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Christian University Trustees
Their background and why it matters
Ten days ago I reported on my analysis of Christian University Presidents. I was interested in their backgrounds, especially when I’m trying to argue for a renewed approach to academic mission as a way of ameliorating culture wars. I found that only 30% of 130 CCCU presidents had come out of academic life.
This suggests that the task of reorienting the discussion around the possibility of Fearless Christian Universities (the focus of the book) must first figure out how to build bridges to those non-academic college presidents and to encourage those who were not long ago in the academic ranks.
Even if that were successful (dubious though it may be), there’s a larger challenge in considering the board of trustees. Those trustees, who come to campus only periodically and may or may not have studied their material in advance, shape a president’s focus by the kinds of questions they ask and the expectations they define.
I’m currently reading “Whatever it is, I’m against it”: Resistance to Change in Higher Education by David C. Rosenberg, the former president of Macalester College in Minnesota.1 He says this about private college trustees:
In my experience, they generally care deeply abotu the institutions they oversee, but they are part of a large group — according to the Association of Governing Boards, the average size in 29 — whose engagement with the college is episodic and whose role is split between governance and providing philanthropic support.
He also says that
The composition of these boards makes it unlikely that they will push for dramatic change in anything other than the most extreme set of circumstances.
This rings true to the 17 years I spent attending board meetings as an academic administrator. I found myself wondering what the background was of trustees of CCCU institutions. Repeating my earlier task of examining 130 institutions was too daunting given the number of trustees at each one.
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So I selected six institutions that in my judgment reflected different postures, denominational connections (if any), and regions of the country. I settled on Cedarville, Covenant, Gordon, Hardin-Simmons, Seattle Pacific, and Taylor. This gave me a total of 138 trustees (although I couldn’t find any definitive background for three — two at SPU and one at Gordon).
I broke the backgrounds down into some general categories: the arts; business, finance, or investments; education (k-12); government; higher ed; lawyers; medicine; ministry (both pastoral and parachurch); nonprofit organizations; and science and technology. The patterns are interesting and probably not unlike what a larger sample would show.
Nearly 60% of trustees come from either the business world or ministry. NonProfits, Medicine, and Science make up nearly another quarter. That leaves 10% in higher education, k-12 education, law, and government. The balance are in the arts or are unknown.
I find it interesting that the business group and the ministry group are roughly the same size, dominating nearly everything else. While individual trustees certainly vary, I think it’s safe to argue that these two groups have differing interests. The business group will be concerned about operational efficiency, branding, marketing, and fundraising. The ministry group will be concerned with how well the institution protects its students from mission drift.
As Rosenberg suggests, these are not the trustees who may be most likely to push for academic innovation. Those in nonprofits, the arts, or higher education might be more interested in those topics but are seriously outnumbered among the board. This is why I have long argued that Christian Universities could benefit by recruiting retired faculty from other institutions to serve on their boards. Note: I’m available to be drafted.
I’ll be arguing in the chapter that a forward-thinking Christian University president would see the faculty inside and outside the institution as resources to help the non-academic trustees develop aptitudes in these academic areas. Breaking down the rigid walls that often separate trustees from people inside the institution is an important step in that task.
The chart above is useful as a general summary, but the makeup of each of the six boards suggests the ways in which the institutions may differ.2 So here are the distributions of the six schools.
Looking at the schools individually shows considerable variation. Cedarville and Covenant have boards dominated by ministers. Gordon and Taylor are heavily from the business sector. Hardin-Simons has the most from education and Seattle Pacific the most from NonProfits. Gordon and Taylor have the most from higher education. All of the trustees from the arts are at Gordon. Covenant and Taylor have the most from medicine.
While good trustees try to think institutionally and from the perspective of institutional mission, I think it’s reasonable to argue that they will do some from the vantage point of their professional training.3 It would be nice to gather the trustee data for the other 124 universities from my earlier work, but I’m not sure the patterns would change a lot.
I know that some of my followers are faculty or staff at Christian Universities. If anyone wants to find the background information on the institution where you serve, I’d love to see it.
I came across this in a piece in Inside Higher Ed. Given that I was heading an entirely different direction in my chapter, I figured it was important to read. (It’s not as bad as I expected but he hasn’t taken on Shared Governance yet).
I did not go to the trouble of reviewing board bylaws to see, for example, how many ministers are required.
I’ve written before about a former minister turned faculty member who argued that the college president was like a pastor and the trustees were like the church board. Not a good analogy.