Higher Education’s Ability to Serve Our Nation Is Under Threat

Council Insights: Council of Board Chairs and Council of Presidents

By Carol Cartwright, Ellen Chaffee, Jill Derby, and David Maxwell April 20, 2023 March 19th, 2024 Blog Post, Council of Board Chairs, Council of Presidents

Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.

AGB’s Council of Board Chairs and Council of Presidents held in-person meetings recently at the National Conference on Trusteeship in San Diego. The meetings—open to all board chairs and vice-chairs and all presidents and chancellors participating in the NCT—were well attended. The purpose of both councils, like AGB’s other councils, is twofold: 1) to provide an opportunity for peer-to-peer conversations among members on issues of common concern and interest and 2) to provide AGB with vital input on the ways in which AGB can support its members.

Background:

These meetings in San Diego had a very specific, focused purpose. AGB is in the process of updating its 2012 “AGB Board of Directors’ Statement on External Influence”, reflecting the fact that the higher education environment related to the issue of undue influence is significantly different than it was 13 years ago. Along with AGB staff, a small group of AGB senior fellows has been in intensive discussion about the content and direction of the new statement. Ellen Chaffee is responsible for creating drafts of the statement for review by the group and, ultimately, the AGB Board of Directors. The statement currently has a working title of “Governing Universities and Colleges in a Democracy: A Call to Action.”

Thus, the goal of these meetings of the Council of Board Chairs and the Council of Presidents was to provide an overview of the statement’s basic assumptions and purpose, and to solicit input from the attendees that would assist in further refining the document. Chaffee pointed out that presidents and board members have always appreciated input from various constituents and that it is often very helpful. The work discussed in these council meetings was about when that input is decidedly not helpful.

Context:

  • For our purposes, “undue influence” is defined as any attempt to affect institutional decision-making: 1) in a manner that is not in the best interests of the institution/system as a whole; 2) in a way that is inconsistent with institutional mission, values and goals; 3) in a manner that intrudes on the authorities and responsibilities of institutional decision-makers (that is, boards, presidents, and faculty)
  • Historically, the sources of undue influence range from public officials, donors, political parties, alumni associations, and—at times—trustees themselves. But we recognize that in the current environment, the most prolific sources of undue—and damaging—influence are many of the country’s elected officials: state governors and legislators.

Foundational Assumptions:

  • Our first foundational assumption is that the independence and autonomy of Americas higher education institutions are essential to their ability to fulfill their vital roles in our country and to the health of our democracy. America’s colleges and universities graduate students with the knowledge and intellectual skills to be informed members of a participatory democracy; they prepare students to meet the country’s workforce and societal needs; the research conducted in higher education institutions advances our knowledge and leads to breakthroughs that improve the human condition, and our institutions are essential to the health and vitality of the communities and states in which they are located.
  • Our second foundational assumption is that the principle of academic freedom is an absolutely necessary component of teaching, learning, and research in America’s colleges and universities. Academic freedom is the freedom of a teacher or researcher in higher education to investigate and discuss the issues in his or her academic field, and to teach or publish findings without interference from political figures, boards of trustees, donors, or other entities. Academic freedom also protects the right of a faculty member to speak freely when participating in institutional governance, as well as to speak freely as a citizen.1
  • Our third foundational assumption is that the independence and autonomy of the country’s colleges and universities—and thus their ability to fulfill their roles in our democratic society—are increasingly under assault from those in the political arena who feel compelled to interfere in institutions’ curricula, programs, and management—in many cases passing legislation that dictates what cannot be taught, what must be taught, and disallowing programs (such as those focused on DEI) that are essential to institutional mission and values and the health of an institution’s culture.
  • Our fourth foundational assumption is that the boards of trustees of America’s colleges and universities must recognize that they are the frontline defense against these assaults. Their fiduciary responsibilities require it:
    • The duty of care: The responsibility to ensure the current and long-term health and vitality of the institution.
    • The duty of loyalty: The responsibility to act in a manner that is in the best interests of the institution, “rather than their own interests or the interests of another person or organization.”2The duty of obedience: The responsibility to ensure that the college or university is operating in furtherance of its stated purposes (as set forth in its governing documents) and is operating in compliance with the law.3

On the basis of these assumptions, we assert that the trustees of America’s colleges and universities must acknowledge that resisting and repelling these attempts at undue influence that erode the basic integrity of an institution is an essential obligation in the context of the fiduciary duties to which they commit when they assume their positions in the governance structures of their institutions/systems.

We also acknowledge that carrying out this responsibility can be quite difficult and entails some risk—particularly for trustees of public institutions, whose loyalty to the institution/system is often counterbalanced against their loyalty to the governor, legislator, or the voters who selected them. We recognize that it is a responsibility that requires unwavering commitment to an institution’s independence and autonomy, a clear understanding of the particulars of a board’s fiduciary responsibilities, and –in many cases—a great deal of courage. While boards have the ultimate responsibility, presidents work in partnership with boards to ensure appropriate education and support on key issues. It is important to emphasize in this context that AGB is fully committed to assisting presidents and board members in carrying out this often-difficult responsibility, and that the new “Board of Directors’ Statement on Undue Influence” is only one step in providing that assistance.

The Discussions:

Both meetings began with a presentation by Ellen that provided an overview of the new Statement, its purpose and its basic principles. Following the presentation, each Council engaged in a wide-ranging and productive discussion. Highlights of the participants’ many thoughtful comments include:

There was overwhelming agreement in both groups with our premise that the independence and autonomy of the country’s colleges and universities was critical to the health and vitality of our democracy.

Similarly, there was overwhelming agreement that political interference was a significant threat to the ability of higher education to fulfill its role in service to our nation.

A number of participants indicated that they had not previously understood the rationale for the connection between higher education’s independence and autonomy and the health of the nation’s democracy and found this discussion immensely helpful and important. Presidents felt that a better understanding of the rationale would be a significant benefit for board members who typically come to board service without higher education experience.

There was widespread agreement that protecting their institutions/systems from undue influence was a critical component of trustees’ fiduciary responsibilities, at the same time recognizing that the exercise of that responsibility can often be extremely difficult and requires both courage and support from the higher education community and from AGB.

It was noted that we cannot just emphasize “independence and authority,” but that we must forcefully underscore the fact that our colleges and universities are wholeheartedly committed to a diversity of points of view both inside the classroom and out.

Frequently it is the president or chancellor of an institution/system who bears the brunt of undue influence, and it is the board’s responsibility to support and protect them to the greatest extent possible.

Several participants noted that often a governor (or legislature) that appoints trustees expects them to carry out a specific agenda, which often constitutes an inappropriate intrusion into the governance of the institution, and asked if there was a way that AGB could provide trustees with materials that would help them in educating those who appoint them about the essential nature of independence and autonomy. Presidents were especially focused on finding practical ways to educate and support board members as they consider these issues.

One participant emphasized the importance of the chair’s role as a “teacher, mentor, guide, creator of experiences” that brings board members together in a common understanding of their roles and responsibilities, including protecting the institution/system from undue influence.

There was strong agreement that presidents should work as partners with their board chairs and board members to prepare for discussions about threats to independence and that they should be especially focused on practical suggestions about various options for dealing with undue influence. Ongoing board education is essential and should include specific examples of documents that might be developed to guide these discussions.

There were multiple, and very helpful, suggestions regarding the ways in which AGB could be of assistance to trustees in combatting undue influence, including:

Provide trustees with documents ranging from one-pagers of bullet points through reports that help them make the case for independence and autonomy and resisting undue influence.

Base the case on facts, data, and law—not on emotion. Note that undue influence into an institution’s curriculum and/or management puts their institutional accreditation—and thus eligibility for federal dollars, including student financial aid—at significant risk. When false and inaccurate information surfaces in the public arena, take aggressive steps to rebut/correct it.

Undertake a public information campaign (perhaps in concert with the other higher education organizations) that educates the public about the importance of higher education’s independence and autonomy and the criticality of those characteristics to the health of our democracy;

AGB should keep members apprised, through various means, of attempts to inappropriately intrude into the governance of an institution/system, including proposed legislation.

Clearly, the forthcoming “AGB Board of Directors’ Statement on Governing Universities and Colleges in a Democracy: A Call to Action” will be of significant help to boards of trustees, both in understanding the mandate within their fiduciary responsibilities to protect their institutions/systems from undue influence, and as a tool to help them educate others about this critical responsibility.

We are very grateful to the many board chairs and vice-chairs, presidents, and chancellors who participated in these council meetings for their thoughtful, engaged, and extremely helpful discussion.

Carol A. Cartwright, PhD, is an AGB senior fellow, a senior consultant, and the ambassador of AGB’s Council of Presidents. Ellen Chaffee, PhD, is an AGB senior consultant and a senior fellow. Jill Derby, PhD, is an AGB senior consultant and a coambassador for AGB’s Council of Board Chairs. David Maxwell, PhD, is an AGB senior consultant and a senior fellow and a coambassador for AGB’s Council of Board Chairs. He is president emeritus of Drake University and a trustee of Grinnell College.

With thanks to AGB Sustaining Champion RNL for its support of the Council of Board Chairs.