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Colleges need to stop hiring board members based on ‘nostalgia’ instead of expertise

If Apple couldn’t invent the iPhone without a corporate board of expert members, why do private colleges and universities treat their own governing boards like dumb ATMs?

That’s the question posed by Ryan Craig, managing director of University Ventures, and David Friedman, who teaches corporate governance at Willamette University’s law school.

In an article touted by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the duo writes in Inside Higher Ed that these schools put people on their boards whose “vision for the institution is rooted in nostalgia”:

In choosing trustees, private colleges and universities pick satisfied former customers, i.e., successful alumni. Often, this is a requirement in the institution’s bylaws and consistently advantageous for fund-raising. …

A university’s mission in 1980, as experienced by a student, may restrict the vision of the university in 2017, and what it could or must become by 2050. Most obviously, what might have worked when tuition was $5,000 may not work when it’s $50,000. And what might have worked to get students good jobs when only 10 percent of American adults earned bachelor’s degrees may not work when over 30 percent do.

Boards can’t exercise appropriate governance if they don’t have experts in “data analytics, education technology, research funding, employability and the labor market, and, where applicable, hospital management and athletics — not to mention teaching and learning methods and outcomes,” say Craig and Friedman.

Instead, schools often choose “the wealthiest or most celebrated alumni,” rather than people who don’t have “emotional or sentimental attachment clouding their decision making”:

It’s as if the celebrity brand or ranking focus that afflicts so much of higher education also infects the alumni trustee selection process.

As ACTA says, “trustees and alumni are too often viewed as ATMs to pay for institutional priorities.”

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