Open up the higher education governance process

There have been recurring comments in America’s higher education press lamenting university governing boards' relative lack of serious institutional engagement. These concerns centre on the perception that boards too often merely rubber-stamp the administration’s recommendations.

Boards’ apparent reliance on prestige and rankings as proxies for underlying institutional quality has also been noted. One could add that many of those filling these positions appear to be more incentivised by perceived prestige and accompanying perks than by a concern for fundamental institutional welfare.

In sum, they appear readily to approve proposed tuition and fees increases yet ignore the quality of the teaching and learning process that underlies the value of institutional programming.

US tuition and fee increases have consistently outpaced annual increases in the Consumer Price Index for decades. As a result, parents and students have been saddled with increasing debt accompanied by a declining value added return on their investment. Research documents that US graduates’ communication, problem-solving, quantitative and other soft skill proficiencies have steadily waned in recent decades.

Boards appear to have too often approved tuition fee increases in the absence of a serious debate while failing to press institutional executives for evidence of improved learning. Primary institutional stakeholders – parents and students – are paying more, while students and subsequently employers are getting less.

Boards appear to be ignoring the fundamental importance of exchanging value added for tuition charged.

The growing concern over unchecked tuition charge increases may be reaching a tipping point.

Federal and state intervention is on the horizon as public concern rises. Elected officials, who have previously incentivised continuing tuition charge increases with federal and state grants and subsidised loans, have joined the chorus of critics.

If the Iron Law of Social Responsibility applies to higher education, then threats of price controls and other external sanctions are real. If boards do not internally enforce more effective cost containment, while demanding academic quality, who will? External draconian measures are a possibility.

Controlling costs is the key to damping tuition charge and fee increases. All institutions bear unavoidable market-driven cost increases in delivering instruction – utilities, insurance, consumables and the like are nearly unavoidable.

Aside from research universities, the bulk of institutional expenditure springs from instructional programming. As gatekeepers, boards could be more active in controlling institutions' instructional programming and services, which simultaneously influence the tuition fees they must charge and the cost of delivering quality instruction.

It is far more efficient and humane to reject a proposed programme than to cancel it post-implementation. Approved programmes soon develop many supporters.

If nothing changes, draconian external measures await. The prevailing criteria for board membership – political patronage, financial contributions to the institution, or celebrity – is unlikely to change.

I suggest giving the traditionally formed boards a conscience. This could be accomplished by formally reserving and-or adding voting members representing primary stakeholder groups.

Many US boards have for decades given a token voice to primary stakeholders through student membership and advisory boards. It is time to take the next step and make a slight augmentation to boards' composition.

I suggest giving students, parents and employer representatives a place at the table, with a vote. A voice for graduate and professional schools admitting graduates might also be considered.

Many boards already have student members. They are poster children at best. They tend to be handpicked for their likely sympathies by the administration. Moreover most, if not all, student members are denied the vote on a range of financial matters.

Hence, they are hardly more than muted puppets, rather than proactive representatives of a primary stakeholder group. Allowing the student body to elect their voting board representative(s) will help validate that their member speaks for them and not the administration.

Advisory bodies are also said to provide boards with the insights of one or more stakeholder groups. Lacking the weight of a vote their counsel, by definition, is non-binding and may not even be formally memorialised in the record of board deliberations.

Employers, as the primary consumers of an institution’s product, its graduates, should have a formal voice and vote on the board. Backed up with a vote, this core group could provide relevant feedback on the proficiencies, hard and soft, exhibited by the institution’s graduates.

Academic programming presents an unfamiliar array of problems and opportunities that are far less tangible than building or labour contracts. The accepted dogma presented by the administration, and often supported by the faculty, is that the proposed programme is a necessity and that its productivity and quality are too illusive to be systematically measured.

Too often boards accede to the self-serving interests of institutional leadership, reinforced by faculty governance; after all, they are the experts.

I am not suggesting a major alteration of board membership. Rather, I am saying that representation of a few primary constituencies – students, parents paying the bills and employers hiring the institution’s graduates – could provide a focused conscience to help boards to reconnect tuition charges and value added.

* William Patrick Leonard is vice dean of SolBridge International School of Business in Daejeon, Republic of Korea.