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Former president: governing boards 'need to be re-examined, reformed'

Mark Reutter, Business & Law Editor
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Stanley O. Ikenberry
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Former Illinois president Stanley O. Ikenberry is calling for governing boards of public universities to be "re-examined and reformed."


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The composition of governing boards of most U.S. public universities does not reflect the expanded mission, programs and sources of support of higher education, the former president of the University of Illinois writes in an article.

Stanley O. Ikenberry, president of the University of Illinois from 1979 to 1995 and currently the Regent Professor at the U. of I.’s Institute of Government and Public Affairs, said governing boards “need to be re-examined and reformed” in order to reaffirm and strengthen the public character of public universities.

“As the funding base of public universities and colleges has diversified, the accountability obligations of public universities have grown beyond the ‘state’ to include donors, students and parents who pay an increasing share of the cost, business partners, the federal government and other stakeholders,” Ikenberry wrote in the latest issue of Policy Forum, which is published by IGPA.

The governing structures of most public universities, however, have lagged behind the rapid changes taking place in higher education, according to Ikenberry. “Public governing boards tend to be relatively small – seven to 12 members – with a range of talent and perspectives that may or may not align with those expanded responsibilities,” he wrote.

Ikenberry called for a rethinking of the composition of public governing boards.

“Size of governing boards need to be increased. Sources of appointment or election must be diversified. A single governor, a single legislative committee, a single party caucus, should no longer control the composition of public university governing boards,” he continued.

In an interview, he noted that several public universities around the country have inherited or moved toward a more diversified board structure. Penn State’s board, for example, includes six trustees appointed by the governor, nine trustees elected by alumni, six trustees elected by state agricultural societies, and six trustees elected to represent business and industry.

Ikenberry expressed concern that financial pressures, in particular the reduced priority given higher education by state governments, may be changing the character of public universities.

“Cuts in state support to public universities have forced tuition increases, as campuses have attempted to replace lost state revenue,” he said. “Unfortunately, increases in tuition and fees outpaced inflation, growth in personal income and virtually every available benchmark.”

As a result, the danger of public universities becoming “less public” is growing. “Students from upper-income families are five times more likely to attend college than their counterparts from the lowest-income quartile,” he wrote.

“Is the ‘public’ mission or character of public colleges and universities shifting?” Ikenberry asked. “While most presidents and chancellors might argue, ‘no,’ still, market forces and competitive instincts are increasingly shaping institutional policy, priorities and decisions. Public support for strong statewide policy and coordinating bodies appears to be weakening.”

Most worrisome, he said, the changes in higher education have taken place “piecemeal – campus by campus, state by state – absent any overarching design, any significant national debate or studied assessment of the broader implications.”

Ikenberry called for a national dialogue on the future of public universities. “The barriers separating state policymakers, business and civic leaders, academics and the public at large must be broken down, and a conversation on the future of public higher education begun.”

Following his retirement as Illinois president, Ikenberry was president of the American Council on Education, an organization representing 1,600 accredited, degree-granting colleges and universities.

His article, “Uncertain and Unplanned: The Future of Public Higher Education,” can be accessed at