A public university system requires an active board that makes independent decisions to ensure that the system meets the needs of the state and not just the needs of self-interested administrators, politicians and faculty members. Yet that is seldom the case; governing bodies tend to act like rubber-stamp committees and social clubs instead of asserting themselves.
One way that university system administrations reduce their governing boards to subservient status is by controlling the flow of information. A recent meeting of the UNC system Board of Governors illustrates the problem.
When a topic is introduced at a Board of Governors meeting, an expert gives testimony to frame the issues and present the relevant facts. Discussion and questions by board members follow, with the topic then referred to the appropriate committee if further action is warranted.
The problem is that the experts are just about always provided by the system administration and offer one-sided information that favors the administrations interests.
This asymmetry of information problem severely hampers the boards ability to govern responsibly; if board members hear only one side of the issue, how good can their decision-making be?
The August meeting kicked off discussion of long-range planning, certainly a crucial function of the board. The university systems previous long-term plan, titled UNC Tomorrow, predates the economic downturn and is obsolete. It is imperative for board members to revisit the big picture.
But rather than receiving the well-rounded information from differing viewpoints needed to set a wise agenda, the board was fed multiple sources advancing the same viewpoint: that states need to spend more on higher education and increase the number of college graduates to meet the needs of the future economy.
These sources included a presentation by former Landmark Communications CEO John Wynne, who is part of a coalition of business leaders pushing the Virginia public higher education system to produce 100,000 more graduates than it currently does. They also included two PowerPoint presentations produced by the State Higher Education Executive Officers hardly an impartial source of information for board members to read in advance of the meeting.
Though advocating more investment in higher education is the prevailing position in most establishment circles, there is also a competing perspective that is rapidly gaining credibility: that too many students are going to college, causing distortions in the economy.
This emerging view is corroborated by serious evidence, such as the trend of increasing numbers of college graduates working at jobs that do not require college degrees (now over 30 percent), or the likely presence of a college bubble akin to the housing bubble that precipitated the economic downturn.
This view has become mainstream and is frequently discussed on the pages of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Chronicle of Higher Education. Its absence from the long-term planning discussion of a major university system is a grave omission.
By providing information supporting only the prevailing view that state university systems should grow dramatically in students, funding and importance, UNCs general administration skewed the dialogue. Obviously, the Board of Governors eventual agenda for the university system would be very different if both views were considered.
If ever there were a time for the board to assert its independence from the systems General Administration, it is now, when a vision for the future is being crafted. Historically, board members have passively submitted to the desires of the administration, ignoring that they have been selected by the legislature to represent the state and the taxpayers.
One solution is to give a board control over expert testimony. It could hire its own executive director to independently select the information provided to board members, to ensure that board members get both sides of the story before making decisions that will affect the entire state for decades to come.
This could be accomplished with a mere $200,000 appropriation from the legislature an investment that could save many millions of dollars going forward. That is a small price to pay for truly independent governance, which is the only reason the Board of Governors exists.
Jay Schalin is the Pope Center for Higher Education Policys director for state policy analysis.