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Reflections on the Role of Trustees in Current Controversies

Tomorrow's Academy

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One reporter questioned me about the presidential search at Minnesota State University. Still another questioned me about the sexual assault scandal at Michigan State. Another wanted to know what I thought about Purdue University’s alliance with the for-profit Kaplan University. Finally, I was asked about the prolonged labor contract dispute at Wright State.


The posting below is a set of comments by Robert A. Scott, president emeritus, Adelphi University, and author, How University Boards Work, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018, on some current controversies that have made the news and the kind of questions university boards need to ask themselves in attempting to resolve these difficulties.


Rick Reis

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Reflections on the Role of Trustees in Current Controversies



In How University Boards Work, I discuss the composition and orientation of boards, and the importance of asking questions. During interviews with reporters and others about these topics and others covered in the book, I have been asked to comment on the board’s role in recent controversies at prominent institutions. One reporter questioned me about the presidential search at Minnesota State University. Still another questioned me about the sexual assault scandal at Michigan State. Another wanted to know what I thought about Purdue University’s alliance with the for-profit Kaplan University. Finally, I was asked about the prolonged labor contract dispute at Wright State.

I do not know the full details of these controversies. Nevertheless, what I have read and heard about them suggests some questions for board members to ask and to serve as case studies for orientation sessions. Therefore, I emphasize the kinds of questions board members might ask rather than the specific incidents or how they were handled.

Minnesota State University

The reporter who called me about the appointment of a new president at Minnesota State wanted to know about presidential searches and their costs. As I knew why she was calling, I looked online for news about the search. Apparently one part of the controversy concerned the amount paid to a search firm when it was the acting president who ultimately was appointed. I explained why broad searches are important for finding a diverse pool of the best possible candidates, and in vetting any internal nominations. I also commented on how state ”sunshine” laws requiring an open search in which candidates names must become known publicly can limit the number of experienced university leaders interested in a position.

Because the controversy seemed to emanate from the faculty, I asked about their involvement in the search. The response was that the faculty union had representatives on the committee. I replied that the union’s role should be limited to compensation and working conditions. It does not include the faculty’s responsibility for academic programs and standards, the nurturing of students and young faculty, and governance. These duties are part of the faculty’s role in “shared governance”, which would include participation on a presidential search committee. Apparently this distinction had not been made. My question to her was, does the board at Minnesota State know what shared governance means, as this understanding is important to more than just the search.

Michigan State University

In response to the revelations of sexual abuse of female gymnasts at Michigan State, questions have been asked about who knew what, when, and how. People correctly wonder what the board of such a large institution could have known about the incidents. Fair question. Good governance requires complete and honest communication between senior leadership and the board, even when the news is not good. Furthermore, I wondered what the board’s Audit Committee and audit firm discussed following the University’s settlement of two federal Title IX investigations in 2015. Did the committee or firm ask, “What else should we know?” What other complaints do you know about?”  Did they refer to the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State and ask, “Has anything like this happened here?”

Did the committee review a risk analysis matrix to consider the areas of vulnerability on campus, including activities managed through contracts with outsiders? Did the board recognize that there were some iconic figures on campus that seemed to be above questioning, as was the case at Penn State? Did anyone ask if the Whistleblower Hotline was ever used, and what kinds of questions or complaints were posed? Did anyone consider that actions intended to “protect the reputation of the institution” often backfire and make matters worse? Even at a large institution, with a large board, committee members, especially on the Audit Committee, can ask probing questions. I hope they did.

Purdue University

It has been reported that both the faculty at Purdue University and its regional accrediting association have expressed unease about the university’s acquisition and alliance with the for-profit Kaplan University. Kaplan has 32,000 students on 15 campuses and 3,000 employees. (Purdue has 42.000 students on five sites, a statewide technology program, and 17,000 faculty and staff.) The regional accreditor has concerns about the potential confusion of the institution’s identity among families and students. What is this entity, this combining of a state university with a for-profit corporation?

For trustees, the questions are numerous and one hopes that they were asked. For example, how will this new organization be governed? What will be the role of shared governance in it? How will this new organizational structure advance Purdue’s publicly chartered mission? How does the assumption of Kaplan’s debt and liabilities affect Purdue’s financial and academic condition? What was the role of faculty governance at Purdue in making this major change in university obligations? What examination of the financial and reputational risks took place at the board level?

None of this is to say that the alliance is a bad idea. The issue is the breadth and depth of the board’s review. Similar questions should be asked about institutional alliances with international student recruitment companies, real estate investment arrangements for residence halls and laboratory space, and research contracts that require confidentiality, among others.

Wright State University

The contentious contract dispute at Wright State could be a casebook example of how short-term thinking can drive out concerns for longer-term goals. The university has been without a contract with the faculty union since last June and the dispute lingers. The union has called for a “strike authorization” vote from its members. The threat of a strike, usually not made idly, can damage student retention, new student enrollment, faculty hiring, and relations with alumni, other donors, and the broader community.

Again, I do not know the specifics, but I wonder if the trustees have thought about the unintended consequences of the impasse, especially at a time of diminished state funding and competition for enrollment and tuition. Did the board discuss and approve its negotiating strategy and the parameters of an agreement before negotiations began?  One would hope so. The administration deserves guidance on these matters of negotiation in order to avoid complications once they begin.

This is not to say that a board should agree to any demand; of course not. But it is to suggest that timely, open, and continuing discussions, both between the board and the administration as well as between the administration and the faculty union, are essential.


I recognize the large scale and complex missions of these public institutions. I also acknowledge that there are equally difficult issues at colleges and universities of every type. The point I wish to make is that the trustees of every institution are responsible, as David Riesman said, for protecting the institution of the future from the actions of the present. This puts great pressure on those who elect trustees to begin with.

The questions posed above, some of which may have been asked and answered adequately, are the kind that board members should ask in order to protect the college or university of the future.