Empower College Trustees with More Data

In the previous post Steve Haner shows how Virginia’s public universities have relentlessly jacked up tuition and fees since 2010. What can be done? Students and parents can pick other colleges and universities — but most institutions have been raising tuition & fees just as aggressively. Alternatively, the General Assembly can try micro-managing the institutions by capping tuition or other means, but such arbitrary actions create their own set of problems. Ideally, change would come from within. Faculty and administrators are trapped in their own self-interested world view, so we can’t expect anything from them. Reform, adapted to the unique conditions at each institution, must from come from Boards of Visitors.

James P. Toscano, president of Partners for College Affordability & Public Trust (a former sponsor of Bacon’s Rebellion), delivered some ideas worth considering to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) this morning.

“When only one out of 200 Virginia trustees votes against a tuition hike, our trustees are really just administrative rubber stamps,” Toscano said.

We need to empower trustees with information that enables them to own up to their share of responsibility and work jointly with college presidents to create a true shared vision that isn’t just pro-institution but balances the interests of students, paying parents and the taxpaying public.

So … SCHEV should give trustees the tools they need to engage in substantive institution-level discussions of cost by developing a statewide report on program-level costs by institution. Until boards of visitors have access to this information and can grapple with it to address cost issues on their own, boards and presidents can’t even begin to engage on simply questions of Return on Investment and fulfill their governing obligations.

Finally … SCHEV should publicly support proposals that require boards of visitors to listen to the voices of students and paying parents and faculty and others before making tuition decisions.

In my observation, board members are easily railroaded by college administrators. Most know very little about higher-ed issues or financing when they join the boards, and by the time they figure out how things work, they rotate off. To a greater or lesser degree, administrators frame the issues in ways that are most advantageous to them and spoon-feed the data that they want board members to see. Board members don’t know enough to pose tough questions, even if they were disposed to do so. It would be extraordinarily beneficial if SCHEV could provide an alternate source of data and analysis pertaining to programmatic costs.

Rather than imposing draconian, one-size-fits-all solutions on Virginia’s colleges and universities, as legislators have tried unsuccessfully to do in the past, the General Assembly could accomplish far more good by empowering boards of trustees. Expand the scope of SCHEV’s data collection and analysis to encompass comprehensive cost data, fund two or three positions to beef up SCHEV’s data capabilities, and distribute an annual update on programmatic costs to every member of every board of visitors at a public Virginia institution.

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12 responses to “Empower College Trustees with More Data”

  1. djrippert Avatar

    Perhaps the first step is to institute a process for nominating and electing Board of Visitors members that is merit – based. Let’s be honest, the easiest way to get on a public university Board of Visitors in Virginia is with your checkbook. Support the right politicians and make your interests known. There’s no public vetting process and our one term governor would appoint a drunken cat to a BoV so long as that cat had its checkbook out when the governor runs for national office after serving as governor.

    Why isn’t the General Assembly required to hold public hearings for the appointment of a BoV position? Why isn’t there a vote by the Senate?

    The second item is legal liability. Members of BoVs (like their corporate counterparts on Boards of Directors) should be subject to civil suit for failing to properly administer their college or university. Also, the Visitors on the Audit Committee should be subject to stringent background and experience requirements just like the board members on the Audit Committees of public companies.

    Given that our General Assembly has absolved itself of all responsibility for the ongoing success of our institutions of higher learning it can at least help guarantee that those put into BoV positions are qualified and competent.

  2. Jim,

    How foolish of you to think the legislature would cede any of its power by vesting anything meaningful in a higher ed Board of Trustees. It’s OK, though. We all lose our heads now and again. 😉

    1. Crazy, My question to you: How would providing more data and analysis to board of trustee members cede more power to higher-ed institutions? It would empower boards — not at the expense of the General Assembly but at the expense of college administrators.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        I’d bet dollars to donuts , most Trustees do not see the administration as the enemy that needs to be cut/reined in.. with the exception of some like Dragas …

        It’s hard for a particular Trustee Board to blame administrators of a particular college for increased costs – when those administrators will argue they are “in line” with their peers… That’s a losing argument.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    I don’t think “empowering” the BOT will change much to be honest.

    And I’m not so convinced that State-level rules needs to be one-size-fits-all either.

    What we need is for students and parents to be “shoppers” and not “recipients” of “aid”.

    And it’s the parents/kids, the customers who will not only benefit from more information but they will take action themselves when directly affected – unlike many of the Trustees who don’t really understand the finances of a particular college and are reluctant take actions that the Administration will say – will harm them… and their mission. I think most Trustees probably see their role as one associated with care and feeding of the University rather than advocates for the finances of parents/students.

    Trustees want the University to be healthy and prosper and not suffer harm … Laying off people, cutting programs, diminished stature and appeal , etc… are bigger concerns – as long as demand for enrollment stays strong.

    Most administrations will argue that lower tuition will hurt their efforts to fund things that attract enrollments.

    I think expecting trustees to police costs is probably not a realistic expectation.

  4. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Right at the height of the storm yesterday most of the college presidents were in one room at VCU, doing their annual meeting at SCHEV. Perhaps all the tornadoes around them were meant to send a message. Unfortunately I had already set up something else downtown and could not be at VCU for that gathering. The newspapers no longer go to SCHEV it seems…..

    It is all a question of fiduciary duty, who the trustees/visitors work for – and it isn’t the taxpayers and I don’t really think its the students. You and I are not viewed as the “stockholders” when of course we very much are.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      Excellent analogy. I’ve always had the opinion that the BOTs / BOVs are completely lacking in accountability and take those positions more for networking and social esteem than with any real intent to change things for the better.

      In the real world the investors vote on who sits on the boards of directors. It is, after all, their money that will be made or lost. The CEO (who is an employee) is normally afforded a spot to represent the company and the employees.

      Perhaps each US Congressional district in Virginia should vote for 4 BOT / BOV representatives to protect the interests of the taxpayers on various college and university boards. That’s 44 people elected by the people to be divided up among Virginia’s public colleges and universities. The governor can appoint a couple to each college and university as well. The student president gets a seat and each board must have one sitting member of the General Assembly on it.

      1. I can only think of a few Virginia college boards that have taken active roles. With the attempted replacement of Teresa Sullivan, there may have been some issues, but there wasn’t cause, and it ended up blackening a few eyes (including UVA’s). W&M’s board moved to terminate a president, but I think that was late and there was some cause. If I recall correctly, there was an activist board at ODU that replaced the president (I think Helen Dragas’s father was behind it . . .) and that worked out OK.

    2. “The newspapers no longer go to SCHEV it seems…..” Another footnote to the saga of the declining MSM with no replacement in sight.

  5. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    On this topic earlier this year I commented:

    “The Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust opine that “Decision-making at higher-ed institutions is opaque and insulated from public scrutiny. The system could benefit from greater transparency.”

    When people holding a public trust spend hundred of millions of dollars of public money, why would these very same people rig the system to make sure that their decisions are “opaque and insulated” from public scrutiny?

    Don’t the citizens who hold this public trust receive these vast sums of public money only on their express promise that they will spend these monies to solely to educate the children of those who pay the money to them?

    Are these public monies not paid in trust to educate our kids?

    These people run a public institution owned by the state. That institution of higher education is charged to educate the children of the state. Why would citizens charged to make that happen hide the sources of that public institution’s revenues, such as Strategic Investment Fund, and also hide how, when, and for what purposes, that public institution spends its money?

    Why is the plain truth about how the money is collected and from whom, and where the money is spent, who gets it, and for what purpose, is never made plain and transparent to the public? But instead become facts hidden from the public?

    Why? Why does this happen year after year?

    Any intelligent and rational person can only assume that these plain and simple facts are hidden because these people members and their allies DO NOT WANT THE PUBLIC TO KNOW WHAT THEY ARE DOING WITH THE PUBLIC’S MONEY. And, in particular, that they do not want the public to know how little of it goes to actually educate their children.

    Why is this not a sure sign of obvious corruption and arrogance?”


  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    Suffice to say – BOV are not considered to be responsible like an elected body might be and in Virginia we have a similar body called a local school board which does stand for election and they do make spending decisions but ultimately how much in total is decided by BOS – and anyone here who has every tried to drill down in a local Virginia School budget knows that the word “transparency”has varied meanings even when it supposedly is embodied in law.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    BOVs are also , in some respects, not unlike some regional bodies like libraries, jails, water/sewer, transit where the appointed board actually does the budget and spends the money – and the budget gets sent to the participating counties/cities to pay their allocated share. The BOS – individually cannot alter that budget , they either pay it in full as specified, or there are direct consequences… like reductions in services… Same issue of accountability and transparency.

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