Understanding public university governing boards

What’s in a name: “regent,” “trustee” or “governor?” Learn more about the purpose of these boards and the roles that make them up.

Many voters are baffled come November when they are faced with voting for members of the state’s three university governing boards. Who are these people, what do they do and why are they each called something different? Michigan is one of four states with public university governing boards elected directly by the people (along with Colorado,Nebraska and Nevada). This is first in a three-part series that will address these questions.

Michigan has 15 public universities, but only the board members of the University of MichiganMichigan State University, and Wayne State University are chosen in general elections. The governor appoints the board of control of the other state universities with the advice and consent of the state Senate.

The Michigan Constitution of 1963 (Article VIII section 5) requires that “Regents of the University of Michigan, the Trustees of Michigan State University, and the Governors of Wayne State University shall have eight members each holding eight-year terms and will be elected as provided by law every two years.”

What defines a board trustee, board of regents or board of governors? According to The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB), the venerable term “trustee,” used by most of the 1,200 institutions in the AGB member database, captures the idea of reliable citizens (and not the government) who are entrusted with holding an institution’s cross-generational future in their hands.

The second-most common is the term “board of regents.” Of the 50 states, 39 maintain a higher education board of regents in some form to govern or coordinate their public higher education multicampus systems. However, used equally as often is the term board of governors. Among institutions with boards of governors are the University of North Carolina, Rutgers University, the University of New Haven and McGill University in Montreal.

The direct election of these public university governing boards by the voters of Michigan means that, in theory, the state legislature and the executive branch exercise have less say in their policies than in other states where the boards are not directly elected. The universities are not immune, however, from the authority of the courts. The legislature does exercise some degree of political control through the appropriation of public dollars to provide partial funding for the schools. A recent example was this year when Michigan’s public universities were poised to get a rare increase in state funding next fiscal year. The Governor’s recommendation for higher education establishes a 3 percent funding increase to be distributed using a new performance formula based on four metrics: the growth in the number of undergraduate degree completions, the number of undergraduate completions in critical skill areas, the number of undergraduate Pell Grant recipients and compliance with tuition restraint. Universities doing a better job of holding tuition costs down will receive greater funding.

The rich variety of missions pursued by America’s 4,000 colleges and universities is echoed in the variations in the names applied to their boards. The “board of trustees” is by far the most common appellation—and the term used most often by AGB as a convenient catch-all.

The next article will examine the role of the boards and their duties.

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