What Exactly Do Trustees Do?
A primer on the oft-unsung role of a college's best friends
Editor’s Note: Teachers College is unique in many ways, not the least of which is that it is affiliated with
but stands as a legally separate entity, with its own President and Board of Trustees. Below, Trustee Dawn Brill Duques (M.A., ’76) explores the roles and responsibilities of the latter. Columbia University
Recently, I gave a presentation on trusteeship to higher education graduate students at an East Coast university. Some faculty members showed up; and, at the end of the session, a number of them thanked me, and most added a comment such as, “I had no idea.”
While researching my dissertation on the courting and orienting of trustees, I learned that many other institutional stakeholders—faculty, students, parents, and the public—lack knowledge about the roles of an individual trustee and of the collective board. Here is a thumbnail sketch of how trusteeship works.
Boards at universities and colleges are generally made up of 30 to 45 members who operate collectively and within committees to take on everything from reviewing academic programs to raising funds for the institution.
Trustees perform their fiduciary responsibility by working with the president and top administrators to approve major policies, make long-range plans and oversee the budget.
The board also works to preserve and protect the institution’s reputation by helping define, support and protect its mission. Here the board must make decisions as to the number and types of degrees offered, and the departments, divisions and schools or colleges through which the curriculum is administered. Along with that, the board and the administration must have effective and efficient internal and external communications in place to ensure transparency and to be certain that an accurate picture of their institution is being presented. Here it is important to note that, like a chorus, a board speaks with one voice, one that is designated to present the majority position.
A major responsibility of the trustees is selecting, critiquing, supporting, and, when necessary, replacing the president. They must also do the same with their fellow trustees.
Finally, board members have monetary responsibilities to their institutions to help in the securing of funds both by donating what they can and by encouraging others to do the same.
Board service may not sound so difficult, but in our rapidly changing world, trustees are finding themselves with increasingly challenging and time-consuming work to do.
They must learn to understand and address the far more heterogeneous and far more outspoken student population of today.
They have to comprehend the makeup of far more complicated faculty composition as well as the tenure system and the ramifications of using part-time and non-tenured faculty.
They must stay abreast of far more intricate programs: collaborations between departments and colleges within universities and between different institutions; a variety of summer semesters and programs; special institutes and seminars run at various times of the year; research programs; overseas affiliates; travel abroad programs; and online degrees and programs.
They must work to understand best practices in outsourcing. Today, institutions are seeking out joint ventures with other schools and businesses that may include anything from computers to food services.
Legal responsibilities for everything from weather damage to campus security have to be understood so that they can be handled efficiently and with concern for those involved. Trustees must be students of risk management. They must also understand the concept of conflict of interest, and the inappropriateness of using their position to ask for special favors and of speaking out individually when not authorized to do so.
Trustees must continually update their understanding of campus technology with its computer labs and classrooms, its Internet libraries, its online classes, and its new computer-driven communication between faculty and students.
They must learn and participate in elaborate fundraising tactics, that include online searches for and communication with potential donors, the design and implementation of fundraising campaigns, the accepting of gifts with possible strings attached, and the approach to estate planning, deferred gifts and bequests.
Trustees need to understand the new globalization of higher education. Once able to concentrate on the institution within its walls, boards now have to grapple with competing institutions, both for- and not-for-profit, in other cities, states and even countries.
Higher education has become increasingly market driven. Trustees must know their competition, be able to assess marketing trends and strategies, and assist in generating new ideas to promote their institutions to the outside world.
Budgets are increasingly tight today. Trustees must be involved in the delicate process of setting tuition rates that will bring in necessary revenues but not scare away potential students or raise the wrath of the government. They also must understand competing needs within the institution.
Communication has become increasingly important and more complicated. Not only do boards have to communicate to their institutions’ many stakeholders, but they also have to select from a variety of methods including open meetings; newsletters, magazines and newspapers; online publications; and local and national print and broadcast mass media. Too, they must keep up with what other stakeholders are saying.
Trustees must be aware of their institution’s investment strategies. From property purchases, complicated rental agreements and joint ventures with other businesses to investments in stock and bonds, trustees have to understand and weigh in on the choices that are being made.
Trustees need to understand the new rules and regulations set forth and the recordkeeping and reporting mandated by the federal government for higher education and be ready to sign off on them.
Finally, trustees cannot rest on their knowledge base. They must keep up with the rapidly changing trends and mandated changes within the field of higher education.
Board members have a lot to deal with, but deal they can and do. For various reasons, but all for the good of their institutions, they will continue to sing their school’s praises, but they must be certain that their songs are well studied and well performed.
Dawn Brill Duques earned her M.A. from Teachers College and Ed.D. from Nova Southeastern University. She joined TC’s Board of Trustees in 2007. She is also a former member of the Board of Trustees of Mitchell College, and a member of the National Council on Education and Human Development at The George Washington University.
Published Monday, Jun. 1, 2009