New Research Identifies Two Trustee Types; One Seeks Fundamental Changes


New York City - - In new research on governing boards in higher education, funded by the Lumina Foundation and summarized in Public Agenda’s new report Still on the Sidelines: What Role Will Trustees Play in Higher Education Reform?, most college trustees who were interviewed are focused on short-term challenges facing their institutions, and many have not yet fully engaged with some key national issues of higher education reform.

The trustees in the study almost unanimously agreed on the necessity of serving the different needs of a new generation, providing a trained workforce, helping existing students graduate and maintaining quality education amidst diminishing resources. But the majority of trustees say that their role in finding solutions to these challenges should be to choose strong presidents and senior leaders and advise and support them in making good decisions in challenging times, as opposed to pushing for specific policy and administrative changes.

The report is based on extensive interviews Public Agenda conducted with trustees of boards at diverse public and private institutions, who spoke candidly and anonymously about their roles and responsibilities in addressing the unprecedented crises in funding, student accessibility, student readiness and quality facing higher education today. While trustees agree that new approaches and solutions are necessary, most say they only feel comfortable with a supporting role rather than a proactive one in promoting or resisting reform within their institutions.

Public Agenda’s analysis suggests that there are two types of trustees: those who constitute the majority and view their role as an advisory one, and a small minority who sees the function of existing boards as part of the problem in higher education. These two types have distinct notions about what their roles should be and how they should act to help higher education systems respond to their existential challenges:

The view of most of our respondentsAn opposing perspective
Views on the nature of the problems 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.”
  • Seeking 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/curriculum
Role of boardsPrimary job is to choose strong presidents and senior leaders and advise and support them in making good decisions in challenging timesExisting boards are part of the problem, they are often captive of their administrations, lacking extensive knowledge, and needing a broader perspective and a willingness to lead.

"The message we heard from most of our respondents," said Dr. John Immerwahr of Villanova University, lead author of the report and senior research fellow at Public Agenda, "is that they feel it's most helpful to support their chancellors and presidents rather than challenge them. They identify their role as giving wise counsel, asking challenging questions, and providing valuable links to the community and the legislation, rather than working outside the framework of their administration to initiate change."

The minority is calling for much broader reforms in higher education. In contrast to the majority, who are at the moment primarily concerned with protecting existing programs, these trustees want to experiment with and expand into new modes of education delivery. 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.

"Our nation has an education model whose calendar was based on the 19th century agricultural calendar, whose classroom is based on the 20th century industrial model, trying to produce a high quality product in a 21st century," said a trustee from an online institution. "We're never going to be successful until we can completely disrupt the model of our classroom, and our model of teaching, that has been pervasive in the entire continuum from kindergarten through graduate degree program."

The differences between these two groups of trustees were largely a matter of emphasis--most would probably concede that there is some truth to both perspectives, but nonetheless, Public Agenda identified a real tension between the two.

Perhaps surprisingly, researchers also found that most trustees seemed largely unfamiliar with some of the more fundamental debates of the higher education policy community, including the concept of productivity, an idea that has gained traction among state and national policymakers and experts in recent years. "Productivity? Truthfully, it's not personally been on my radar," said one board member from a public university. Additionally, some rejected the concept as inappropriate or unhelpful in a higher education context.

"Still on the Sidelines" builds on past research by Public Agenda of other essential higher education stakeholders and adds a new voice to the input from college and university presidents, business and legislative leaders, faculty and chief financial officers, and members of the general public. View the entire report and more at

Public Agenda’s landing page for the “Still on the Sidelines” research report includes several resources for educators and journalists following higher education issues, including:
  • Links to extensive public opinion research on the views of college presidents, teachers and students covering a wide range of issues in higher education
  • Downloadable PDF of the full research report.
About the research:

“Still on the Sidelines” synthesizes findings from one-on-one phone interviews conducted with 39 college and university trustees across the United States. 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 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. The Lumina Foundation funded the research.

Public Agenda Since its founding in 1975, Public Agenda has worked to help communities and the nation solve tough problems by helping leaders and other change agents better understand and more effectively engage citizens and stakeholders. Public Agenda does this through research that illuminates people's views and values; engagement that gets people talking, learning from each other and working on solutions; and communications that spreads the word and builds momentum for change. Public Agenda works on a wide variety of issues, including K-12 and higher education, climate change and health care. Our goal is to contribute to a democracy in which problem solving triumphs over gridlock and inertia, and where public policy reflects the deliberations and values of the citizenry. Public Agenda is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that was founded by social scientist and author Daniel Yankelovich and former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance.

Lumina Foundation Lumina Foundation, an Indianapolis-based private foundation, is committed to enrolling and graduating more students from college—especially 21st century students: low-income students, students of color, first-generation students and adult learners. Lumina’s goal is to increase the percentage of Americans who hold high-quality degrees and credentials to 60 percent by 2025. Lumina pursues this goal in three ways: by identifying and supporting effective practice, through public policy advocacy, and by using our communications and convening power to build public will for change. For more information, log on to

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