ERIC Identifier: ED301138
Publication Date: 1988-00-00
Author: Taylor, Barbara E.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Higher Education Washington DC.
Working With Trustees. ERIC Digest.
The governance of colleges and universities by lay boards of trustees is a
ubiquitous feature of American higher education. A relatively extensive
literature describes the responsibilities boards are advised to assume. Less
attention is given to discussion of the activities boards actually undertake and
the influence administrators and faculty members exercise over trustees'
performance. Nevertheless, we know that institutional personnel are critical
determinants of a board's behavior and that skillful management of the board can
result in legitimation and support for individual institutional personnel and
for the college or university itself. Therefore, administrators and faculty
members are advised to understand the sources and nature of trustees' authority
and by extension of their own influence on boards.
WHY ARE INSTITUTIONS GOVERNED BY LAY BOARDS?
late 19th century, institutions were controlled by lay boards because the early
colleges were seen as too crucial to be left in the hands of faculties, which at
the time were young, undereducated, and limited in size. Boards controlled by
prominent clergy, government officials, and eventually by businessmen provided
resources and legitimation to fledgling institutions and were responsible in
large measure for ensuring that colleges and universities responded to society's
As faculty and administrative professionalism and institutional complexity
have increased during the past century, however, many observers have suggested
that lay governing boards are anachronistic at best and that the ability of
boards to govern is so constrained as to make the system superfluous. Yet it
continues-and has even been adopted by recently founded institutions. In part,
the system has been so thoroughly institutionalized in law and tradition that it
cannot easily be supplanted. But perhaps more important, alternatives to lay
trusteeship, such as control by the faculty of direct governance by the state,
are seen as even less desirable.
CRITICISMS AND DEFENSES
Criticisms and defenses of lay
trustee-ship concern the nature of the public interest in higher education, the
contributions of boards to serving that interest, the legitimacy of trustees,
and their competence to govern.
In both independent and public institutions, boards are viewed as a means of
representing the broadly defined public interest in higher education by
simultaneously shielding the institution from shortsighted external pressure and
ensuring that parochial internal interests are not served at the expense of
essential societal needs. Particularly in public institutions, however, boards
have sometimes been criticized as little more than conduits for interference
from outsiders who neither understand nor appreciate the academic enterprise.
The legitimacy of trustees has been challenged on the grounds that boards are
unrepresentative and incompetent to govern. Boards are seen as too socially and
demographically homogeneous to govern diverse institutions and not conversant
enough with academic matters to presume to substitute their judgment for that of
academic experts within the institution. Contrary views hold that the relatively
high social status of board members and their professional independence from the
academic enterprise provide them with credibility, as they represent the
institution to the society on which it depends for support. Moreover, because
faculty are specialists, they are sometimes viewed as little more competent than
trustees to make judgments about the institution as a whole and too often
self-serving to place the long-term welfare of the institution ahead of their
short-term personal and professional interests.
WHAT ARE THE RESPONSIBILITIES AND ACTIVITIES OF
Within the limitations specified by law and institutional charters,
boards are assigned responsibility for all aspects of institutional management.
The literature describes a broad and sometimes conflicting range of duties,
including the obligation to perform or oversee all of the institution's major
academic and administrative functions and to do so by means consistent with
prevailing academic norms. Emphasis is placed on the board's responsibilities to
promulgate overriding policies that will guide presidents and others in the
day-to-day operation of institutions.
In fact, evidence suggests that boards are more likely to involve themselves
in the operating details of colleges and universities than in broad policy
making. It is often difficult to distinguish policy from administration and,
given the range of policy matters to be decided, virtually impossible to assign
all responsibility for policy making to trustees. The knowledge and experience
of administrators, traditions of faculty authority over academic and allied
matters, the board's operating style, and the realities of environmental
dependence appear to influence the actual exercise of board authority. Moreover,
trustees may in effect decline to govern by giving little time to their
trusteeships and by dealing with less controversial matters to avoid conflict.
HOW CAN ADMINISTRATORS AND FACULTY SHARE AUTHORITY WITH TRUSTEES?
The notion that boards should share with others responsibility
for crucial decisions and activities is a logical outgrowth of observations
concerning the nature of authority in colleges and universities. "Formal
authority is based on legitimacy...and position, whereas functional authority is
based on competence and person" (Mortimer and McConnell 1978, p. 19). Trustees
rely mainly on formal authority, while administrators and faculty members
seeking to influence boards do so largely through the exercise of functional
authority. In fact, boards share considerable authority with institutional
constituents, including presidents, other administrators, and faculty members.
Groups generally claim certain "spheres of influence" (Baldridge, Curtis, and
Riley 1978, p. 71) that appear to correspond to tradition and expertise.
The effective relationship between board and president is frequently
described as a harmonious partnership based on mutual support and trust. Yet the
relationship is paradoxical. The board is vested with final authority over
institutional policies and practices and is authorized to hire and dismiss the
president. At the same time, the board depends of the president for information
and for development and execution of policy. Thus, it is probably more accurate
to describe the relationship between trustees and senior administrators as one
of mutual dependence rather than partnership. Such "exchange relationships"
exchange the board's formal authority for administrators' functional authority.
Boards cannot do their work without the assistance of others.
Characteristically, this assistance includes the responsibilities to educate,
inform, and motivate the board. In controlling these processes, administrators
assume powerful positions vis-a-vis boards, which technically occupy a superior
position. In fact, the president becomes the acknowledged leader of many boards
whose members look to the chief executive for ideas, recommended actions, and
information about the board's appropriate behavior. Thus, senior administrators
can markedly influence a board's work by spending time communicating with
trustees, controlling board agendas and background information, influencing the
selection and development of trustees, motivating trustees' desired behavior,
and establishing strong relationships with faculty and other constituents who
legitimate administrative authority.
Faculty members' influence on boards derives from the desire of many
administrators and trustees to share authority with faculty and from the fact
that influence derives from functional as well as formal authority. Faculty
willing to press for a voice in governance are frequently heeded, owing
primarily to the political nature of much decision making in colleges and
Order ERIC documents by "ED" number
from the ERIC Document Reproduction Service, 3900 Wheeler Avenue, Alexandria, VA
22304. Specify paper copy (PC) or microfiche (MF) and number of pages.
Baldridge, J. Victor; Curtis, David V.; and Riley, Gary L. 1978. Policy Making and Effective Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Epstein, Leon D. 1974. Governing the University: The Campus and the Public Interest. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Ingram, Richard T., ed., and associates. 1980. Handbook of College and University Trusteeship. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Lee, Eugene C., and Bowen, Frank M. 1971. The Multicampus University: A Study of Academic Governance. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Mortimer, Kenneth P., and McConnell, T.R. 1978 Sharing Authority Effectively. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Nason, John W. 1982. The Nature of Trusteeship. Washington, D.C.: Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. ED 226 648. 127 pp. MF-$1.00; PC not available EDRS.
Wood, Miriam Mason. 1985. Trusteeship in the Private College. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
NOTE: This ERIC Digest is a summary of Working effectively with Trustees:
Building Cooperative Campus Leadership by the same author (ERIC ED 284 509).