Still On The Sidelines

What Role Will Trustees Play in Higher Education Reform?


Nearly all observers agree that America's system of higher education is facing what Daniel Yankelovich has described as a far different world than the one that existed in even the recent past. The new normal seems to be defined by escalating operating costs and declining funding and by more students seeking higher education with less preparation for college-level work. While the demand for an educated workforce has never been greater, America is falling behind some of our international competitors in post-secondary education. While critics (and many legislators) call for greater productivity and innovative uses of new technologies, many higher education leaders argue that the approaches that have worked in other industries will not produce comparable savings in higher education.

Clearly the trustees of higher education institutions will play a role in responding to these challenges. In a few states, especially Texas and Arizona's higher education trustees and directors, who for years have been outside of the spotlight of public attention, are now on the front lines of controversial higher education reform programs. But where do the majority of trustees stand on these issues? What are the main problems that they see for their own institutions, and what responses do they think are appropriate? And above all, what do they see as their role? Do they see themselves as pushing the institutions they serve in new directions, or do they see their role as a more supportive one, giving their best advice on the questions presented to them, but letting college and university presidents and other institutional executives define the parameters of the discussion?

The Current Study

To answer these questions, Public Agenda (with support from Lumina Foundation) held detailed and off-the-record conversations with thirty-nine directors and trustees from a wide range of higher education institutions. Assured that they and their institutions would not be identified, they spoke candidly about their perception of the issues their institutions face, the leadership capacities of their presidents and chancellors, the knowledge level and abilities of their fellow board members, and their own role in decision making. This study thus adds an important new voice to Public Agends's studies of other essential higher education stakeholders, including college and university presidents ("The Iron Triangle,"ť 2008), business and legislative leaders ("Taking Responsibility,"ť 1999), faculty and chief financial officers ("Campus Commons," 2009), the general public ("Squeeze Play,"ť 2010), and young adults including those with experience in higher education and those without ("With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them,"ť 2010, and "One Degree of Separation,"ť 2011).

Prevailing and Dissenting Voices

Our overall conclusion is that most trustees are currently focused on the short-term challenges facing their institutions and that most have not yet fully engaged with broader issues of higher education reform. The prevailing view that emerges in this series of interviews is that trustees generally feel that they can support the institutions best by working within the framework presented to them by administration rather than questioning it.

At the same time we see a number of signs that trustees may yet play a more central role in the broader debates about higher education. First, there is nearly universal agreement among the trustees we interviewed that higher education is facing unprecedented challenges, as colleges and universities try to maintain the quality of their programs in the face of rising costs, declining state support, and an influx of unevenly prepared students. Second, the trustees are deeply concerned about the retention and success of students, and often differentiate between the needs and challenges of “traditional” undergraduates (those who enroll in a four-year college right after high school) and “non-traditional” students(those who take a different path, either to a four-year degree or to a different sort of credential). They are also ready to consider a broad range of cost-cutting and efficiency measures. In this sense, then, they are ripe for new approaches and new solutions.

Furthermore, a small group of the trustees we interviewed are calling for much broader reforms in higher education. In contrast to the majority, who are at the moment primarily concerned with protecting the traditional programs that they view as outstanding, this group wants to replace existing programs with new modes of education. They are responding not only to rising costs and cutbacks in state support but to what they perceive as fundamental flaws in the structure of higher education.

Nature of the problem facing their institutionsThe main problems facing higher education are external, including:
Declining state support
Rising costs of a labor-intensive industry
Inadequate preparation from K-12 institutions
The main problems are internal; higher education is suffering the usual problems of a mature industry, including:
Reluctance to make major changes
Obsolete models of education
Unresponsive systems of governance
SolutionIdeally the favored response would be a reinvestment of public funding, coupled with improvements in K-12 education. Since few trustees think these are likely given the current economic and political environment, the typical responses are:
Cost cutting (especially of administrative functions)
Larger classes, more adjuncts, salary freezes while still trying to maintain quality—“cutting fat, without cutting muscle or bone”
New sources of revenue
Mentorship programs for disadvantaged students
Cutting costs and ramping up efficiency is just the first step. Much broader, fundamental changes are needed, for example, moving away from “seat time” to individualized learning that allows students learn at their own pace. A few even go so far as to say that the current challenges are good for higher education, if they can precipitate a crisis that forces radical changes in the way education is delivered.
Role of technologyTechnology is a given, and nearly all trustees say their institutions are incorporating new technologies, especially distance education, but many also have reservations about the effectiveness of technology-based education. The main goal in using technology is to improve access, especially for non-traditional students.Technology should be used to radically reform and improve the delivery of education—not just to extend the reach of existing courses/ curricula.
Role of boardsPrimary job is to choose strong presidents and senior leaders and advise and support them in making good decisions in challenging times.Existing boards are part of the problem: they are often captive to their administrations, lacking extensive knowledge, and needing a broader perspective and a willingness to lead.

PresidentsCaught between rising costs, declining state support, and endangered qualityMarginal increases in productivity, supplemented by public reinvestment in higher education
Business and legislatorsNeed a better educated workforce and citizenryGreater productivity (new modes of delivery)
FacultyDeteriorating quality of entering students, declining standards in higher educationRaise standards, improve preparation, focus on student learning
PublicCaught between growing importance and threatened accessProtect access

In contrast to the majority, who are at the moment primarily concerned with protecting the traditional programs that they view as outstanding, this group wants to replace existing programs with new modes of education. They are responding not only to rising costs and cutbacks in state support but to what they perceive as fundamental flaws in the structure of higher education.


“Still on the Sidelines” synthesizes findings from one-on-one phone interviews conducted with thirty-nine college and university trustees across the country. With the assurance that their remarks would be anonymous—cited only with reference to their institution and board types—trustees were guided through questions that sought their opinions on the challenges in higher education and the boards’ role in meeting these challenges. Continuing Public Agenda’s work from “The Iron Triangle” (2008), the interviews specifically gauged board members’ perceptions of quality, access, and cost, as well as productivity and the role of technology as solutions. All interviews were recorded and transcribed. Interviews were conducted from February through August 2011. Funding for the study was generously provided by Lumina Foundation.

Related Publications

Still on the Sidelines adds an important new voice to Public Agenda's studies of other essential higher education stakeholders. Additional studies and reports which may be of interest to policymakers and others considering the issues examined here include: The Iron Triangle: College Presidents Talk about Costs, Access, and Quality Campus Commons? What Faculty, Financial Officers and Others Think About Controlling College Costs Taking Responsibility: Leaders' Expectations Toward Higher Education Squeeze Play 2010: Continued Public Anxiety On Cost Harsher Judgments On How Colleges Are Run

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Still On The Sidelines

A Public Agenda report for the Lumina Foundation

Media Type: PDF

A new report from Public Agenda adds an important new voice to the conversation about higher education reform.


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