Advocating for Institutional Autonomy

By AGB February 23, 2018 March 7th, 2019 Letters & Testimony

Dear Chairman Alexander and Ranking Member Murray:

On behalf of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB), I am pleased to respond to your February 13 call for comments regarding the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA).

AGB is the premier organization centered on governance in higher education, serving over 1,300 member boards and nearly 40,000 board members who serve as fiduciaries of 1,900 colleges, universities, and institutionally related foundations. Governing boards hold a discrete authority over the colleges and universities they serve. As institutional fiduciaries, board members are ultimately accountable for fulfilling institutional mission, ensuring academic quality and financial health, and overseeing all major policies. Essentially, boards bear ultimate responsibility for the stewardship and protection of their institutions’ human, physical, and financial assets, and hold these assets in trust for both current and future generations. Those are particularly crucial roles in addressing today’s central challenges of affordability and completion. This country’s unique model of board governance—one that is dependent on the voluntary engagement of committed citizens—has long defined America’s system of higher education.

AGB has joined with the American Council on Education and other higher education associations in sharing comments that support our values and broad goals for reauthorization. We hope the committee will give its fullest consideration to these comments as it shapes a bill consistent with the needs of our students and the nation. Moreover, I respectfully share the intense interest of the nation’s college and university board members in recognizing and supporting the central tenets of institutional autonomy and the independence of fiduciary governing boards.

Since Colonial times, America’s higher education system has stood upon the principle and inherent value of college and university autonomy, consistent with national interests but free from direct government control. It is this shared commitment to autonomy that has in many ways defined our nation’s higher education system: Institutions set their own respective missions, shape their academic programs that advance the mission, and continuously evolve new and innovative models of education that meet the expectations of a changing student body and a demanding public. It is this institutional autonomy, more than any other condition, that has enabled the diversity and quality of our colleges and universities to grow and thrive. Ultimately, it falls to the men and women who serve on the governing boards of our institutions and university systems to protect that autonomy while exerting their own independence as a policymaking body, including approving academic programs. It is higher
education’s governing boards that are accountable for the success of their institutions; and it is their independence as fiduciaries that is essential for effectively assuring institutional mission fulfillment.

Governing boards, working collaboratively with their administrations and faculty, should be responsible for defining their mission and the nature of their academic programs. The quality of this work should be reviewed periodically by accrediting agencies recognized by the Department of Education. While the federal government has a legitimate interest in collecting and reporting a broad array of student outcomes such as completion rates, loan repayment, earnings, and defaults, it should have no role in evaluating academic quality because it lacks the expertise and resources to do so.

The approaching HEA reauthorization should rightly focus on issues of improving and enhancing academic quality and student success. All stakeholders in this endeavor have a responsibility to do their part to achieve this goal. For AGB, that means supporting the efforts of governing boards in overseeing education quality, ensuring their effectiveness as fiduciaries, and collaborating and building upon the work of accreditors.

We deeply appreciate the bipartisan nature of your Committee’s reauthorization efforts thus far. AGB stands ready to work with you to ensure that the final legislation achieves what is necessary for the benefit of our nation’s students and sustains the vital federal role in our nation’s system of postsecondary education.

We would welcome the opportunity to further clarify these summary comments as the legislative process moves forward.

Richard D. Legon

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