Key Findings

  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. Nearly all the trustees we interviewed said their comprehensive universities are struggling with rising costs and declining state funding. Many said raising tuition is politically difficult and would contravene their institutions’ missions by making them less accessible. But they also worried a lack of revenue is putting the quality of education at their institutions at risk. Many trustees wanted their institutions to operate more efficiently but said they do not understand higher education finances well enough to help accomplish that. They often felt overwhelmed by the volume of complex information given to them by administration and staff. Furthermore, some trustees worried they rely too much on administrators and staff to set agendas, frame problems, provide data and propose solutions. Some felt open meeting rules inhibit discussions about cost cutting. While many comprehensive universities are trying to fundraise, trustees said they need skills and training to help their institutions do so effectively.
  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. The trustees we interviewed were nearly unanimous in their view that comprehensive universities must focus on student success by helping students stay in college and earn their degrees. In practical terms, trustees typically saw their role as setting goals for improved retention and graduation, while leaving the details of how to achieve those goals to administrators, faculty and staff. They were not especially familiar with recent pedagogical innovations, such as competency-based education, that may require resource reallocation, new financial models and different roles for faculty and staff. Trustees of systems recognized that improving transfer for students between and across institutions is important and something they should be positioned to facilitate. But some expressed frustration with their limited ability to foster improved transfer and other forms of collaboration across institutions.
  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. Although the trustees we interviewed saw advocating for their institutions with elected officials and other policymakers as important parts of their role, nearly all stressed the difficulty of securing more funding in an era of overall lower budgets across state functions. Moreover, many trustees said they lack the skills and connections necessary to engage elected officials and policymakers effectively. Many maintained that governors and legislators do not choose wisely when appointing trustees and exert too much influence over those they do appoint.
  4. Trustees said comprehensive universities should be engines of region+al economic development. But few trustees said they are actively helping their institutions connect to regional employers. Preparing students for careers and meeting regional workforce needs are core aspects of comprehensive universities’ missions, according to the trustees we interviewed. Most, however, seemed to let presidents and administrators take the lead on building workforce connections. Trustees of standalone institutions appeared more ready to facilitate connections between their institutions and regional employers than trustees of larger systems. Some trustees questioned whether their institutions are too focused on getting students jobs in the near term instead of considering the bigger picture of regional workforce planning. Several pointed out that comprehensive universities are themselves vital employers for their regions, making mergers or closures politically unfeasible.
  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. Presidents of standalone comprehensive universities seemed more able to find value in their boards and spoke about ways their boards have helped their institutions achieve goals, although at the risk of micromanagement. Presidents of comprehensive universities within systems talked about struggling to get their boards’ attention and said trustees do not understand their institutions’ missions well enough. Generally, presidents felt trustees need a better understanding of financial information, and administrators and staff can do a better job of presenting that information to trustees.