Trustees Then…and Now

Board Members’ Views on Trustee and Presidential Qualifications and Higher Education Issues in 1969—And Their Relevance Today

By Lesley McBain July 19, 2023 Blog Post

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

This inaugural AGB Research blog mines AGB’s archives to reexamine the first AGB-sponsored survey of board members, done in 1969 and titled “The Trustees of Higher Education: A Survey Report,” by Morton A. Rauh in collaboration with the Educational Testing Service (ETS).I The 1969 survey sheds light on board members’ thoughts about higher education issues in a particularly fraught era of American history—one marked by civil rights activism, assassinations, bitter conflict over the Vietnam War, and related anti-war campus unrest—as well as about the qualities board members considered essential for trustees and presidents.

The current AGB Board Policies, Practices, and Composition surveyII is very different in form and content, collecting data every five years on not only board demographics, but also board committees, meeting logistics, and other policies and practices for governing boards of public and private institutions and institutionally related foundations. Yet the views of 1969’s trustees yield food for thought today, in another tumultuous era of American politics.

1969 Trustee Demographics

Unlike today’s broader questionnaire on board policies, practices, and composition that is sent to institutions and foundations to complete, the 1969 survey polled individual trustees about their personal characteristics and attitudes toward higher education issues. Specific demographic questions included religious affiliation, income bracket, and political party affiliations and ideologies. In the foreword to Rauh’s report, he explained the most recent previous data had been gathered in the 1934–35 academic year from what a 1947 book described as “The Economic and Social Composition of Governing Boards of Thirty Leading American Universities.” Rauh wanted information on trustees from all sectors, so he surveyed over 9,000 of them and received over 5,000 responses.

The overwhelming majority of respondents were male (86 percent), and 75 percent were 50 years of age or older. Over 99 percent were White. In terms of religious affiliation, the majority overall (75 percent) were Protestant. At “selective private colleges” with no religious affiliation, 82 percent of respondents indicated they were Protestant. An additional 8 percent indicated “no formal religion,” while 6 percent indicated being Jewish, 3 percent indicated being Catholic, and 1 percent chose “other,” a category not further explained by Rauh.

Median income for all respondents was between $30,000–$40,000 (equivalent to between $248,024 and $330,699 in 2023); 16 percent reported $100,000 or more of income (equivalent to $826,186 or more in 2023). Only 8 percent reported less than $10,000 of income (equivalent to less than $82,562 in 2023). Thirty-nine percent of board members at “private universities” reported $100,000 or more of income, the highest percentage in the subtotals.

A minority of respondents overall (33 percent) indicated their preferred political party as Democratic. However, 64 percent of respondents from “selective public universities,” 45 percent of respondents from “public universities,” and 39 percent of respondents from “public junior colleges” did so. Only 22 percent of board members at “private universities” and 24 percent of board members at “selective private institutions” indicated their preferred political party as Democratic. Rauh commented, “Quite clearly political affiliation of trustees differs markedly from that of the voting population as a whole, which, in the 1964 congressional elections, cast 57.2 percent of their votes for Democratic candidates” (p. 5). Since a large majority of survey responses were from private colleges and universities (roughly 82 percent), this may have had some effect on the data.

However, when asked about political ideology (defined as “conservative,” “moderate,” and “liberal”) versus party, 61 percent of all trustees defined themselves as moderate, with 69 percent of those at “selective public universities” and 63 percent of those at “public universities” doing so. Overall, 21 percent of trustees defined themselves as conservative, with the highest subtotal (25 percent) serving at “public junior colleges.” Only 15 percent of trustees overall defined themselves as liberal, with the highest subtotal (24 percent) serving at “selective private institutions.”

The survey also attempted to gauge trustees’ political leanings by supplying a list of political figures of the time (excerpted as “Fulbright, Johnson, Robert Kennedy, [Eugene] McCarthy, Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan, Rockefeller” in the AGB report) and asking respondents about the similarity of their own political views to those of the men on the list.III Rauh then presented data on those who indicated their views were either “very similar” or “more similar than dissimilar.” The most popular answers were Rockefeller (67 percent of respondents overall), followed by Nixon (62 percent overall), and McCarthy (55 percent overall).

1969 Trustee Views on Higher Education Issues

The survey asked trustees to indicate their level of agreement or disagreement with selected statements on higher education issues. Some are reproduced here.

Statement % Agreeing Overall % Disagreeing Overall
The administration should exercise control over the contents of the student newspaper. 39% 51%
All campus speakers should be subject to some official screening process. 69% 25%
Faculty members should have the right to express their opinions about any issue they wish in various channels of campus communication, including classroom, student newspapers, etc., without fear of reprisal. 67% 27%
The requirement that a professor sign a loyalty oath is reasonable. 53% 38%

Interestingly, Rauh concluded after comparing attitudinal responses with political party responses, “it seems clear that political leaning is probably not a good indicator of position on educational issues. For example, on the issue of whether speakers on campus should be screened, only 44 percent of the trustees of selective private institutions (who were 66 percent Republican) thought that screening was desirable” (pp. 5-6).

1969 Trustee Views on “Desirable Qualifications” for Trustees and Presidents

The survey asked respondents to rate “desirable qualifications” both for trustees and college presidents. For trustees, combined results for either “important” or “absolutely essential” ranked “has sufficient time for duties” (94 percent of respondents), “stature in the community” (92 percent), and “stature in vocation” (90 percent) as the top three qualifications. “Potential for financial contribution” was only selected by 45 percent of respondents as either “important” or “absolutely essential,” ranking behind “impatient with status quo, likes new ideas” (67 percent) and “holds strong views about most matters” (46 percent).

In terms of presidential qualifications, “experience in college administration” (90 percent) was ranked first by respondents. In second place (tied at 84 percent) were “contacts, ability to raise funds” and “experience in a college faculty.” A “polished personal style” ranked third (81 percent) and “personal life free from complications” ranked fourth (70 percent) among respondents.

Trustees Then…and Now

Despite the two surveys’ structural differences, a common thread is that today’s trustees, 54 years later, are still predominantly White, male, and older. In 2020, 63 percent of public board members and 64 percent of independent board members were male; 77 percent of public board members and 82 percent of independent board members were 50 or older; and 65 percent of public board members and 80 percent of independent board members were White (non-Hispanic). Forthcoming AGB qualitative research shows the increased importance of board members’ ability to donate/fundraise in present times, which can be attributed to today’s very different higher education financial climate.


  • Trustee demographics in 1969 were largely similar to the majority of trustees today: White, male, and 50 or older.
  • The majority of responding trustees in 1969 considered themselves both Republican (58 percent) and moderate (61 percent).
  • Trustees in 1969 had mixed sentiments on various campus issues—for example, agreeing both that faculty members should have the right to express themselves about any issue via campus channels without threat of reprisal (67 percent) and that making a professor sign a loyalty oath was reasonable (53 percent).
  • Trustees in 1969 ranked the most important quality of a board member as having sufficient time to fulfill board duties (94 percent); only 45 percent considered “potential for financial contribution” to be either important or essential.
  • This initial survey and later AGB data show boards have been predominantly composed of older White men for decades, so diversifying trustee selection along different lines (not just demographic, but professional and geographic) can bring fresh perspectives to both new and old campus issues.
  • However, the 1969 ranking by trustees themselves of “sufficient time to fulfill board duties” as being the most important quality of a board member should also be considered.
  • Finally, trustees’ self-definition as “moderate” should be noted. Even in a year as tumultuous as 1969, they supported faculty members’ right to express their opinions freely via campus channels and did not support administrators controlling contents of the student newspaper.

Lesley McBain, Ph.D., is AGB’s director of research.

i Rauh later published a book drawing on both the survey data and qualitative interviews, The Trusteeship of Colleges and Universities (1969, McGraw-Hill). A data report by Rodney T. Hartnett was also published by ETS but is out of print.

ii The most recent results are available in Policies, Practices, and Composition of Governing Boards of Colleges, Universities, and Institutionally Related Foundations 2021 – AGB.

iii He noted in the book that data had been collected prior to Robert Kennedy’s assassination and before Lyndon Johnson announced he would not be a presidential candidate.