Recent news about Apple CEO Tim Cook’s appointment to the Duke University board of trustees reminded me of Bill Cosby. Not because Tim Cook has been accused of horrible crimes (he hasn’t), but because Bill Cosby served on the board of trustees for Temple University from 1982 to 2014, when he resigned. The fact that Cosby apparently only attended one meeting during his 32 years on the board would have caused me to wonder why he was chosen if another article hadn’t noted that he had helped raise millions of dollars for the school.
Immense personal wealth is the other thing connecting Cook and Cosby, as well as the others who have recently been named to Duke’s board. Among them are The Coca-Cola Foundation Chairwoman Lisa Borders, PRM Advisors founder Patricia Morton, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, and ValueAct Capital CEO Jeff Ubben. For at least the next six years, each of these people will be charged with guiding Duke’s “educational mission and its fiscal policies.” Unfortunately, I doubt any of them know very much about higher education.
The appointments of millionaires to a school’s board of trustees doesn’t surprise me because I have seen the role that board members play in my six years as a faculty member. It is true that they often have the “official” say in hiring and promotion, as well as voting on school policies, but from my experience their most important role is often one of donating money and fundraising. Before a capital campaign is made public there is a “silent” phase in which board members are approached for donations. When the campaign goes public, then, the school can announce that they have already raised millions of dollars. Even at my relatively poor former institution there were multiple millionaires on the board of trustees. Millionaires who knew very little about the day-to-day operation of a small private liberal arts college.
It is not surprising, then, to see these board members argue that colleges should be run like businesses. I doubt that I would make a good corporate board member since I lack detailed knowledge about how corporations function and care much more about things like social justice than stock dividends. The difference is that since I don’t have this knowledge so it would be absurd for me to be asked to serve on a corporation’s board. The reverse, though, is not true. The University of Illinois’s decision not to hire Steven Salaita appears to have been based not on academic concerns but on fundraising concerns raised by the board of trustees.
This is a problem. It is time to separate the roles of major donors and major decision-makers in higher education. Maybe we could create special boards to oversee the economic advancement of each institution. The problem with that is that in order to do so we would have to admit that our interest in these people is primarily financial and that we do not actually trust them to steer our great institutions of higher learning. Because that would be absurd.
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