Reflections: Passionate Reflections from a Governance Maven

By Merrill P. Schwartz    //    Volume 31,  Number 3   //    May/June 2023

Over the past 30 years, there were a few events that moved trusteeship from the sidelines to the scrimmage line: Sarbanes-Oxley, sexual assaults of children by a coach and students by a doctor, MOOCs and the explosive growth of online options, the murder of George Floyd and rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, student debt surpassing $1.5 trillion, and a once-in-a century pandemic. There have also been slow-burning changes, including the loss of public confidence in American institutions (church, government, higher education, media), decline in regard for the value of a college degree, and loss of place with the internet of everything. In recent years, enrollment declined, average length of presidencies declined, and prices and costs have increased. The explosion of knowledge and need for interdisciplinary solutions now require collaboration across disciplines and among institutions. The need to manage change has been unrelenting, and the time to react has been reduced to a nanosecond. The governance of colleges and universities now requires more time, talent, and treasure than ever.

During my career at AGB, I’ve seen many changes in higher education governance:

  • The transition of governing boards from honorific bodies to hard-working fiduciaries;
  • The shift in focus from fundraising to strategy for boards;
  • The planning time horizon diminishing from decades to years;
  • The attitude of future leaders evolving from “pick me!” to “why me?” for the job of college president;
  • The dramatic impact of technology on board meetings, information, communications, and institutions;
  • increased professionalization of support for boards to address the increased complexity of governance; and
  • The politicization of everything.

Still, I feel optimistic about the future of higher education in America. Why?

Higher education is too important to the future of our country and the world to allow colleges and universities to decline or revert to the province of the few. We need more well-educated citizens, and most people want more for themselves, their children, and grandchildren—more education, more opportunities, and more financial security. We need higher education to ensure the success of our nation and future generations.

I’ve seen the difference education can make in the span of one generation. My grandparents were immigrants and never owned property of any value beyond a sewing machine. My grandfathers were tailors and grandmothers were homemakers. My father’s parents spoke Yiddish at home and my paternal grandmother never learned to read or write in any language. As first-generation Americans, my parents graduated from high school, and didn’t go to college, but they had ambitions. My five siblings and I were first-generation college students and each of us greatly exceeded the education, expectations, and income of our parents. The first-rate public schools we attended in Newton, Massachusetts, prepared all six of us for college and we went—though we can’t remember our parents helping us with any decisions. We earned nine degrees between us, all 15 of our children attended college, several earned advanced degrees, and those old enough in the next generation are also in college. We know going to college changed our lives, introduced us to friends and spouses for life, and allowed us to succeed in many different roles and professions.

My career has focused on higher education, and my more recent work on boards and equity in student success. I’m passionate about access to higher education and success in college for people from underserved communities because education is so important for the success of each of us and for the country.

What keeps me up at night? The lack of commitment to invest in higher education as a public good. The proposed and enacted anti-DEI legislation and policies to curtail or outlaw offices, courses, training, employment practices, and other campus activities to promote inclusion and success for diverse populations. The pretense that a color-blind approach to policies and practices would serve all equally, while it denies the experiences of all but the privileged regarding access and success for students; faculty hiring, promotion, and tenure; board composition; the presidency; campus climate; funding; curriculum; and more. The only thing more concerning is the passive acceptance of these efforts by some in higher education.

Higher education is too important to the future of our nation not to be passionate about it. I celebrate with honor and respect the service of our governing boards and higher education leaders.

Merrill P. Schwartz, PhD, retired as the senior vice president of content and program strategy at AGB on May 1, 2023, following 27 years of service. She will serve as an AGB senior fellow in the coming year.

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