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The Voices We’re Not Hearing in Public Higher Ed

Too often, college and university governing boards resist bringing students and the public into decisions that have a powerful impact on them.

Flickr/Kelby Carr
One of America's great traditions is citizen participation in public decision-making. From New England-style town meetings to inviting public comment on proposed regulations, when citizens who will have to live with the consequences of governmental decisions are involved in making them, discussions are more well-rounded and, ultimately, solutions are more considerate of their needs.

But somehow, the boards that govern public colleges and universities -- even those that oversee billions of dollars in public assets -- have largely been exempt from hearing from diverse voices. In 39 states, there is no requirement that boards of trustees or regents consult the public prior to making major decisions that significantly impact students and families. This is despite the fact that more than 70 percent of American postsecondary students are enrolled in public colleges and universities.

Typically, trustees hear only well-packaged plans from the institutions' presidents and other top administrators. And when colleges are challenged to consider other viewpoints, those efforts are all too likely to be viewed as intrusions or even assaults.

Of course, it's no secret that most trustee appointments are considered plum picks delivered by governors looking to reward campaign supporters who are not known for their higher-education acumen. In a closed system built on insider favors, isolation brings with it the considerable risk of reinforcing a narrow, insider viewpoint.

At its core, the problem of not listening to the voices of those most affected before making decisions can leave well-meaning trustees tone-deaf and disconnected from the realities of students and a public they were appointed or elected to serve. This too often leads to decisions that ultimately exacerbate very real challenges facing today's students.

On a larger scale, opaque governing processes stand as one more barrier to building trust with a skeptical public amid polls that show dampening confidence in higher education, along with high-profile administrative scandals such as the unfolding admissions bribery scheme that has ensnared some of our most prestigious universities.

When students have the opportunity to be heard, the playing field is, if only for a moment, more level. And when that happens, trustees sensitized to the financial plight of many college students can make more informed decisions.

Consider that in the vast majority of states public spending on higher education has been on the rise since 2013, after years of disinvestment brought on by the Great Recession. However, too few trustees are asking why the institutions they oversee haven't responded with tuition constraint. And who asks how tuition and fee increases will add to student debt loads or how many students will be driven into food or housing insecurity?

Something needs to change, and in some places it has. This year, for example, our organizations joined forces in Virginia - where, despite five years of increased state spending, tuition and fees have climbed to sixth-highest in the nation -- to change state law and require that trustees listen to students and others who are affected before setting tuition and fees.

Virginia will become the 11th state with such a statutory or regulatory requirement, thanks to near-unanimous bipartisan approval and support from AARP-Virginia, the Virginia Parent Teacher Association, the K-12 teacher's lobby, student groups and even experienced trustees. This policy and its broad base of support should be replicated across the country.

Occasional public comment won't solve everything, however, and doesn't substitute for ongoing constituent engagement. While research shows that even informal inclusion of students brings benefits to campus governance, too few boards welcome students as members. One of us (James Toscano) is a former university student board member, and the other (Andy MacCracken) is a former university student body president. We both recognize that broader public engagement empowers student representatives and board members alike to respond to the evolving needs of students today.

Governing boards must step up and invite increased transparency and discourse. To be sure, listening to opposing views can be disquieting. But what's worse and unacceptable is for those in power to think that students and others shouldn't be allowed or encouraged to speak up. With concerns over the management of public higher education mounting, it's too much to expect students and the public to hold their peace.

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