: Myth and Reality of University Trusteeship in the Post-Enron Era (2007). A sitting judge on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and a member of the three-judge United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review, Cabranes was a trustee at Fordham (1974-77), Colgate (1987-90), Yale (1987-99), and Columbia (2000-2002); in addition, his wife Kate Stith-Cabranes ‘73 was on Dartmouth’s Board from 1989-2000. His sons Alejo ‘08 and Ben ‘14 attended the College. Cabranes knows of what he speaks.
August 14, 2013
Breaking: Of Crips and Bloods and Memories of Ghetto Parties
History repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce, or sometimes it just repeats itself. From the New York Times on November 30, 1998: At Dartmouth College, white students at a ”ghetto party” dressed…
June 25, 2013
Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson’s War on Students Part (2/2)
Part 1, Part 2 Today’s post again recounts the events that befell the Freshman. However, the content of the Hanover Police department report reproduced in this space yesterday is supplemented by information from my own…
October 18, 2009
When Love Beckoned in 52nd Street
We were at San Francisco’s BIX last evening, enjoying prosecco, cheese, and a bit of music. A full year of inhabitation in Northern California has unraveled to me no decent venue for proper lounging, but…
October 9, 2009
D Afraid of a Little Competish
So our colleague and Dartblog writer Joe Asch informed me that the D has rejected our cunning advertising campaign. Uh-oh. The Dartmouth is widely known as a breeding ground for instant New York Times successes,…
September 4, 2009
How Regents Should Reign
As Dartmouth alumni proceed through the legal hoops necessary to defuse a Board-packing plan—which put in unhappy desuetude an historic 1891 Agreement between alumni and the College guaranteeing a half-democratically-elected Board of Trustees—it strikes one…
August 29, 2009
Election Reform Study Committee
If you are an alum of the College on the Hill, you may have received a number of e-mails of late beseeching your input for a new arm of the College’s Alumni Control Apparatus called…
- The Dartmouth College Case
- 2007 Trustee Election
- Dartmouth Constitution
- Sunday Morning Sinatra
- The Indian Wars
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