How Can Boards and Public Officials Learn from Each Other?

By June 4, 2015 March 7th, 2019 Trusteeship Article

Rep. Heather Carter (R) represents North Phoenix and Scottsdale in the Arizona State Legislature. She focuses on legislative issues related to healthcare and education reform. She also works as a clinical associate professor at Arizona State University, preparing teachers and leaders for Arizona Schools. She spoke on a panel at the 2015 National Conference on Trusteeship about the value proposition for higher education.

What can higher ed do to improve relations with legislators and other political leaders?

Colleges and universities must be proactive, establishing positive working relationships with legislators and other elected officials. Typically, elected officials engage in conversations with higher education stakeholders when they are in session or during budget negotiations. There are some good “in-session” models to follow, including creating short, informative working group meetings (many times over a brown-bag lunch meeting at the Capitol), where legislators have the opportunity to learn about a unique program, service, or research endeavor. But in reality, a positive relationship is established long before the legislative work begins. For instance, colleges and universities could connect elected officials with alumni and other higher education advocates in their respective districts. They could invite legislators and others to the campus for a visit. (Many people haven’t been on a college campus for years, other than perhaps for a sporting event!) This is the time to create interactive and interesting tours where the elected officials are actively involved and engaged in the process.

How should institutions respond to the increased legislative focus on higher ed outcomes?

Institutions must embrace the focus on accountability and outcomes. Higher education needs to continue down this path, promoting the value-added benefits of its work as part of a vibrant community and economy. Institutions should be responsive to legislative inquiries related to outcomes, and the information should be readily available throughout the year. This is not only helpful during budget negotiations, but also during campaigns; it enables the candidate to answer questions from constituents. At the same time, it is critical for institutions to educate lawmakers on a variety of metrics that demonstrate success and contributions beyond the obvious question of how many degrees are produced each year or the amount of financial aid awarded. They must paint a more diverse, expansive picture of the work they do. One such example may include showcasing the economic impact of research and the corresponding spin-off companies created by the venture.

How should public institutions be responding to decreased state funding?

Many states have a constitutional requirement to provide higher education “as nearly free as possible.” Public institutions should position themselves as an investment in the future and a positive contributor to the state’s economy, not simply a state expense. While recognizing the constitutional requirement to produce a balanced state budget each year, institutions should communicate that merely cutting expenses is a race to the bottom and does not provide a path forward to prosperity. As partners in the state economy, public institutions can work with other key state leaders to provide the roadmap for legislators that will transition budget strategies from short-term finances to long-term plans and investments. In doing so, institutions should also continually challenge themselves to be entrepreneurial in their mission. The message should be: Colleges and universities strive to provide top-quality education and services to students and conduct innovative research that benefits the economy, while simultaneously operating in an efficient and effective manner.

What role can boards play in telling the story of higher education?

Governing boards play a vital role in communicating the value of higher education to the community. They are influential community members who have broad social and political networks, and they must be active, using their positions to share success stories with elected officials. Governing board members are uniquely positioned to reach beyond the typical audience of higher education supporters and build relationships with new constituencies, outside of the four walls of the institution.