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Nancy Pelosi talking to Arizona State students in 2007 on making college more affordable by lowering interest rates on student loans. (AP photo)

Who decides higher ed issues? Try the trustees

ASK THIS | February 19, 2008

On key matters at colleges and universities, trustees often have a bigger role than school presidents. Yet, as Wick Sloane writes, reporters hardly ever go to them, leaving many questions unanswered.

By Wick Sloane

Having trouble finding out who decides what percentage of the student body at any given university should be on scholarship? Or how many students will have Pell Grants? Or that tuition will rise, again? Who decides, as Williams College just did, to tear down a sound student center and to build another, with tax-deducted dollars, while raising tuition? Well, how about asking the trustees who decides?

I can’t type fast enough for all the stories that need to be written to give low-income students a fair shot at college and to relieve the middle class of crushing debt. What I'm not finding in almost all the stories I read are answers to important questions that college and university trustees, public and private, could provide.

The trustees, listed on schools' Web sites, are too often absent in press coverage of the multi-billion dollar higher education industry. Institutional specifics will vary. On fiscal and policy issues, from setting high tuitions to low graduation rates for college athletes to, today, issues of low payouts from huge endowments, trustees often have bigger votes than college and university presidents. In public statements, especially to the press, presidents are unlikely to contradict or second guess or question their trustees once a decision is made. This isn’t good or bad; right or wrong. 

“But trustees don’t like to be called. They never call back,” is what I hear, raising this issue with other education journalists. Perhaps refusing to call back is a story? I don’t mean spike the story if the trustees don’t call back. Why not turn up the sunlight? We must dial harder.

Recent coverage I saw, for example, of Yale endowment spending of about 4 percent per year after returns of 28 percent stopped with Yale President Rick Levin. Yet who exactly had been making the decisions for years to raise tuitions and let middle class students graduate from Yale crushed in debt? We don’t know. The chair of the Yale Corporation, as those trustees are called, is Roland Betts, the close friend, perhaps the best friend, of President George W. Bush. Yale and other universities accept billions of dollars each year in federal research grants and billions more in federal, state, and local tax exemptions. The press calls public school board members all the time. Why not trustees? 

I’ve done hard time as the chief financial officer of a state university system (Hawaii). As a consequence of age, I find I know many trustees, including some at the schools I attended, Williams College and Yale. Long ago, my editor would not accept a board of education story unless I had called the superintendent and every board member. Why not the same for higher education coverage? 

Why bother? Here's one reason: The evidence that we have more asking and reporting and typing to do is beside me now, the 1922 book The Goose-Step, A Study of American Higher Education by the eminent muckraker, Upton Sinclair. Chapter VI is “The University of the House of Morgan,” about the cozy relations between banks and higher education. What of colleges and universities today and lenders for student loans? Or institutions receiving fees in exchange for exclusive right to issue students credit cards at usurious interest rates? Chapter V, “Interlocking Directorates,” describes just that. What are rules for procurement from firms that employ trustees? Or endowment investing? Sinclair could well wonder today what has changed. 

Sinclair wrote in the introduction eighty-six years ago:

You take it for granted that this money is honestly and wisely used; that the students are getting the best, the “highest” education the money can buy. Suppose I were to tell you that this educational machine has been stolen? That a bandit crew have got hold of it and have set it to work, not for your benefit, nor the benefit of your sons and daughters, but for ends very far from these? 

Here’s a warm-up on interlocking directorates. Why is a leading reporter, Margaret Warner of The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, a member of the Yale Corporation instead covering the story of endowment wealth versus access to college for low-income students?  I’ll give her a call.  

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