Comprehensive universities—public institutions that offer four-year degrees to students drawn mostly from their regions—are the backbone of the American higher education system. But these institutions are trying to increase graduation rates among a changing student population at a time of historic declines in public funding and pressure to limit tuition increases.

Trustees of comprehensive universities are in a tough spot. They have governing authority over individual universities and, in many cases, over entire statewide systems of universities. They hire and fire university and system presidents, interact with state lawmakers and local business leaders and are charged with securing their institutions’ futures. But although some are elected, they are more typically volunteers appointed by governors. With limited expertise in higher education, they are supposed to help their institutions address challenges related to finances, student success and regional economic development without getting involved in day-to-day management.

To find out how trustees of comprehensive universities view their own capacity to serve their institutions, Public Agenda, with support from The Kresge Foundation, conducted confidential in-depth interviews with 42 trustees representing 29 boards responsible for governing a total of 143 four-year public comprehensive universities. Public Agenda also conducted confidential in-depth interviews with 45 presidents of comprehensive universities.

Key findings include:

  1. Trustees said finances are their top priority. But many trustees said they do not understand higher education finances well enough to help their institutions address budgetary challenges.
  2. Trustees said they want their institutions to improve retention and graduation rates. But few trustees prioritized understanding the details of innovations that can support student success.
  3. Trustees emphasized the importance of advocating with elected officials and other policymakers on behalf of their institutions. But many wanted help advocating more effectively and many criticized governors’ appointments to boards.
  4. Trustees said comprehensive universities should be engines of regional economic development. But few trustees said they are actively helping their institutions connect to regional employers.
  5. Presidents of comprehensive universities said they contend with both disengagement and micromanagement by trustees. Some presidents said trustees do not fully understand their institutions’ missions and therefore struggle to add value.