Higher ed group examines relationship between university presidents, trustees

Public and private univeristies have different leadership dynamics

· January 26, 2012, 11:53 pm   ·  Updated January 29, 2012, 11:16 pm

With ongoing economic challenges facing the field of higher education, the policy research organization Public Agenda has taken a critical look at university leadership across the country.

In a report released last month, the group found that university trustees “largely defer to the expertise of their presidents,” according to a Chronicle of Higher Education summary of the research — raising the question of whether or not these findings apply to Penn.

For Penn President Amy Gutmann, though, the University Board of Trustees is “very well informed [and] does a great job in oversight.”

The responsibilities of the Board of Trustees include, among other things, setting overarching University policy, selecting new presidents, setting the annual budget and providing advice to the president on large policy issues.

Gutmann said the Board of Trustees is particularly visible when it comes to financial matters, citing Penn’s adoption of an all-grant, no-loan financial aid policy as an initiative that the University “would only go forward with … if [the Board of Trustees] approved it.”

“Important decisions are made collaboratively and with a great deal of discussion and communication,” Board of Trustees Chair David Cohen wrote in an email.

University Secretary Leslie Kruhly — who works closely with members of the Board of Trustees — explained that nearly all trustees are Penn alumni and more than two-thirds also sit on advisory boards for Penn’s 12 schools, continuing the Board’s “history of engagement [and] deep understanding of what’s going on at the school level.”

The full Board of Trustees meets three times a year, while its executive committee meets an additional three or four times a year.

At Board meetings, there is “discussion and ongoing conversation” that prevents “tension or disagreement around major policy issues,” Kruhly said.

While at public universities many trustees are appointed by the governor of the state, Penn trustees elect their successors.

Because trustees have already crafted a positive relationship with the president, they will “want to elect people like themselves who will continue that tradition rather than people who are absentee caretakers,” Kruhly said.

Researcher John Immerwahr, who led the Public Agenda study, noted that of the 39 university trustees interviewed anonymously for the study, just two represented private universities with high research activities whose profiles would be similar to Penn’s.

According to Immerwahr, a number of factors differentiate the leadership dynamics at public and private universities, and the findings are “largely a question about massive state universities … being slow to respond to issues.” As a result, he added, the study may not necessarily support the same conclusion about Penn’s Board of Trustees.

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