Like many high performing boards, the board of trustees at the College of Saint Benedict desires to make a meaningful and substantive impact not only for our college, but also for higher education as a whole. To that end, we have explored the role of trustees within and beyond our campus community. Together with institutional leaders, our board learned from the National Commission on College and University Board Governance that critical responsibilities of both trustees and campus leaders are “improv[ing] value in their institutions and lead[ing] a restoration of public trust in higher education itself.”
These charges of demonstrating value and restoring the public trust are constitutive to our work as leaders and board members across higher education. It has never been more important for our sector—and for trustees as leaders in the sector—to tackle these issues. Two current calls to action involve how we demonstrate our value as inclusive institutions positioned to effectively serve all students, and how we emphasize the imperative of the liberal arts for a lifetime of personal professional success and for the sake of our democracy.
Trustees are uniquely positioned to move these dual initiatives forward. First, given the expansive personal and professional networks of governing board members, trustees are our institutional constituents with the broadest and deepest reach. Trustees have great power beyond our institutional contexts: power to reframe the way that the public understands and values higher education, and power to drive national conversations about the ways higher education contributes to democracy. Particularly, trustees can maximize their impact by engaging in the national conversation about the liberal arts and its value in forwarding inclusive excellence.
Second, The Guardians Initiative recognizes the important opportunity board members have to help rebuild public trust in higher education. Recent surveys indicate that the public trust in institutions overall has diminished over the past decade to near historic lows, and multiple headlines indicate that the case is especially dire for higher education. Yet we know that one of the lofty goals of higher education is to ensure we have an educated citizenry to participate in and further democracy. To achieve this goal, we must not only engage with more of the American public but we must also have their trust. Our governing boards should play a compelling role in reclaiming this trust and furthering this ideal.
Finally, while we wrestle with these complex issues on campus, our trustees also face and resolve these same issues in their professional lives. Trustees, as business leaders, community volunteers, role models, and change makers, can see the importance of lifelong learning, critical thinking, problem solving—the outcomes of a liberal arts education—and of diversity and inclusion in bettering their work and communities. Governing board members can provide concrete examples of the ways that education can capitalize on our liberal arts foundation in partnership with inclusion and how, when taken together, they can lead to better professional outcomes, healthier communities, and a more just world.
As fiduciaries of higher education, trustees have a unique responsibility to ensure that higher education is contributing to democracy and an engaged citizenry. Trustees can hold higher education accountable to their highest purpose by raising generative questions about the value of higher education:
- How do we move away from an exclusionary economic model?
- How do we develop curricula and pedagogies that support learning for all students?
- How do we consistently achieve positive student outcomes?
- How do we tell the liberal arts story in a way that values the liberal arts and its relevance for all students?
- How do we disrupt the traditional narrative about the liberal arts to state boldly our value?
The current narrative about higher education is a strong indictment: College is for the wealthy. We teach an outdated canon with no connection to “real life." Trustees can help us actively reframe this narrative.