Make College Trustees More Accountable to Students, Taxpayers

Students at Missouri State University’s aquatic center in 2014. Photo credit: New York Times

James V. Koch

In a competition to woo students, public universities are increasingly offering lavish amenities that have nothing to do with education.

The latest trend is lazy rivers, which have been installed at several big institutions, including the Universities of Alabama, Iowa and Missouri. Last year, Louisiana State University topped them all with a 536-foot-long “leisure” river in the shape of the letters “LSU,” part of an $85 million renovation and expansion of its gym. It was L.S.U. students who footed the bill.

At a time when college has never been more expensive, this is the last thing students should be paying for. According to the College Board, tuition and fees at public four-year institutions grew more than 60 percent over the past 10 years. State budgets for higher education have been slashed, and students have to make up the difference.

In the case of L.S.U., the lazy river was financed entirely by student fees, an addendum to their annual tuition. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, over the past five years, those fees increased by 60 percent, nearly triple the amount L.S.U. students paid in 2000.

Tuition and fee hikes at public universities don’t come out of nowhere. Each has to be approved by a school’s governing board, whose trustees are typically appointed by the governor. Ensuring affordable, quality education is an essential part of trustees’ responsibility, but unfortunately often not part of their practice.

Trustees of public universities are stewards of a public trust that rests nobly on the notion that an enlightened citizenry is vital to a democratic society. They have a fiduciary duty to represent the citizens and taxpayers who support public institutions of higher education, as well as the students who attend them. But even though the best interests of students and taxpayers revolve around college access, affordability and graduation outcomes, too often presidents and boards are more focused on the rankings, reputation and popularity of the institution itself.

In my career as the president of two state universities and a consultant to nearly 50 higher-education institutions, I’ve observed dozens of college presidents skillfully co-opt their governing boards into approving costly projects that make schools look more attractive. (Of course, every college president has to increase costs sometimes. But the goal is to make sure it is necessary, while keeping expenses as low as possible for students.)

Trustees, who typically meet four to eight times each year, are entertained as if they are visiting heads of state, flattered for their service and financial contributions to the institution. College presidents sweeten requests for new buildings and research centers, as well as additional student affairs programming, with cleverly branded words like “promise” and “excellence.” What board would want to withhold promise and excellence from its beloved student body?

College presidents also tranquilize trustees into agreement with impossibly large volumes of reading material. Trustees get binders full of documentation about institutional successes that are padded with expensive plans for increasing growth and reputation. Most come away impressed by their president’s expertise and vision and assured that — thanks to their efforts — the university is on the right track.

The unfortunate truth is that while most college presidents care deeply about their institution’s success, an important part of their job is to shake free more resources. They seldom initiate serious campaigns to contain costs.

This means it falls on trustees to be better prepared to help challenge costly proposals that don’t add educational value. When it comes to state schools, the states themselves should educate trustees to understand their responsibilities to the citizenry and students. Training on big-picture issues and higher-education trends, such as the financial trade-off between instruction and research, the costs of intercollegiate athletics, and the expansion of amenities, would help trustees develop courage to ask college presidents probing questions that look beyond institutional narratives and cherry-picked rhetoric.

Our nation’s governors must also play a role. As they appoint public university trustees, they can and should mandate training to make university boards responsible to taxpayers and students. I don’t mean to imply that trustees should devote themselves to ritual opposition to presidents, who usually possess an unmatched understanding of the institutions they lead.

But presidents are not infallible.

James V. Koch, a member of the board of Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust, served as president of the University of Montana and Old Dominion University. Partners for College Affordability sponsors this blog.

This op-ed, published originally in the New York Times, appears with the author’s permission.

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8 responses to “Make College Trustees More Accountable to Students, Taxpayers”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    Often on these pages – there is the claim that health care would be less expensive and more competition would occur if there was more transparency on prices and services. It’s even claimed the poor could then afford insurance and health care if this transparency was required !!!!

    So here we have price transparency for College .. i.e. people KNOW the costs AND they DO have access to all those “voluminous” disclosures and what do people do when they have that info – and choice?

    And how does that price transparency actually affect the escalating costs ?

    So we have this dichotomy which says that the solution to health care costs is price transparency and the solution to college costs is… .. government rules?


    earlier the blog addressed “ignorance” with respect to coal ash…

    does such “ignorance” also extend to the issues that affect the cost and affordability of ..both.. health care and college?

    The question seems to be that …even when information is available… that either people don’t use it … or they do use it but they still make their decisions.

    Maybe this is not much different than.. say cars.. when you can get a darn good car these days for 15-20K but what is the best selling vehicle to consumers? SUVs and Trucks!!! even after they bitch and moan about how expensive health care and college is!!!!

    life is complicated, eh?

    1. So we have this dichotomy which says that the solution to health care costs is price transparency and the solution to college costs is… .. government rules?

      The only “government rules” I have advocated for controlling college costs is… more transparency and governance reforms.

      So, yeah, I believe government has a role in creating transparency in order to make markets work more efficiently and government has a role in deciding how public universities are governed. Make what you will of that.

  2. Thank you.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” So, yeah, I believe government has a role in creating transparency in order to make markets work more efficiently and government has a role in deciding how public universities are governed. Make what you will of that.’

    And I DO AGREE..

    but we already have far more transparency on price and choices than we have in health care and what has it result in? well. MORE cries for MORE transparency… of course.

    My Point? I don’t think that transparency “works” for people making choices.. they STILL make bad choices because the STILL want that product even if it is pricey and the price is not justified… It’s like people paying 3-4 times as much for transportation as is needed.. They WANT what they WANT .no matter the “transparency”!

    Fact is there is ALREADY a boatload of transparency.. and the calls for more govt rules forcing more “transparency” are essentially proxies for more govt involvement in the pricing… to “force” those institutions to stop “overcharging” and layering on mandatory fees, etc..

    People ALREADY know the prices and the fees…!!!! what more do you want? You want them to be forced to justify those prices? Oh Contraire!

    That’s sort alike this guy saying:

  4. DLunsford Avatar

    I suspect LarrytheG is trying to visualize the mechanics of how transparency could lead to the consumer changing his/her behavior. With most building booms at the state academic-industrial complexes, we know already that one funding stream could be student activity fees. Others could be bond issues or alumni benevolence. But are the students or their check-writing/debt drowning parents allowed to dictate how their fees are used? And why don’t we see the young Social Justice Warriors going after this issue with the same gusto as boycotting investments in Israel? I think not, that would undermine the whole ecosystem and everybody loves cushy club-med facilities; right?

  5. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Dead on, President Koch. Thank you.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Dead on! I agree with that.

      So what is Mr. Kock’s underlying message? What does it mean? What does it require? I am not going to presume that I know his mind. But if I had a magic wand to interpret his words in any way that I would prefer, I would read them to require sea changes in public higher education.

      Here is my version of the basic problem that needs to be addressed. It’s not the people, but its is today’s system that does all the damage and so needs to be addressed and corrected. Today’s system of higher education is based on a series of major myths. These are fairly tales that disguise the reality of what is going on in higher education and so twists “higher education” into a shape that often pleases the students and often times their parents too, as it feeds their imagination and worst instincts, while it in fact grievously wastes their money and ours too by handing it over to an education system that spends it on costs that have little or nothing to do with educating our students, but that instead feeds a wide variety of special interests within America’s vast Higher Education Industrial complex, and sustains them.

      For example, vast amounts of monies are wasted to falsely inflate the reputations and claims of performance of the players within the Higher Education Industrial Complex. These student moneys thus are diverted from their education to attract ever more future students by offering ever more luxuries, comforts, and entertainments, and ever more fun courses without educational content for their students, but that dump vast sums of moneys into the coffers of the Higher Education Industrial Complex, enriching those who run it and sustaining the corrupt and bloated machine they run, as well as those private interests who feed alongside them at the troth of public higher education. This includes much wasted research that students pay but receive little or no benefit from, nor does society generally or in particular.

      What are some of these other myths? For example:

      “Our Goal is make it possible for 70% of all high school graduates in Virginia to attend and graduate with a Baccalaureate Degree from College.”

      All serious educator know this can never happen. This claim sets up a majority of these students to fail, yet we use the myth anyway to fill seats. These keeps school that teach little of value in the business teaching students who should be receiving altogether different courses of instruction.

      Another myth is that students, however bright they may be, can learn without being required to study outside class at least 26 hours a week, nor required to fill that outside time by reading or writing, nor tested and graded to standard that proves learning and achievement. Instead the truth is that they are almost certainly being set up or permitted to learn either nothing or very little in college, so will waste years and mortgage their future with little by way of education to show for it, because they were not made or told to work hard enough to get real grades and thus learn.

      Another myth is that all students in college are being taught what they are capable of learning. The majority are not. In college most are set up to fail. Instead they should be in vocational training and technical schools where they could thrive at school and prosper after graduation. And receive a real education, instead of a pretend education.

      University Presidents too often have created this false ethic that demotes their university’s mission to educate students in order to elevate, promote and facilitate the private interests of Administrators, faculty and other outside interests. Now we have reached the point to that universities are destroying the rights of students to be educated, and so destroying the very mission those institutions are tasked and paid to perform.

      This is why the renewed authority and accountability of Boards of Trustees is so critically needed. But Boards of Trustees must take their obligation far more seriously that is the case typically today. What is their obligation? To assure that students under their charge be well educated at costs that they and society can afford. Accordingly, Boards of Trustees must be given the power, responsibility and tools that their job will now demand. Namely to insist upon substantial changes in how many modern public universities are being run today, changes that are far overdue, given that Boards of Trustees have earlier forfeited their traditional responsibilities and duties.

      This, in turn, will require that Boards of Trustees become more fully accountable to the state and public, and that public university presidents become more fully and openly accountable to their Boards. Only then will presidents and administrators of many public universities refocus their mission and resources on delivering a far better educational opportunities to their students to insure they get the education they deserve at costs they can afford and that are commensurate with the education they get. And that no longer will public universities be designed and operated primarily to serve senior administrators and senior faculty but instead are designed and operated to properly educate their students at affordable prices.


      Each public universities must relearn how to refocus its primary energies on teaching teaching and insuring their academic learning. This means retooling much of their ethic and culture today, a very big job. That means that those who manage universities must devote its primary resources (time and money) first to educate its students as effectively as it knows how in ways its students can best afford. This must be its central and overriding mission, its calling, and its reason for being. This is not a new or novel mission. This is returning public universities to their original mission. The one they were founded and funded to do. The paradigm shift will encounter much resistance, but it is grossly immoral not to undertake this task. Our youths future depends on it.

      Accordingly, each Board of Trustees of each public university has its own central and overriding mission too, that is to act as guarantors that the public university under its charge performs its central mission and reason for being, to best educate its students at prices they can afford. This carries with it a fiduciary duty so Boards must be expected to freely exercise the ultimate authority over the University and possess the ultimate obligation to the state, taxpayers, and its students. Not the school President. We have try the latter course, and it has plainly not worked.

      No doubt such change will require highly demanding work. Many obstacles today stand in the way of most Boards doing their rightful jobs, and performing their obligations. These includes many conflicts of interests among power centers within and outside institutions, and deeply entrenched ways they do business that today conflict with the universities true and overriding mission, as well as cultural forces at play within out society, that must be overcome Boards of Trustees be able to do their job well. Mr. Koch describes some of these forces in his op/ed.

      Dealing with these obstacles will require exceptional Board members. Individuals with the experience, time and resources (like independence of judgement, depth of experience, force of character, integrity, collegiality and related skills and qualities) needed to succeed at this demanding job.
      But why is not grossly immoral and irresponsible not to undertake this task, if our youths future depends on it.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    It’s not like there are not a LOT of choices available to people – kids and their debt-drowned parents.

    It’s more like there are hundreds of choices of cars but the kid wants the soup-ed up Mustang or the top-end Jeep… rather than a used Yaris or Versa.

    There ARE lower-priced ways to get a good – guaranteed-job education..

    But people want a specific product. It’s like going to the car dealer to look at their advertised special and finding out it’s doesn’t have all the accessories you wanted.

    I never could afford that gold standard… in education or cars… not that I could not have bought it.. but that, in my view.. I could not justify that level of cost for value. I went to Community College.. got a job.. and took every education benefit they offered and worked during the day , at night and weekends.. so I would not have to go into debt.

    I am not alone. I know others who did that also.

    so I cannot now understand all this whining.. LOTS of entities charge more than they should for good and services including higher ed. Welcome to the real world. Pays your money and makes your choices.

    Rock Music folks are not the sharpest knives in the drawer typically but every now and then their lyrics reflect wisdom way beyond their back beat:

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