American higher education faces huge challenges, as indicated by the fact that the better part of two million fewer Americans attend college than did so early in the last decade. Moreover, the cushion of external financial support American colleges receive—critical to their existence since few schools exist almost exclusively on tuition fees—has become somewhat shaky, as public surveys reveal declining public support for higher education.

Moreover, higher education is afflicted with multiple problems: it is expensive, the value proposition is increasingly questioned, and Schumpeterian “creative destruction” is starting to hit schools to a degree not seen in modern times. Higher education needs big changes, but universities are notoriously resistant to internally directed reform—too many interest groups think they “own” the university—the students, the faculty, the alumni, the administration.

In reality, however, universities are almost always legally under the control of a governing board, typically a board of trustees. The trustees are unique in that they have two distinct advantages. First, they legally are the university, with major decision-making powers. Second, they are also individuals dependent on resources earned from outside the academy to sustain them and their families. They potentially have clout, and the advantage of a Real World perspective on life often lacking within the Ivory Tower.

Yet rarely are trustees the agent for needed, bold changes. There are two big reasons why. First, they often are clueless about many things happening on campus. They read material provided them by the president, who wants trustees to hear good things and avoid learning about campus weaknesses and embarrassments, since the president’s salary and employment future is enhanced by good news. They are victims of what economists call “asymmetric information.”

Second, trustees are susceptible to a soft form of bribery—not formal cash payments, but rather being wined and dined. They get prime tickets to big football games, or favorable legacy treatment for their children and grandchildren wanting admissions (at selective admissions schools). They sometimes even travel with university officials on international trips. The president takes really good care of them—and they reciprocate by giving him big raises, long employment contracts, deferred compensation payments, etc. (In fairness, some of them also give generous gifts to the university).

There is the added issue: how involved should trustees be in university affairs? An excessively busybody trustee can try to assume the administrative duties of university officials, making decisions about routine appointments, curricular matters, etc. That is what universities hire administrators and faculty for. A much bigger problem, however, is the trustee who spends little time on university affairs, not becoming conversant with what is happening, and rubber stamping administration initiatives.

I strongly believe university trustees should get unbiased information from a source not beholden to the president or other key officials, and that trustee employee (not working for the president) should have wide access to almost all information the president receives. Perhaps a retired respected professor could be hired on a one-fourth or one-half time basis to provide such information.

Related to this, the Association of Governing Boards has released some new polling data from nearly one thousand trustees, predominantly at private schools but with a good sprinkling from public institutions. Trustees are, appropriately I think, becoming much more pessimistic about colleges. Some 42% say they are very concerned about the future of higher education, up rather dramatically from the previous year’s survey (28%).

At both public and private schools, the two things concerning trustees most are the future financial sustainability of higher education (including their own school), and the high price charged. Other questions reveal trustees don’t believe their schools strongly understand what employers are looking for from graduates, and a significant minority of respondents don’t think their school does a particularly good job of promoting freedom of speech among members of the university community, and that the board has not been heavily involved in the often contentious issue of how to address issues of sexual misconduct.

I suspect on balance trustees are under-informed and under-involved, spending hours reviewing relatively routine contracts or visiting facilities, but less time dealing with contentious issues which deserve some oversight from the broader community that helps sustain the institution.