This project explores how trustees and presidents of some of our country’s most important colleges can better work together to help more students get a college degree.

Comprehensive universities – the public universities that aren’t a state’s flagship or major research institutions – drive the future of our economy. They enroll 69 percent of all students attending four-year public universities and an even larger proportion of the nation’s African-American and Hispanic undergraduates.

Trustees are well-positioned to help these schools weather the unprecedented challenges that higher education is facing, and they seem eager to do so. Yet they also told us they were uncertain of what role they should play. They worry about overstepping boundaries and face serious gaps in trust, skills and knowledge.

College presidents and administrators, policymakers and trustees themselves can do more to help more trustees fulfill their potential. This report includes suggestions to that end.

Key findings and implications are included below. Download the report for full results and to read quotes from trustees and presidents themselves. The research is also summarized in this 8-page brief.


Finances: Trustees said finances are their top priority. But many trustees said they do not understand higher education finances well enough to help their institutions address budgetary challenges.

Student Success: Trustees said they want their institutions to improve retention and graduation rates. But few trustees prioritized understanding the details of innovations that can support student success.

Political Advocacy: Trustees emphasized the importance of advocating with elected officials and other policymakers on behalf of their institutions. But many wanted help advocating more effectively appointments to boards.

Workforce: Trustees said comprehensive universities should be engines of regional economic development. But few trustees said they are actively helping their institutions connect to regional employers.

Presidents’ Perspectives on Trustees: Presidents of comprehensive universities said they contend with both disengagement and micromanagement by trustees. Some presidents said trustees do not fully understand their institutions’ missions and therefore struggle to add value.


Trustees, board chairs, university and system presidents, senior administrators, policymakers, associations of trustees and associations of higher education institutions all have roles to play in strengthening trustees’ capacities to serve comprehensive universities. The following implications include what trustees told us could help them work more effectively and some of the key challenges they identified. They can be used to start discussions among the many stakeholders who seek to ensure the future of America’s comprehensive universities:

  • Address gaps in trust as well as gaps in information.
  • Provide trustees with orientations and peer-learning opportunities to help them understand and ask good questions about finances and other issues.
  • Empower trustees to engage in student success issues without overstepping.
  • Support trustees in advocating for their institutions with elected officials and policymakers.
  • Guide governors and legislators in appointing strong and capable trustees.
  • Clarify for trustees how to help their institutions serve as engines of regional economic development.
  • Grapple with the implications of discussing controversial issues in public.

Methodology in Brief:

Findings are from confidential in-depth interviews with 42 trustees, representing 29 boards responsible for a total of 143 public comprehensive universities, and confidential in-depth interviews with 45 presidents of public comprehensive universities. The interviews with trustees were conducted between August 2014 and January 2015, and those with presidents were conducted between September 2014 and January 2015. Interview participants were invited through a process that combined random selection with selective targeting of governing boards and schools. Download the full report for details on the methodology and sample characteristics.

Download the PDF of the Full Report

A Difficult Balance

Media Type: PDF

This PDF includes full findings and implications from the research, illustrated by quotes from trustees and presidents themselves.


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