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Scathing report says college trustees fail in mission

| Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014, 10:30 p.m.

Trustees at many American colleges and universities abandoned the public trust and allowed standards to slip even as costs soared and public confidence in higher education declined, a report says.

Governance for a New Era, a scathing report issued Tuesday by a panel of 22 college presidents, academics, trustees, policy makers and business leaders, challenged college governing boards to reclaim their responsibilities, press for reforms and demand results from the institutions they oversee.

“The public's confidence in higher education is slipping and slipping badly, and we who are part of this vital American institution must do something about it. People are complaining about costs being out of control, employers are saying graduates lack skills like problem solving, critical thinking and the ability to write and communicate effectively. There is a very high student-failure rate, and there is criticism in these big schools where big-time athletics are out of control,” Benno Schmidt, who chaired the panel, told the Tribune-Review.

The panel studied schools across the country and did not single out any school.

Schmidt, the former president of Yale and chairman of the board of trustees at the City University of New York, chaired the panel that compiled the report. Retired lawyer and former Penn State trustee Ben Novak and Frank Brogan, chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, were among the panelists.

Board members who are engaged and committed to a school's mission, rather than their own interests, are vital to the institution's success, Novak said.

“What happened in November 2011 (when Penn State trustees were blindsided by the Jerry Sandusky scandal) is a classic instance of board members not being involved in what was happening in the university,” Novak said during an interview.

Penn State board members began reassessing their work shortly after the scandal broke. But study panel members fear many boards operate on dated charters and assumptions.

“It's not the old honorary position it used to be at the beginning of the 20th century. It is a real responsibility,” Novak said.

Schmidt said too many board members see themselves primarily as fundraisers and institutional cheerleaders. He pointed to the importance of the job in his own system in New York.

“We are a $1.5 billion enterprise, and that comes from families and institutions and students and taxpayers,” Brogan said. “We carry in trust a billion and a half dollars of other peoples' money.”

The report is being sent to state governors and more than 15,000 trustees at 1,200 colleges. It was issued in conjunction with a national survey commissioned by the Washington-based American Council of Trustees and Alumni. The survey of 1,000 adults, with a margin of error of 3 percent, found that 89 percent of respondents said college is becoming unaffordable to the middle class; and 72 percent said students do not get their money's worth.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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