Board Member Advocacy

Recently, we've seen policy leaders in a number of states propose draconian cuts to their investments in public higher education. And while all of our institutions are looking to contain costs and invest wisely, some of the proposals appear to be more about politics than they are about smarter higher education policy.

Important determinations about the future of higher education should not be made in a politically hostile way. Today's investments in public systems and institutions will have direct consequences on the future of our states, their economies, and their competitiveness--they are too important to be used to score political points. Our higher education system, which is changing and focusing on affordability and student success, needs a level of investment that is consistent with and supportive of state and national priorities. Budget realities are part of the funding debate, but policy makers who view higher education's discretionary funds as the easiest funds to cut among those on the chopping block may regret that short-sighted actions put long-term priorities at serious risk.

Board members, and especially those serving on public boards, have a responsibility to remain independent of the appointing authority who invited them to serve. In Wisconsin, for example, the governor presented a new public authority alternative to the iconic University of Wisconsin System's current model of support in exchange for a proposed $300 million reduction in state support. Some board members are questioning his proposal; many were also appointed by him. Their expressions of concern are appropriate for their service to the citizens and strategic interests of their state. At its core, the strengths of American higher education are its autonomy and independence--ensured by a body of citizens separate from institutional or governmental pressure.

In other states, policy makers have proposed similarly sharp cuts and even calls to eliminate institutions. Perhaps such proposals make sense--mergers and restructuring might be the best policy for some. But how those initiatives are advanced and who is a part of those conversations is fundamental.

The intrusion into the independent authority of public higher education governing bodies by policy leaders violates the value-added of our governance structure, where an independent board, as fiduciaries, is accountable for its institution's mission. This is not the time to reinvent how our universities and colleges are governed and turn them into pawns in the public debate.

It is time for board members to assert their collective voice in support of the independence that marks the uniqueness, quality, and creativity of American higher education.