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Politicking in Board Selection Detrimental to Higher Education

May 05, 1996|J. Eugene Grisgby III | J. Eugene Grisgby III is director of UCLA's Center for Afro-American Studies and a professor in the university's School of Public Policy and Social Research

The nation's colleges and universities play essential and critical roles in American society. In addition to transmitting fundamental cultural values, colleges and universities are crucial to continued economic growth and development. Rapid innovations in electronic technology, medicine, law and engineering can be traced directly to scholars and students studying and working in many of our teaching and research institutions. Similarly, advances in the arts, music, literature, politics and even athletics have deep roots in our higher education system.

Given the obvious need for these venerable institutions, there are signs that the public is increasingly discontented with higher education. A Harris Poll, for example, found that parents' anxiety about college costs ranks as high as their concern about the costs of housing, health care and the security of their retirement income.

Funding for higher education, which was plentiful before the 1990s, has slowed dramatically. Faced with rising operating costs and falling student financial aid, higher education for the first time in a generation has seen budgets decline for several years in a row. The recent revelation in The Times that members of the UC Board of Regents attempted to influence student admissions at UCLA and Berkeley and reports that athletes at USC can receive passing grades for no work have heightened the public's concern about the adequacy of the leadership and future direction of higher education.

The American Governing Board of Universities and Colleges, an organization primarily concerned with governance issues in higher education, has been concerned with why the public seems to be losing confidence in the individuals most responsible for addressing these issues: university presidents. Late last year, the AGB established the National Commission on the Academic Presidency, under the leadership of former Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Balilies. The charge to the commission is to explore the changing nature of the college presidency and of the higher education environment, particularly in the public sector.

While the commission's work will not be completed until later this year, some directions seem to be emerging as to why college presidents cannot set the types of leadership examples that many of their predecessors did. One of these indicators has to do with the relationship between presidents and boards of trustees, particularly in the public sector.

Of critical importance in this relationship is how boards are selected. The vast majority of public trustees are appointed by a governor, as are the regents of the University of California. Unfortunately, this appointment process is done more on political grounds than on sound educational criteria. Often the most relevant qualifications for appointment are tied to how much the candidate contributed, their race, gender or geographic base. Criteria related to knowledge about higher education, commitment to an open educational process or concern for education in general or educational institutions in particular are seldom used.

The result is that public trustees are usually individuals who are involved in politics or who have achieved eminence in their field, frequently business or public affairs. The danger in this politicized process is that these appointees increasingly serve as advocates for single issues, sometimes hoping to curry favor with governors aspiring to higher office.

Several states have moved to adopt formal procedures for selecting trustees of public institutions based principally on merit. Qualifications for trustees are publicly stated, and appointing authorities must adhere to these qualifications when filling vacancies. One way to do this is for the governor to establish a panel of prominent citizens and educators to advise on trustee nominations by developing lists of potential trustees, reviewing lists of members under consideration or by considering alternatives. The key point is that governing bodies of public higher education institutions should not result from political patronage controlled by a single individual, office or party.

While the task of the AGB commission is to develop a set of recommendations to strengthen the leadership role of presidents, given the recent revelations within the UC Board of Regents, it certainly isn't a bad idea to insist that the merit base so fiercely advocated as the only acceptable source of admissions decisions be extended to those charged with governing the system. The result can only be beneficial for all of the people of the state.

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