Fall and Winter 2012 Volume 10, Number 2. Leadership Perceptions of Trustee Involvement in Private College Decision Making

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1 Leadership Perceptions of Trustee Involvement in Private College Decision Making Adam A. Morris Everrett Smith Michael T. Miller University of Arkansas Abstract The current study examined the perceptions of private college leaders about the current and intended role of trustees in private higher education decision-making. Utilizing a research-team developed survey instrument,109 private college leaders, mostly with the title of assistant or assistant to the chancellor. These leaders identified the current roles of trustees as raising money, approving senior administrative appointments, determining financial priorities, and engaging in strategic mission development. When asked to rate the most important roles, participants identified those same activities. Study findings are important to the future of private higher education for a number of reasons, most notable efforts at cost control and to ensure a proper balance between enrollment, profitability, and mission. Non-profit private higher education institutions are facing one of their most difficult periods in history. Their tuition pricing is relatively high compared to public higher education providers, and there are numerous for-profit private higher education providers that offer undergraduate and graduate degree programs in flexible, often less expensive, accessible modes. As these often small, private liberal arts colleges face tripling energy costs (Blumenstyk, 2006), they also face rapid increases in technology infrastructure costs and other costs associated with maintaining physical campuses (Lu, 2003). As these costs escalate, the institutions have no choice but to raise their tuitions or find alternative revenue streams to support their core operations. Some of the programs these institutions have developed include online learning opportunities that have been created specifically to generate revenue, and in the most cynical world, provide degree opportunities to non-traditional populations to generate the revenue needed to operate the small physical campus (Morris & Miller, 2008). The decision on how private colleges respond to fiscal challenges, and how they make decisions about where and how to offer degree programs, often lies with senior institutional leadership and boards of trustees. These individuals have both the power and the ability to steer an institution into any particular direction, and their perspectives on how involved to be in campus decision making is critical at this juncture of the private college. This time in the evolution of the private liberal arts college is truly being directed by leadership behaviors (Morris, 2008). Private colleges have a unique place in the higher education landscape, as institutions they are often described as small, enrolling 3,000 students or fewer traditional undergraduate students, and are fully committed to the education of the entire person. This typically takes the form of small faculty-student ratios, and reliance on faculty who are willing to commit to the ideal of the Journal of Organizational Learning and Leadership 59

2 liberal arts experience (Morris & Miller, 2008). They often have a religious affiliation and a mission that are different than public research institutions. Private liberal arts colleges comprise approximately one-quarter of all higher education institutions in the United States, and the changes they have undertaken to address changing financial realities have been driven by both academic leaders and these institutions trustees. Indeed, the trustees or directors of these institutions play perhaps the most important role available to charting the future of the non-profit liberal arts college, and this leadership has rarely been studied. By fully understanding how private college trustees undertake their roles, and what roles are expected of them, institutions can better assign responsibility and clarify roles in making decisions about the overall welfare of the institution. Background of the Study A great deal has been written about college trusteeship, ranging from roles in fund raising (Legon, 2003) and financial management (Chabotar, 2006) to strategic planning (Butler, 2006) and institutional leadership (Ingram & Weary, 2000). Much of the research has been coordinated and disseminated by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, a professional, member-based association that provides training for both those serving in trustee roles and those institutional leaders who work with governing board members. Despite this strong foundation of understanding about boards and how they work, little has been done to explore how institutional leaders see the role that trustees should have in helping their campuses move forward. Additionally, working with trustees and their behaviors has consistently been noted to be one of the biggest challenges facing institutional leadership (for examples see Rago, 2007; Couturier, 2003; and Birnbaum, 2004). The question of trustee role is critical in private college environments, where cost questions and enrollment demand are vital to institutional survival. Trustees have historically been selected for private college leadership for any number of reasons, including their ability to advocate for a certain perspective (such as religious belief), their ability to raise money or pledge their own resources, or to provide critical perspectives on how to best operate the institution. Each of these perspectives calls into question the fine line between broad institutional leadership and specific institutional management, thus demonstrating further need for the current study. Research Methods The research team developed the 24-item survey instrument in the spring of 2012 based on existing academic literature and resources made available through the Association for Governing Boards. Each of the trustee roles identified were based on a study of college trustees that had been conducted within the past ten years, and the central finding of each study was distilled to a singular possible board function. Additionally, institutional information was included on the survey in categorical format, and respondents were also asked to identify the title that most closely identified their current position titles. The survey instrument was pilot tested in the last-spring of 2012 with college administrators not included in the sample. Revisions to the survey were completed with wording revised on several Journal of Organizational Learning and Leadership 60

3 questions. A Cronbach reliability index of.6577 was computed on the pilot survey administration, suggesting that the instrument had an acceptable level of reliability. The sample for the study was identified from a random selection of private liberal arts colleges from the Higher Education Directory (2011). Once the institutions were identified, up to three individual names were selected from the institution through the institution s internet web site. A total of 150 institutions were identified, and from those, 400 surveys were ultimately distributed. This selection process did risk the possibility of including individuals who were no longer at the institution, and this was compensated for by including a statement that asked the survey recipient to please forward the electronic survey to the most appropriate person to complete the instrument. Additionally, pencil-and-paper copies of the survey were made available to the private college leaders. The survey was electronically distributed in the summer of 2012, with three follow-up s sent to non-responders. As all surveys were collected during a one-month period of time, no non-response bias testing was completed. Findings With three follow up distributions of the electronic survey, a total response rate of 109 usable surveys were returned and used in the data analysis (27% response rate). The response rate was considered acceptable based on the typical response rate for online surveys. The most common individual completing the survey for an institution was an assistant or assistant to a chancellor or president (n=38; 34.9%) or a dean (n=30; 27.5%), although nearly a quarter of the respondents held the title vice president (n-24; 22%; see Table 1). Nearly all of the respondents rated the performance of their trustees to be excellent or pretty good (n=91; 83.5), yet two respondents indicated that they perceived their trustees to be doing a horrible job (1.8%). Nearly three-fourths of the study respondents (73.4%, see Table 1) offered bachelor s degrees, meaning that the population most likely to respond to the survey were private liberal arts colleges. The remaining institutions offered masters degrees and several (n=6; 5.5%) offered a first-professional degree. The majority of institutions (n=96; 88%) enrolled 3,000 or fewer students, and over half of them reported that their trustees were appointed by existing trustees, that is, they made use of self-perpetuating boards (n=65; 59.6%). Survey respondents agreed most strongly with six currently perceived trustee roles. The survey included 18 different roles and asked participants to rate their agreement, on a Likert-type scale, how strongly they agreed that the role identified was currently holding. As shown in Table 2, the roles that were agreed to most strongly included: raising money for the institution (mean 4.807), approving senior administrator appointments (mean.4779), determining financial priorities (mean ), engaging in strategic mission development (mean 4.688), assessing board member performance (mean ), and setting enrollment targets and qualifications (mean 4.559). Conversely, participants agreed least with the following roles as being possessed by their boards: determining teaching methods (mean 2.981), overseeing athletic administration (mean 2.871), determining transfer of credit guidelines (mean 2.770), and working to influence state legislative decisions (mean 2.578). Journal of Organizational Learning and Leadership 61

4 As shown in Table 3, respondents were then asked to consider the 18 roles and identify which they believed to be the most important. Those considered most important included engaging in strategic mission development, raising money for the institution, and approving senior administrative appointments. Those considered second most important included approving personnel matters, raising money for the institution, negotiating auxiliary contracts, being involved in new board orientation, approving senior administrative appointment, and evaluating administrators. Conclusions The financial hardships of a private college are hard to ignore in 21 st Century higher education. Rising costs have impacted every industry including private colleges in recent years. These institutions have increased tuition to meet the financial demand necessary to operate at a functional level (Morris, 2008). Numerous private colleges struggle financially and this affects the decision-making process for upper administration and trustees. As Table 2 indicates the perceived role for a trustee in private colleges is to raise money for the institution. Many trustees are chosen to serve based on their financial means or ability to attract sizeable donations. These donations could be a vital portion to the private college in covering scholarships, building improvements and the overall budget. Besides tuition revenue, donations are the only way to fund many initiatives in a private college (Morris, 2008). With donations being such a vital part of the financial health of the private college many trustees base their decision making process on what is financially viable versus the mission of the institution. Table 2 results indicate that a highly perceived role for trustees is to determine financial priorities for the institution. With this being such a highly ranked role the perception of many trustees is to spend a large amount of time on this role. Academics, athletics, and student affairs are important issues to trustees; however the main focus is on the financial well-being of the private college. Unfortunately, besides athletics many areas of a private college get over looked because of the trustees focus on financial matters. If an institution is performing at a financial level the trustees are comfortable with then other student related areas would receive more attention. Unfortunately, private colleges are struggling financially making financial issues a top priority in board meetings. Several private college trustees do not have a higher education background, and some may not have a college degree. The majority of trustees have been successful individuals in business and industry and have a vested interest in the institution in which they serve. They may be interested in the institution because of athletics, community, or other personal reasons. This deficiency of higher education knowledge can be problematic for upper administration. Decisions could be based on a lack of understanding of the inner workings of a private college. Also, these decisions could be based on personal interests such as improving athletic facilities. Table 1 indicates their perception of performance is at a high level. With many private colleges having a good perception of their leadership, it is important they are given adequate information to make decisions. Trustees should be relied on to assist private colleges in making business, legal and financial decisions. Fund raising and donations should not be their main focus as it pertains to the operational matters of the institution. Journal of Organizational Learning and Leadership 62

5 Trustees have an important role in private colleges, in which they face many decisions in this role. As private colleges face many different challenges the leadership from trustees is a vital part of the governing process. Since trustees are typically chosen for their financial means often times they are not educated in the inner workings of a private college. Trustees could benefit from more detailed information on academic and student affairs to assist them in the decisionmaking process. They often approve issues regarding academic and student affairs, however they usually are not familiar with these issues. Additionally, a trustee does not need to be an expert in a private college; however their decisions should not be based on strictly financial rationale. References Birnbaum, R. (2004). The end of shared governance: Looking ahead and looking back. In W. Tierney and V. Lechuga (eds.), Restructuring Shared Governance in Higher Education, New Directions for Higher Education No. 127 (pp. 5-22). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. Blumenstyk, G. (2006). Energy: Colleges feel pressure to shift from fossil fuels. Chronicle of Higher Education, 52(18), Butler, L. (2006). The board s role in strategic planning. Washington, DC: Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. Chabotar, K. J. (2006). Strategic finance: Planning and budgeting for boards, chief executives, and finance officers. Washington, DC: Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. Ehrenberg, R. G. (2000). Private college trustees must control costs. Chronicle of Higher Education, 47(5), xx-xx. Ingram, R. T., & Weary, W. A. (2000). Presidential and board assessment in higher education: Policies and strategies. Washington, DC: Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. Legon, R. D. (2003). The board s role in fund raising. Washington, DC: Association of Governing Boards and Colleges. Lu, M. Y. (2003). Technology: There is no going back. Chulalongkorn Educational Review, 9(2), Martin, R. H. (2003). The problem with student and faculty trustees. Trusteeship, 21, 1-5. Morris, A. (2008). The leadership role of the department chair in private colleges. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Journal of Organizational Learning and Leadership 63

6 Morris, A., & Miller, M.T. (2008). Profile of online programs in private colleges: From college to university with a click. Journal of Academic Leadership, 6(1), available online at Rago, J. (2007, September 1-2). Mr. Rogers goes to Dartmouth. Wall Street Journal. Journal of Organizational Learning and Leadership 64

7 Table 1. Description of Survey Respondents N=109 Characteristic Frequency Percentage Institutional Individual Highest degrees granted Bachelor s % Master s First professional Approximate full-time enrollment 3,000 or fewer students ,000 to 7,000 students ,000 to 10,000 students Trustee appointment method Political appointment Appointed by existing trustees Elected Other Title Chancellor/president Assistant/assistant to chancellor/president Vice president Assistant/deputy vice president Dean Perception of trustee performance Excellent Pretty good Sometimes they do well/sometimes not Generally, not very good Horrible Journal of Organizational Learning and Leadership 65

8 Table 2. Currently Perceived Trustee Roles N=109 Role Mean SD Range Raise money for the institution Approve senior administrator appointments Determine financial priorities Engage in strategic mission development Assess board member performance/self or peers Set enrollment targets and qualifications Determine elements of faculty contracts Approve personnel matters Change senior administrative structure Be involved in new board member orientation Negotiate auxiliary contract language Evaluate administrators Make decisions on programs of study Have a voice in curricular requirements Determine teaching methods (including online) Oversee athletic administration Determine transfer of credit guidelines Work to influence state legislative decisions Journal of Organizational Learning and Leadership 66

9 Table 3. Most Important Roles Trustees Should Have Role N % Role 1 Role 2 Role 3 Role 4 Engage in strategic mission development % Raise money for the institution Approve senior admin appointments Approve personnel matters Raise money for the institution Negotiate auxiliary contracts Be involved in new board orientation Approve senior admin appointments Engage in strategic mission development Evaluate administrators 1.9 Evaluate administrators Be involved in new member orientation Raise money for the institution Negotiate auxiliary contracts Change senior administrative structure Engage in strategic mission development Make decisions on programs of study Have a voice in curricular requirements Negotiate auxiliary contracts Raise money for the institution Approve senior administrator appointments Change senior administrative structure Make decision on programs of study Determine teaching methods Role 5 Assess board member performance Approve senior administrative appointments Raise money for the institution Be involved in new member orientation Change senor administrative structure Oversee athletic administration 1.9 Journal of Organizational Learning and Leadership 67

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