Higher education, in Texas and nationally, faces a crisis. Studies testify to grade inflation’s erosion of standards (An “A” is the most common grade given in America’s colleges), to poor student learning (36 percent of students surveyed nationally show no significant increase in learning during four years of college), to skyrocketing tuitions (while state funding to colleges declined a relatively modest 10 percent during the past decade in Texas, average tuition collected jumped 115 percent) and to crushing student-loan debt ($1 trillion nationally). One study finds 31 percent of 2009 graduates, unable to secure full-time employment, moved back into their parents’ homes. Consequently, 57 percent of prospective students told a Pew survey that college no longer delivers a value worth its cost; 75 percent deem college simply unaffordable.
Addressing this crisis requires strong leadership. Who can provide it? Senior administrators? Regents? Ideally, both. But former Harvard President Derek Bok, in his book Our Underachieving Colleges, finds presidents “often reluctant” to lead for fear of “faculty opposition,” which could “threaten their jobs.” College CEOs lack the power of their corporate counterparts. Facing a faculty no-confidence vote, few presidents possess the wherewithal to lay down their jobs.
Who, then, is empowered to implement reforms commensurate with our crisis? Benno Schmidt, former Yale president and current chairman of the CUNY board, answers, “Change in institutional strategy can only come from trustees.”
Such change is overdue: Higher education reached its crisis state with the acquiescence of trustees, who too often let boosterism trump their fiduciary duties. “Fiduciary” derives from the Latin fiducia, for “trust.” A trustee possesses the legal power and duty to act on behalf of others, both the school and the Texas citizenry, under conditions requiring both complete trust and complete openness.