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From the issue dated May 22, 2009

Why Tuition-Paying Students Should Select Trustees


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.
Section: Commentary
Volume 55, Issue 37, Page A28
Copyright © 2009 by The Chronicle of Higher Education