Trustees Need More Support to Help Colleges Navigate Turbulent Times

Research suggests trustees of four-year public comprehensive universities want to better serve their institutions but are uncertain of their role


New York City – Comprehensive universities — public universities that are not a state's flagship or main research institutions — are engines of economic growth and critical for sustaining the middle class. The trustees of these schools are well-positioned to help their institutions meet unprecedented challenges, but they say they lack the knowledge, skills and trust needed to do so, according to a new study from Public Agenda.

The research is based on in-depth interviews with trustees and presidents at public four-year comprehensive universities and was produced in partnership with The Kresge Foundation. Public Agenda interviewed 42 trustees representing 29 boards responsible for a total of 143 institutions, as well as 45 presidents of comprehensive universities.

In 2011, comprehensive universities enrolled 69 percent of all students attending four-year public universities. They enroll an even larger proportion of the country's African-American and Hispanic students.

Findings from the research suggest that trustees are acutely aware of the challenges facing their schools, including tightening budgets and lackluster completion rates. They also seem eager to work with institutional leaders to address these challenges and advocate for their institutions with politicians and employers. But trustees say they face gaps in knowledge, skills and, most notably, trust, which prevent them from best serving comprehensive universities.

“Public comprehensive universities and the boards that govern them are structured in many different ways, yet these institutions and boards face many of the same pressures and challenges," said Alison Kadlec, Public Agenda's director of higher education and workforce programs. "For trustees of these vitally important institutions to fulfill their potential, they and university leaders will need to communicate and collaborate in new ways." Many trustees acknowledged that making up budgetary shortfalls by increasing tuition for students and families is undesirable and unsustainable. Yet they also said they don’t understand enough about higher education finances and don’t necessarily trust the ways in which institutional leaders frame and present information.

"More information will not be enough to tap into the potential of trustees," said Carolin Hagelskamp, director of research with Public Agenda. "Our research suggests trustees do not always trust the information they get from administrators and staff. Creating regular opportunities for trustees to engage in collaborative dialogue with institutional leadership can help build that trust."

Trustees were nearly unanimous in their view that universities must focus on student success, understood as retention and completion. Yet they have had trouble improving transfer pathways from community colleges to comprehensive universities and remain largely unfamiliar with student success efforts such as competency-based education.

Trustees also identified a number of actions they could take on behalf of their schools, including helping schools operate more efficiently, setting goals for student success, fundraising, advocating with policymakers and facilitating workforce connections. Yet trustees also said they and their colleagues are often unsure of how to best accomplish these tasks most effectively.

The report, "A Difficult Balance: Trustees Speak About the Challenges Facing Comprehensive Universities," includes implications for strengthening trustees' capacities to serve comprehensive universities.

"Trustees face a difficult balancing act,” said Kadlec. "Ideally, trustees can help higher education leaders navigate and create change in the face of uncertainty by asking the right questions, setting priorities, broaching difficult conversations and supporting institutions as they innovate on behalf of better outcomes for students. But they need to do so without being higher education experts and without overstepping — an overstepping board can be a disaster."

Presidents believed that trustees have good intentions but do not necessarily understand their institutions and missions enough to add value. Presidents said they contend with both disengagement and micromanagement by trustees, but that trustees do have the potential to help comprehensive universities think bigger in a time of significant change in higher education.


About Public Agenda

Public Agenda is a nonprofit organization that helps diverse leaders and citizens navigate complex, divisive issues. Through nonpartisan research and engagement, it provides people with the insights and support they need to arrive at workable solutions on critical issues, regardless of their differences. Since 1975, Public Agenda has helped foster progress on higher education affordability, achievement gaps, community college completion, use of technology and innovation, and other higher education issues. Find Public Agenda online at, on Facebook at and on Twitter at @PublicAgenda.

About The Kresge Foundation

The Kresge Foundation is a $3.5 billion private, national foundation that works to expand opportunities in America’s cities through grantmaking and investing in arts and culture, education, environment, health, human services, and community development in Detroit. In 2014, the Board of Trustees approved 408 awards totaling $242.5 million. That included a $100 million award to the Foundation for Detroit’s Future, a fund created to soften the impact of the city’s bankruptcy on pensioners and safeguard cultural assets at the Detroit Institute of Arts. A total of $138.1 million was paid out to grantees over the course of the year. In addition, our Social Investment Practice made commitments totaling $20.4 million in 2014. For more information, visit

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