The Chronicle of Higher Education The Chronicle
From the issue dated May 22, 2009
Why Tuition-Paying Students Should Select Trustees
By CHARLES SCHWARTZ
Each of our nation's public universities is traditionally governed by a
board of regents or trustees whose purpose is to represent and
safeguard the public financial investment in those institutions. A
state's governor, perhaps with confirmation by the legislature, may
appoint them. In some states, the citizens may even elect them. Such
arrangements have represented the fact that taxpayers' money has
provided the basic financial support for the annual operating budgets
of state universities.
But something quite significant has happened in the past two decades
that requires a reconsideration of those governance arrangements.
Public universities now charge undergraduate students substantial
tuition and fees because state support has dwindled. Students (or their
parents) are required to make up that missing portion of those
institutions' basic operating budgets.
It is only logical and fair, therefore, that the method of selecting
regents and trustees for public universities should change to reflect
the new financial situation. I propose, following the old slogan of "no
taxation without representation," that the composition of those
governing boards be modified in proportion to the new financial
reality. If state funds now provide, for example, two-thirds of the
core operating budget, with student fees providing one-third, then the
composition of the governing board should directly reflect that 2:1
ratio of interests.
At my own University of California, for example, that would mean that
six of the 18 seats on the Board of Regents now filled by gubernatorial
appointment would be given over to appointees selected by
tuition-paying undergraduate students and their families. (In addition,
the board has four ex-officio members who are elected state officials
and two representatives of the alumni association.) A very similar
arithmetic would apply at the California State University system.
How can such a new arrangement be achieved? Many possibilities exist,
but I can suggest one formulation, which can be written into state
legislation. State officials and student organizations would appoint
members of a special commission that would draw up a roster of board
candidates, showing some level of qualification for the position. The
commission, which might also specify rules for election and replacement
of board members, would be set up to avoid the worst worries about
"politicization" of the university's governance — which is a concern
often voiced in regard to democratic innovations.
Selection of the board members from the commission's roster would then
be made in proportion to the existing revenues from the state and from
tuition-paying students and their families. The governor or voters,
whichever method is preferred by the state, would pick the state
representatives. An election by the students and parents or by some
organization of students and their tuition-paying parents would choose
the student representatives.
An example of such a mixed representation may be seen in the
composition of the Board of Administration for the California Public
Employees' Retirement System, which is the nation's largest public
pension fund. That board has six members elected by the beneficiaries
of the pension fund — public employees and retirees — four ex-officio
members who are officials in state government, and three members
appointed by elected state officials.
What if a state should choose not to adopt some such proportional
representation system for the governance of its public universities? It
is possible that federal law could be written to require some minimal
standard of compliance, since federal monies are important
contributions to research contracts and grants, student financial-aid
grants and loans, and many other aspects of university operations.
I expect that many people will be inclined to laugh "radical nonsense"
at the suggestion that tuition-paying students should be fairly
represented on the governing boards of our great public universities.
At a recent National Conference for Student Regents and Trustees,
convened at the University of California at Los Angeles, this proposal
found a very interested audience — and that sentiment may be much more
pervasive. The industry of higher education treats undergraduate
students as cash cows, creating fertile ground for organized
opposition, perhaps as sort of a consumers' union with clout.
Charles Schwartz is an emeritus
professor of physics at the University of California at Berkeley.
Volume 55, Issue 37, Page A28
Copyright © 2009 by The Chronicle of Higher Education