Trustees: Can They Transcend Transactionality?

by Sophie Blumert

In our national study of higher education, we interviewed approximately 2000 participants who we considered major stakeholders in the undergraduate experience. To this point much of our analysis and reporting has focused on constituencies on campus: students, faculty, and administrators. We believed it was important to have a wide variety of voices from those who were participating in the college experience every day. Indeed, these three constituencies make up over three-quarters of our sample. However, we also thought it was advantageous to solicit the opinions of those off-campus: parents, alumni, and trustees. While these three groups represented a smaller sample in our study, we learned quite a bit about their perspectives and how they perceived the college experience.

Here, I focus on one of the off-campus constituencies not discussed in previous blogs: trustees. While students often do not know anything about trustees, and faculty have mixed feelings about them, they are key decision makers in higher education. Trustees have a fiduciary responsibility to the school (and the state); they are responsible for the “bottom line.” It was important for us to understand their perspective, and though this proved challenging at times, it turned out to be revealing.

While students across all campuses were quite similar (they used the same words, discussed similar issues, and had similar struggles), trustees proved to be a much more varied and eclectic group—trustees get appointed to boards in a variety of ways and come from a variety of backgrounds, sectors, and levels of experience. These factors made their distinguishing characteristics much more noticeable.

Notwithstanding their many revealing differences, most trustees had one notable commonality: they were focused on the job market. Across the 85 trustees with whom we carried out interviews of approximately an hour in length, almost half (45%) were scored as transactional in their view of the college experience.  More pointedly, trustees were focused on marketability. They did not necessarily talk about specific professions or graduate programs, as students did. Instead they emphasized the importance of gaining the right skills, the right knowledge, and the right experience in order for students to get the job they want, no matter what that job might be. While this is not wholly surprising, and we might have expected trustees to think this way, it is quite different from how transactional students perceived the purpose of college.

When we express this point in economic terms, the difference becomes clear. Students saw themselves as the consumer, paying for an education that will give them experience and knowledge in return. Trustees saw students as the product, something to “market” to job recruiters, hiring managers, or admissions officers to improve the reputation of the institution. This divergence in perspective is not minor—it represents a misalignment about whom higher education is meant to benefit. To be specific, transactional students viewed education as a payoff to their own careers; transactional trustees highlighted the benefit to the reputation of the college.

Both of these mindsets have flaws. If the purpose of college is only meant to benefit the individual student or the reputation of the school, then the priorities of different constituencies begin to compete with each other. These tensions were already present, and we heard about them from students and faculty across our study. Many noticed when new, state-of-the-art gyms were built while other academic buildings had not been updated in decades; many felt devalued when financial resources were allocated to majors or fields deemed more lucrative and hirable; many  were confused when once public resources became privatized; and many wondered why hiring for new teaching positions and resources for teacher training continued to decline.

Overall, these decisions indicated to students and faculty that trustees were more interested in investing in buildings and image rather than people and academics. Ultimately, when college is seen as a simple transaction, it starts to function more like a business rather than as an institution of learning—and this, my colleagues and I contend, does a disservice to all stakeholders.

However, it is important to note as well some differences in trustee mental models—and the fault lines seem to be school selectivity. Though approximately half of the trustees in our sample were transactional, they were not evenly spread across institutions; most tended to come from “lower-selectivity” schools. Additionally, consider the trustees that were categorized as exploratory. This group makes up approximately one-third of the sample and tended to come from “higher-selectivity” schools. An even smaller number of trustees (approximately one-fifth) were categorized as transformational—and interestingly, these tended to come from “mid-selectivity” schools. We hesitate to make too much of this trend; still it caused us to wonder how these trustees differed from each other, and why school selectivity might be a factor.

The exploratory trustees, it turned out, were much like exploratory students. They believed in living in the present; namely, that the college experience is about absorbing as much academic content as you can, getting involved in extracurricular activities, meeting new people, and not worrying too much about the future. This perspective mirrored the mindset of exploratory students; jobs, careers, and life after college were a distant concern. It is much more important to take advantage of as much as you can in the short time you have in college. It is possible that coming from higher selective settings (ones with more resources and name recognition), trustees might not have been preoccupied thinking about students’ prospects; the brand, with its implied high-quality education, will carry them far.

The remaining cohort consisted of trustees who were categorized as transformational.  This group, approximately one-fifth of trustees, turned out to be much more focused. Trustees with transformational mental models had ambitious goals for the students that they served. But, importantly, these are not focused on jobs; instead, such trustees talked about the importance of intellectual transformations and engaged citizenship.

A possibly decisive indicator: Transformational trustees most often came from schools with a clearly defined and well-adopted mission, whether it was academics, social justice, or religion. This may well have been the missing piece for transactional trustees. Without a strong mission, trustees may not have known where to direct their financial priorities. We’ve talked in previous blogs about the importance of mission alignment and the problems with “mission sprawl,” and trustees turned out to be an important part of this issue. An institutional mission is not—or should not—be just a statement that lives on a college website; it is the driving force of what the institution believes they can achieve, and through their fiduciary responsibilities, trustees have the ability to carry it out.

Our takeaway and recommendation to trustees might sound familiar: the importance of mission—and, in our view, the importance of a mission that captures the primary reasons why we extol higher education in our country. Trustees are given quite a bit of financial and decision-making responsibility, but without a mission that keeps academics in mind it is easy to lose sight of the long-term goal. We hope that, going forward, trustees will push for decisions that serve the institutional mission: one focused on the development of students, academics, and life-long learning, rather than chiefly on marketability. And, to use another economic metaphor, we hope that these decisions will “trickle down” to impact the experiences and mindsets of students so that their college experience can feature exploration and enable a transformative experience.  

I want to thank Tommy Dougherty for his contributions to coding and analyzing the data for this constituency.  

© Sophie Blumert 2020

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