What Do Trustees Do? | Teachers College Columbia University

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What Do Trustees Do?

Dawn Brill Duques: "I have learned more and more about the lack of knowledge other stakeholders have about the role of an individual trustee and that of the collective board. I found that not only do faculty, students, and the public know little about trusteeship, but many trustees have little understanding of the two roles."
Recently I gave a presentation on trusteeship to a group of higher education graduate students at an East Coast university. A number of faculty members showed up, and at the end of the session, a few of them thanked me. Their comments all included something along the line of “I had no idea.”
Since I began the research on my dissertation regarding the courting and orienting of trustees, I have learned more and more about the lack of knowledge other stakeholders have about the role of an individual trustee and that of the collective board. I found that not only do faculty, students, and the public know little about trusteeship, but many trustees have little understanding of the two roles.
Here is a thumbnail sketch of how trusteeship works. Boards of trustees at universities and colleges are generally made up of 30 to 45 members who operate collectively and through their committees that take on everything from reviewing academic programs to raising funds for the institution.
Trustees and their boards uphold 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 must also work 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 insure transparency and that an accurate picture of their institution is being presented.
A major responsibility of the board is to work with the president: selecting, critiquing, supporting, and when necessary, replacing him. The board must also evaluate its own performance on a regular basis and seek replacements for its members who leave.
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.
Trusteeship may not sound so difficult, but times have changed. Trusteeship has become increasingly more challenging for a variety of reasons
The composition of the student body has changed. Today’s student body is far from the homogeneous student body of the past, and they are not afraid to express their varied needs and concerns. Trustees need to respond to them.
Faculty issues have become more complicated. Trustees need to understand the tenure system and the ramification of using part-time and non-tenured faculty.
Academics are increasingly more complicated. There are more intricate programs; collaborations between departments, 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 on-line degrees and programs. Trustees need to be aware of what the institution is offering and what changes might be in the works.
Outsourcing has become more prevalent and more complicated. Today, institutions are seeking out joint ventures with other schools and businesses that may include anything from computers to food services. Trustees need this knowledge, too.
Legal responsibilities for everything from weather damage and campus security to simple accidents have to be studied so that they can be handled efficiently and with concern for those involved. Trustees must be students of risk management. Each trustee should be certain that he and his institution have no conflicts of interest, that he does not ask for inappropriate favors from the institution, and that he doesn’t speak out individually in the name of the university unless he is authorized to do so.
Campus technology has become increasingly hard to understand. Think of the equipment in computer labs, Internet libraries, and classrooms; communication between faculty and students; and online classes. Trustees need to understand the technological needs of their institutions.
Elaborate fundraising tactics, including online searches for and communication with potential donors, the accepting of gifts with possible strings attached, bequests, estate planning, and deferred gifts must be well understood by trustees.
Trustees also have to deal with 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.
Higher education has become increasingly market driven. Boards must know their competition, be able to assess marketing trends and strategies, and assist in generating new ideas to sell their institutions to the outside world.
Budgets are increasingly tighter 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 a government.
Communication has become increasingly important and increasingly 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. Open meetings; school newsletters, magazines and newspapers; online publications; and local and national print and mass media are all options.
Investment strategies of institutions have also become far more elaborate. From property purchases, complicated rental agreements, and joint ventures with other business to investments in the stock . trustees have to understand and weigh in on the choices that are being made.
Also, the government has become far more demanding of all nonprofit boards. New rules and regulations have been set forth by the federal government, and institutions of higher education must do far more recordkeeping and reporting. Boards have to understand these requirements and sign off on the reports.
Finally trustees must keep up with the trends and mandated changes within the field of higher education as well as those within their own institutions.
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 preformed.

Published Tuesday, Mar. 10, 2009


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