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OpinionCommentary

A balancing act for today’s universities

To prepare citizens, colleges need to align missions, resources and society’s needs.

The people most responsible for higher education's educational

The people most responsible for higher education's educational and business practices are board trustees. But who are they? Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStock

Higher education is one of Long Island’s most cherished assets and largest economic sectors. There are 18 collegiate institutions enrolling almost 129,000 students and employing more than 40,000 faculty and staff. Their total operating expenses reach more than $7 billon a year.

Families celebrate both the 22-year-old and the older adult upon graduation. The public values higher education for its part in social and economic advancement, scientific discoveries and cultural contributions. Yet many question college costs and leadership. On Long Island, conditions in higher education prompt such questions. Why did Dowling College close? Why was LIU-Southampton sold?

The people most responsible for higher education’s educational and business practices are the boards of trustees. But who are they?

Just as corporations and nonprofit organizations require boards whose members know the core of the organization’s strategy, universities benefit from trustees who can contribute to planning and decision-making. Trustees are most effective when they know the mission and purpose, the students, the competitive landscape and the comparative advantages of the institutions they serve. The most helpful are those who ask questions about that which they do not understand or with which they disagree. For example, I recall Adelphi trustees asking about our tuition compared to other institutions and which of the variables in our dashboard kept me up at night.

One reason for turmoil in university governance is the lack of respect for the tradition of shared governance. While trustees have ultimate authority, the board delegates powers to the president as chief executive and to faculty as guardians of academic programs and standards. Each has an important role in fulfilling an institution’s mission, and they must work together to develop the respect and trust necessary to move the institution forward.

Politicians and pundits complain about the business model of colleges and rail against increases in tuition, the slow pace in adopting technology to reduce personnel expenses, and the cost of building facilities. Defenders of higher education complain about it becoming corporate.

One sign of corporatization cited is the increasing reliance on adjunct and contingent faculty. Some colleges teach nearly 70 percent of course sections with such faculty because they cost less. This lament about adjuncts is not meant to deny the value of employing some faculty whose expertise would be too expensive on a full-time basis. Nor is this to say that universities must ignore the financial bottom line. But part-timers are not as available as full-time faculty for monitoring academic quality, advising students, sponsoring student clubs, developing curriculum, managing internships, and serving on faculty and university committees.

Nevertheless, the criticisms contain some truth. We in higher education can do more to manage costs, control tuition increases, guide fraternities, and balance the priority for athletics with the mission for academics. There also is not enough attention to the alignment among student potential, support services and graduation requirements. After all, the mission is to educate students of all ages, and those who do not graduate are more likely to have difficulty in repaying student loans.

The purpose of higher education is to help students develop reflective lives as well as prepare for careers in which one can earn a decent living in meaningful work. The goal is to prepare citizens, not just consumers. To accomplish this, we need a better alignment of institutional mission and strategies, societal needs, and campus resource allocation and rewards. This is the responsibility of universities — to be mission-based and market sensitive.

Robert A. Scott, president emeritus of Adelphi University, is the author of  “How University Boards Work.”

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