TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: College trustees’ business is everybody’s business

The emerging storyline at the University of Virginia’s board of visitors — with back-room duplicity that would be more at home in “Game of Thrones” than in Mr. Jefferson’s stodgy academic preserve — is a stark reminder of the breadth of college trustees’ authority. And the shallowness of their public accountability.

The secretive ouster of popular UVA President Teresa Sullivan, engineered by the rector (or chair) of UVA’s board, Helen Dragas, and a cabal that appears to include influential business-school alums, is sparking widespread backlash from students and faculty.

The campus community — including, apparently, some members of the board — was blindsided by Sullivan’s sudden removal and still await a reasonable explanation. (“That’s a personnel issue” is not a reasonable explanation, and should never be accepted at face value when the “personnel” ranks as high as a college president.)

College trustees typically are people who’ve spent their lives amassing private fortunes, sometimes answering to stockholders and sometimes (in closely held family companies) answering to no one — but rarely answering to the general public.

Often, they’re chosen not for any depth of expertise in education, but for their generosity and political loyalty to the governor. (That is, in systems where trustees are appointed — in a few systems, notably community college districts in California and Illinois, a college trusteeship is a public elected office, and that opens up whole new frontiers for public scrutiny.)

Because college trustees often do not think of themselves as “public officials,” it falls to watchdog journalists to remind them that they are. And as public officials, they must refrain from self-dealing, must be prepared to explain their decisions in on-the-record open sessions, and must otherwise observe the standards one would expect from a public servant.

Fortunately, reporter Karla Bowsher at Florida Atlantic University recently put on a clinic for anyone who’s interested in taking apart a college governing board to see what makes it tick.

Diving into widely available public records, Bowsher raised significant questions about whether FAU board members — some of whom had recent bankruptcy filings, unpaid taxes and other indicia of inability to carefully manage money — should be in charge of a $609-million-a-year campus operating budget.

Bowsher’s research can, and should, be duplicated at every campus-level and state-level college governing board, because — if trustees are going to micro-manage campus decisionmaking as they appear to be doing at UVa — they should be as answerable as the presidents and provosts who work beneath them.

A few easy ways to get started:

  • Pull any state financial-disclosure forms that trustees must file, generally available through the Secretary of State’s office at the state Capitol. These forms should show the trustees’ primary sources of income and business ownership interests, and whether they do any substantial business with state government.
  • Use state campaign financial records to see how much trustees, and their companies, donated to political candidates (including the governors who appointed them).
  • Use the IRS Form 990 for your college (and its alumni association, athletic association and other separately incorporated affiliates) to see whether the college reports doing business with any of its own trustees.
  • Run every trustee’s name, and the name of any companies in which they are principals, through the clerk’s database at the local courthouses (state-level and federal) to see whether they’ve been involved in recent litigation, either as plaintiff or defendant.