Michael Bills writes for the Martin Center about the role governing boards must play in addressing struggling colleges’ challenges.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic walloped our colleges and universities, higher education had been facing threats to existing business models for years. A great deal has been written the past few years predicting the demise of large numbers of U.S. colleges and universities.

Many higher education institutions are indeed threatened. But their demise may not be inevitable; the problem may not be endogenous factors but how they are managed, and that can be corrected. …

… A business facing environmental changes of this magnitude would be expected to pivot rapidly by entering new markets, developing new products and services, jettisoning legacy systems, and rapidly innovating. Higher education, however, does not operate at the speed of business.

Decision-making in higher education does not rest solely in the executive ranks; it is often paralyzed because governance is shared between the board of trustees, the president, and the faculty. …

… This political process of shared governance is just that—political. According to Jay Schalin, the director of policy at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, most private college and university boards are effectively the owners of the institution and legally have the final say, yet they commonly relinquish that authority to the president and the faculty. If an institution is in decline and on a path to closing, it is the board of trustees that is ultimately to blame. College presidents Brian Mitchell and Joseph King state: “The institutional buck generally stops with the trustees—and therein lies the problem.”

The problem is that the board has shunned its fiduciary duties by abdicating responsibility to the president and the faculty.

If that sounds like the point of view of a trustee, that’s because it is. I have been a member of the board of trustees of Westminster College in Utah for over 12 years. It has been one of the great honors of my life to serve on this board. Nevertheless, I have frequently been frustrated with the pace of, or in some instances, resistance to, change.