Training Public Trustees

The boards of state colleges and universities need to consider policy changes to become more effective, a new report says.
April 26, 2005

Much of the literature about how college boards can improve their effectiveness focuses on private colleges, leaving out the unique qualities of public boards that require different strategies, a new report says.

The report, released by the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis at the University of Southern California, is based on interviews with board members, presidents, governors and officials in a variety of other roles in public higher education.

A key difference between public and private boards, the report says, is that public boards are more likely to have turnover, as new governors are elected and not only appoint new trustees, but may well appoint trustees who don't share the same agenda as other board members. While private colleges also change their composition, board leaders are much more likely to bring on new trustees with similar values and goals for the institution.

The Southern California report suggests several ways for public colleges to deal with the increased turnover:

  • Creating a multiple-year board agenda, developed with participation from many groups, to help keep the board moving forward, even as its composition changes.
  • Reviewing the agenda annually in light of changes in the state.
  • Involving outside groups -- such as corporate consultants and newspaper editors -- in critiquing the board's agenda and operations.

Another key problem facing public boards is that trustee interaction can easily become political, rather than professional. While most boards have orientation programs of some sort, the report suggests that additional steps will help boards function without becoming overly political.

For example, the report suggests policies that specifically require that all trustees receive the same information, so that there is no fear among board members that some of their colleagues have more information. In addition, the report urges boards to make sure that trustees interact in informal, social situations, as well as at board meetings, so that they can establish good personal relationships.

The report was prepared by Adrianna Kezar, associate professor of higher education, and William G. Tierney, a professor of higher education and director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis.


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