Top Public Policy Issues Facing Governing Boards in 2023–2024:
Political Influence

Increasing pressure on governing boards and institutions.

Real or perceived challenges to independent board governance, institutional autonomy, and academic freedom are likely to intensify as state lawmakers debate funding for diversity programs and what schools and colleges can teach about race, gender, and American history. Numerous bills have been introduced, and some passed, on these topics in various states, and more are expected.

Updated November 22, 2023.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

While issues around efforts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) have faced challenges at the federal level, including in front of the Supreme Court, the majority of challenges have come from the states. Prior to the recent legislative activity at the state level, media reports documented how colleges and universities were adopting DEI programing at a quick pace.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that 40 bills were introduced in late 2022 or 2023 in 22 states to prohibit various college and university DEI programs, including those for staff training and hiring. Several states have enacted these prohibitions into law. The reintroduction of bills in several states in the 2024 legislative sessions are all but a certainty. As part of their platforms, some lawmakers are putting significant emphasis on anti-DEI efforts, some of which have been blocked in state and federal courts.

Tenure

Tenure, the traditional safeguard of academic freedom, has also become a primary target for higher education’s critics. But as Inside Higher Edreported, although tenure wasn’t unscathed in the 2023 legislative sessions, it fared better than many feared. Bills to restrict tenure failed in a few states, but the story certainly has not ended.

In a recent example, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) and PEN America, two advocates of free expression, said that giving presidents decision-making authority over tenure (one example of tenure policy revisions) was not an immediate cause for alarm, but they still criticized new “amorphous standards” that trustees set, including consideration of faculty members’ “effectiveness … and integrity in communications” and their “collegiality.” Despite no major changes to laws and tenure policy in 2023, look for elected leaders in several states to seek changes to the tenure and post-tenure processes in 2024, whether or not their public governing boards support such actions.

Academic Freedom and Free Speech

Public institutions and their boards are also dealing with a spate of “free speech” laws aimed at curbing alleged hostility over political viewpoints. Members of public governing boards may feel torn between the duty to defend academic freedom and independence and their reluctance to go against the wishes of the elected officials who appoint and confirm them. Institutions and boards are also adopting policies or making public statements to bolster and protect campus free speech and to ensure that diverse viewpoints are welcome in the classroom and in forums featuring guest speakers offering differing, opposing, or controversial positions.

Academic freedom and tenure are linked, and attacks on one are often attacks on the other. Several elected officials have claimed that academic freedom is a shield that faculty use while indoctrinating students and coercing them into accepting professors’ views. Organizations like the American Association of University Professors have argued that, rather than activist professors, lawmakers are the issue. These advocates say that some state governments are censoring entire fields of knowledge and are a true danger to the future of higher education. Members of Congress are also starting to follow state legislatures in this area. The House Judiciary Committee is investigating university research centers that collaborate to identify misinformation on the web and social media, such as efforts to discredit vaccination programs and foreign interference in our elections. Unfortunately, but predictably, intimidation and online threats to the safety of research center faculty are a result of the committee’s announcement of its investigation.

Even though major changes to tenure by and large have not been enacted in the states and boardrooms thus far in 2023, PEN America and the American Association of Colleges and Universities have been tracking the persistent attacks on academic freedom that are occurring and are likely to recur in the 2024 legislative sessions commencing in January. In a recent article, they report that eight states have imposed government mandated dictates on teaching and learning, specifically designed to restrict higher education institutions.

To help campus leaders navigate this difficult terrain going forward, PEN America and the American Council on Education partnered to produce a resource guide, Making the Case for Academic Freedom and Institutional Autonomy in a Challenging Political Environment. AGB is also considering guidelines on the issue of influence on governing boards, whether from donors, lawmakers, alumni, unions, or others.

As long as policymakers perceive higher education as ineffective, they will continue to try and enact changes that directly impact governing board authority. At the same time, leaders of the major higher education organizations in Washington, DC, including AGB, have created a national coalition to recognize the importance of higher education as a strategic asset of the United States. The primary intent is to present an action plan to the president and Congress by June 2024 for meeting the challenges and needs that the country and its colleges and universities now face.

Questions for Boards

  • What is the status of the board’s and institution’s efforts toward justice, diversity, equity and inclusion? How have these efforts been received on the campus(es) and by external constituents? How is the board addressing any controversies that have developed or may do so?
  • Has the board found a need to defend faculty members or administrators in the past year, or does it anticipate that it might have to do so in the near future?
  • What percent of the faculty is tenured at our institution? Is the board supportive of the institution’s tenure and post-tenure policies, or are revisions deemed necessary?
  • What policy guidance exists at our institution(s) regarding campus free speech for students, faculty members, and invited speakers?