It could be said that boards of trustees are the worst form of higher education governance except for all others, to play off the famous Churchill quote about democracy. The truism that democracy is messy can apply to governing boards as well. Currently, our time-tested form of higher education governance is under strain from politically polarized elements of society that see the nation’s colleges and universities as places to advance a conservative political agenda. Recent examples of blatant political interference are threatening to tarnish the integrity and credibility of our uniquely American form of education governance.
The controversy surrounding Nikole Hannah-Jones’s seminal work, "The 1619 Project," and its inclusion into the educational curriculum is just one case in point. Hannah-Jones’s thesis, published by The New York Times in 2019, is that American history cannot be accurately taught without a clear portrayal of the immoral treatment of Black Americans and the impact of slavery on the nation’s historical trajectory. "The 1619 Project" has come to be known as critical race theory, and a number of school districts across the country have banned its use in the curriculum. Most recently, in a highly contentious action, Hannah-Jones was denied tenure by the Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill after being offered a tenured professorship by the faculty and president of the university.
The alarming growth of such incidents of political intrusion is bringing our system of citizen trusteeship into question. America’s distinct higher education model is predicated on certain foundational principles -- a key one being independence from external pressures. Boards of colleges and universities are composed of lay members of the public who are the fiduciaries for the institutions they govern. Trusteeship means holding in trust the educational missions of the institutions governed -- not being swayed by external influences that embody separate political agendas. Listening to all stakeholders and constituencies is part of the role of trustees, but policy decisions by boards must, before all else, serve the educational mission of the institutions they govern.
At the heart of the prestige of American higher education, which draws students from all over the world, is its independence from political dominance, influence and pressure, along with the richness and diversity of the curricula offered to students. In many countries of the world, where the government determines educational policy, political ideology sets limits on what may be taught and who can and should teach it. Academic freedom is not a tenet in Chinese universities or in other authoritarian nations where the political body in power determines the limits of allowable teaching and thought. Vital to the greatness of America’s colleges and universities is the sanctity of a free learning environment, a marketplace of ideas, where a wide range of theories and views are welcome. This broad scope of content benefits student learning and intellectual development. The central idea of the general education component of American higher education is to offer students a diverse portfolio of knowledge, concepts, theories and ideas that nurtures their capacity to deliberate and think critically.
For any political actors to try to control what higher education institutions teach in their classrooms is an egregious violation of such fundamental American precepts. Lay boards of citizens trustees that govern our colleges and universities are expected to avoid tests of ideological purity that align with the political wind of the times. Whereas authoritarian countries force such alignment, our model of governance was designed to buffer our colleges and universities from political interference that can defeat the basic goal of democratic educational institutions. We can train students in practice and technical skills, and do. But a functioning democracy depends on an educated citizenry able to consider opposing ideas and recognize the difference between fact and fiction, data and spin, scientific theories and groundless conspiracies.
In the U.S., independent agencies guarantee the educational quality of colleges and universities through an accreditation process. These accrediting agencies recognize independent governance as closely linked to educational quality. Limit the content, limit the learning. Thus, they all include in their standards a requirement for the independence of governing boards. The purpose of these standards is to ensure the absence of political interference in what is taught in the classroom and by whom, to protect academic freedom and the diversity of ideas and theories to which students are exposed. Recent examples of boards appearing to bend to external political pressures have provoked warnings from accreditors of the risk to their institutions’ accreditation status for violating such standards.
Political interference in curricula and tenure decisions like what recently occurred at the University of North Carolina are egregious examples of inappropriate meddling by unqualified political players -- meddling that degrades the academic enterprise. When it comes to tenure decisions, only fellow academic specialists, trained in the same discipline, have the knowledge and competence to judge the scholarly value of an individual seeking tenure in their field. To have political appointees to a board determine a tenure decision based on their political leanings, overriding those with the academic expertise to make such judgments, violates the fundamental values, ethics and norms of the academy -- the very principles that have elevated American higher education to its eminent status around the world.
If boards insert themselves and their political views into curricular and tenure decisions that are the purview of faculty, our whole educational philosophy is at risk. A curriculum based on a particular ideology is more about indoctrination than learning, and that is not the American way of education. Diversity of thought, theories and the academic freedom to explore diverse ideas are its hallmarks. They must not be sacrificed on the altar of the partisan politics by board members who are fiduciaries, not a thought police.
Diversity in curriculum and student demographics is part of the richness of the American higher education experience. To reject the teaching of a particular theory of American social history must be soundly rejected by all who care about preserving our democratic institutions and our tradition of an education that nurtures student thinkers, not ideological reprints. The charge that our nation’s colleges and universities have a liberal bias is fair. The dictionary definition of “liberal” as “open to new ideas” suggests it is an epithet that can -- and should be -- embraced.
In short, the governing boards of our colleges and universities must reaffirm their role as guardians of their institutions’ educational missions and academic integrity -- and leave their partisan politics at the boardroom door.