A Difficult Balance: Trustees Speak About the Challenges Facing Comprehensive Universities

December 1, 2015

Comprehensive universities—public institutions that offer four-year degrees to students drawn mostly from their regions—are the backbone of the American higher education system. But these institutions are trying to increase graduation rates among a changing student population at a time of historic declines in public funding and pressure to limit tuition increases.

Trustees of comprehensive universities are in a tough spot. They have governing authority over individual universities and, in many cases, over entire statewide systems of universities. They hire and fire university and system presidents, interact with state lawmakers and local business leaders and are charged with securing their institutions’ futures. But although some are elected, they are more typically volunteers appointed by governors. With limited expertise in higher education, they are supposed to help their institutions address challenges related to finances, student success and regional economic development without getting involved in day-to-day management. 

To find out how trustees of comprehensive universities view their own capacity to serve their institutions, Public Agenda, with support from The Kresge Foundation, conducted confidential in-depth interviews with 42 trustees representing 29 boards responsible for governing a total of 143 four-year public comprehensive universities. Public Agenda also conducted confidential in-depth interviews with 45 presidents of comprehensive universities.

Main findings include:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Trustees emphasized the importance of advocating with elected officials and other policymakers on behalf of their institutions. But many wanted help advocating more effectively and many criticized governors’ appointments to boards.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  1. 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. Nearly all the trustees we interviewed said their comprehensive universities are struggling with rising costs and declining state funding. Many said raising tuition is politically difficult and would contravene their institutions’ missions by making them less accessible. But they also worried a lack of revenue is putting the quality of education at their institutions at risk. Many trustees wanted their institutions to operate more efficiently but said they do not understand higher education finances well enough to help accomplish that. They often felt overwhelmed by the volume of complex information given to them by administration and staff. Furthermore, some trustees worried they rely too much on administrators and staff to set agendas, frame problems, provide data and propose solutions. Some felt open meeting rules inhibit discussions about cost cutting. While many comprehensive universities are trying to fundraise, trustees said they need skills and training to help their institutions do so effectively.
  2. 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. The trustees we interviewed were nearly unanimous in their view that comprehensive universities must focus on student success by helping students stay in college and earn their degrees. In practical terms, trustees typically saw their role as setting goals for improved retention and graduation, while leaving the details of how to achieve those goals to administrators, faculty and staff. They were not especially familiar with recent pedagogical innovations, such as competency-based education, that may require resource reallocation, new financial models and different roles for faculty and staff. Trustees of systems recognized that improving transfer for students between and across institutions is important and something they should be positioned to facilitate. But some expressed frustration with their limited ability to foster improved transfer and other forms of collaboration across institutions.
  3. Trustees emphasized the importance of advocating with elected officials and other policymakers on behalf of their institutions. But many wanted help advocating more effectively and many criticized governors’ appointments to boards. Although the trustees we interviewed saw advocating for their institutions with elected officials and other policymakers as important parts of their role, nearly all stressed the difficulty of securing more funding in an era of overall lower budgets across state functions. Moreover, many trustees said they lack the skills and connections necessary to engage elected officials and policymakers effectively. Many maintained that governors and legislators do not choose wisely when appointing trustees and exert too much influence over those they do appoint. 
  4. 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. Preparing students for careers and meeting regional workforce needs are core aspects of comprehensive universities’ missions, according to the trustees we interviewed. Most, however, seemed to let presidents and administrators take the lead on building workforce connections. Trustees of standalone institutions appeared more ready to facilitate connections between their institutions and regional employers than trustees of larger systems. Some trustees questioned whether their institutions are too focused on getting students jobs in the near term instead of considering the bigger picture of regional workforce planning. Several pointed out that comprehensive universities are themselves vital employers for their regions, making mergers or closures politically unfeasible.
  5. 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. Presidents of standalone comprehensive universities seemed more able to find value in their boards and spoke about ways their boards have helped their institutions achieve goals, although at the risk of micromanagement. Presidents of comprehensive universities within systems talked about struggling to get their boards’ attention and said trustees do not understand their institutions’ missions well enough. Generally, presidents felt trustees need a better understanding of financial information, and administrators and staff can do a better job of presenting that information to trustees.

The following implications include what trustees told us could help them work more effectively and some of the key challenges they identified:

  1. Address gaps in trust as well as gaps in information. Our research found 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 and carefully framing and facilitating that dialogue can help build trust. 
  2. Provide trustees with orientations and peer-learning opportunities to help them understand and ask good questions about finances and other issues. Trustees told us they often feel overwhelmed by complex information and uncomfortable asking for help. Providing trustees with targeted information and creating time and space for them to ask questions could help them understand and serve their institutions better. 
  3. Empower trustees to engage in student success issues without overstepping. Presidents and senior administrators can do more to educate trustees about innovations in teaching and learning. Associations of trustees and of higher education institutions can do more to help trustees understand pedagogical innovations so they can be in a better position to guide comprehensive universities through conversations with internal and external stakeholders about student success. 
  4. Support trustees in advocating for their institutions with elected officials and policymakers. Trustees need to be able to advocate for their institutions with respect to transfer, financial aid and funding. This means they must be sufficiently informed about those policy priorities to discuss them with elected officials and policymakers. 
  5. Guide governors and legislators in appointing strong and capable trustees. Trustees and presidents told us that if boards develop mechanisms to identify gaps in their own skills and connections, they can be better positioned to advocate for new appointees who meet their institutions’ needs. 
  6. Clarify for trustees how to help their institutions serve as engines of regional economic development. Trustees, who sometimes have significant business connections, could be positioned to help their institutions understand and meet regional workforce needs. But their roles should be specified and formalized as part of a broader institutional workforce strategy. 
  7. Grapple with the implications of discussing controversial issues in public. Having thoughtful, honest conversations about tough issues while ensuring the transparency of public institutions represents a challenge for higher education governance. Public universities, and the policymakers who determine how they will be governed, need to grapple with the implications of discussing controversial issues in public.

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 report for details on the methodology and sample characteristics.  For more information, email research@publicagenda.org.