Higher education has never been more important to America’s future, yet our universities and colleges have seldom been regarded so skeptically by the American people. A quarter century of public opinion research reflects the declining trust in colleges and universities and their leaders. These surveys also reflect awareness that college-level education and skills are necessary for the knowledge-based economy.
Public confidence in the altruistic character of higher education has faded; board members have a central role to play in earning back that trust.
The U.S., once first in almost every important indicator of national higher education performance, has been overtaken by other nations in college access and completion and in the educational attainment of young adults. This coincides with growing national concern over income inequality, the “hollowing out” of the middle class, and social mobility. Rapidly changing demography means these issues cannot be resolved without closing the national gaps in college participation and completion associated with income, race, and ethnicity. These challenges are at the heart of the public agenda of American higher education.
In a period of turmoil throughout higher education, trustees must be stewards of our public purposes as well as institutional fiduciaries. They are uniquely responsible for balancing the needs of American society, the demands of the marketplace, and the priorities of the academy—a task paramount to restoring public trust.