The Spectacle Blog

Toasting a University Trustee

By on 6.10.13 | 1:06PM

There has been much written of late about the “higher education bubble.” One of the many problems plaguing our colleges and universities is a failure on the part of administrations and governing boards to, well, govern. So, indications that at least some bold souls are willing to break this mold are welcome.

Naomi Schaefer Riley’s excellent book, The Faculty Lounges – And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For, describes lucidly how most schools vest too much power in unaccountable faculties. The problem is exacerbated by the ineffectiveness not only of administrators but also of governing boards, whose members are too often “simply not up to the task of overseeing universities.” Yet she also notes that “when administrators have the backing of the trustees, they can accomplish a good deal.”

 Against this background, it is significant that the vice chair of the board at Howard University, Renee Higganbotham-Brooks, has departed from the deferential role faculties and administrations typically prefer that their trustees play. In a letter published by the Chronicle of Higher Education, Ms. Higganbotham-Brooks warned that Howard’s very survival could be threatened by “competition for students from less expensive public colleges, the possibility of a reduction in federal appropriations, expenses associated with the university’s hospital, the absence of a robust fundraising system to offset declines in tuition revenue and a university workforce that… is too large.”

According to the Washington Post, board chair Addison Barry Rand (the chief executive of AARP) issued a statement saying that “spirited debate and discourse are part of the culture of higher education,” and that “the board and the university’s leadership team continue to work tirelessly to address many of the tough issues facing colleges and universities like Howard.”

I don’t pretend familiarity with the particulars of the problems facing Howard, but I suspect many trustees there and elsewhere would question whether “spirited debate and discourse are part of the culture” of university governance today. But they should be, and Ms.Higganbotham-Brooks’ deserves a toast for her effort to be a catalyst for genuine dialogue within, and effective governance by, the Howard board. The students and alumni of Howard deserve no less.

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