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College Board of Trustees and University

Structure and Composition, Governance, Authority, Responsibilities, Board Committees

Independent, nonprofit, and public colleges and universities utilize a board format for their governing structure. These boards are often referred to as a board of trustees (similar terms include board of regents or board of visitors), and they act as the legal agent or "owner" of the institution. As a collective body, the trustees hold the authority and responsibility to ensure the fulfillment of an institution's mission. They are also ultimately responsible for the fiscal health of the college or university. The board of trustees' governing role is typically limited to selection of the president and policy approval, with the daily operations and management of the institution vested in the president.

Structure and Composition

An institution's charter and bylaws dictate its board size. These governing documents are informed by history, tradition, and needs of the institution. A board can range from a small handful of individuals to more than fifty people. Trustees are elected or appointed to the board for a specific term, which may be renewable. Most trustees come from the for-profit corporate world. Many institutions work diligently to assemble a diverse representation of community leaders on their board in an effort to broaden support for the institution. For some state and religiously affiliated institutions the board itself may not select all of the trustees. In the case of public institutions, the governor will usually make the appointments. For religious colleges and universities, the affiliated organization (i.e., a church governing council) will either select or approve the trustees. On occasion, independent colleges and universities will make an individual a life trustee. Life trustees typically have demonstrated an exceptional level of commitment to the institution. Other constituents who may receive a trustee position in an ex officio capacity include alumni, faculty, staff, and students. In some cases these ex officio trustees have full voting rights, while in other cases they are only a representative voice.


By law, the board of trustees is the governing body for an institution. Many states have established coordinating or consolidated boards that oversee institutional boards of public colleges and universities. A coordinating board may function in an advisory or regulatory capacity. The role of an advisory board is limited to review and recommendation, with no legal authority to approve or disapprove institutional actions, while a regulatory-type coordinating board would have program approval. Consolidated boards within a state usually take the form of one single board for all postsecondary institutions, though they may take the form of multiple boards, with each board responsible for one institutional type (e.g., two-year institutions, four-year institutions). It is not uncommon for states to utilize both coordinating and consolidated boards. On most campuses, tradition and higher-education culture dictate some level of shared governance with faculty. On some campuses, shared governance even extends to staff and students.


The authority of a board of trustees is derived from the institution's charter. The charter lays out the initial structure and composition of the board. Once the board is in place, it has the power to modify its own structure and composition as it believes necessary. Authority is given to the board as a whole rather than to individual trustees, and individual trustees have little authority and no ownership of an institution. It is the board, in its entirety, that is recognized as the legal owner of an institution's assets. For some public and religiously affiliated institutions, there may be another board (i.e., a consolidated board) or parent organization (i.e., the church denomination) to which the institutional board is beholden. This will impact, and potentially limit, the board's range of autonomy and authority.


Typically, the board chair is responsible for setting the agenda of the board. Most often this agenda is established in collaboration with the college president. Other board officers, such as the secretary or treasurer, usually have their associated roles completed by institutional staff. The board, as a group, has several basic responsibilities, including setting or reaffirming the institution's mission, acting as the legal owner of the institution, selecting a president, evaluating and supporting the president, setting board policies, and reviewing institutional performance.

Beyond these responsibilities, most boards are involved with institutional fundraising, strategic planning, and ensuring sensible management. The selection of a president can be the greatest influence a board has on an institution. Boards typically relinquish significant amounts of their power and authority to the president. The president usually takes the lead in setting an agenda for the board, and, therefore, for the institution. As an individual, a trustee is typically expected to support the institution financially, either personally or through influence. Trustees also act as ambassadors in their home community to build support for the institution.

Board Committees

Each board determines the number and type of committees they believe will serve the institution best. The following types of committees are typically found at colleges and universities: Academic Affairs oversees curriculum, new educational programs, and approves graduates; Audit is responsible for ensuring institutional financial records are appropriately reviewed by a third party; Buildings and Grounds reviews and recommends capital improvements and maintenance plans for the campus; the Committee on Trustees is charged with developing a list of potential trustees and reviewing the commitment of current trustees; Executive acts on issues of urgency that arise between full board meetings and sets the board agenda in concert with the president; Finance reviews and recommends institutional budgets; Institutional Advancement ensures appropriate plans are in place for alumni relations, fundraising, and public perception of the institution; Investment oversees the long-term assets of the institution, as well as determining how the endowment funds are invested; and Student Affairs is charged with issues concerning the out-of-classroom experience of students–this may include health centers, recreation facilities, residence halls, and student activities.


FISHER, JAMES L., and KOCH, JAMES V. 1996. "Governing Boards and the President." In Presidential Leadership: Making a Difference, ed. James L. Fisher and James V. Koch. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.

HEILBRON, LOUIS H. 1973. The College and University Trustee. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

INGRAM, RICHARD T. 1996. Effective Trusteeship: A Guide for Board Members of Public Colleges and Universities. Washington, DC: Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

INGRAM, RICHARD T. 1997. Trustee Responsibilities: A Basic Guide for Governing Boards of Independent (or Public) Institutions. Washington, DC: Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.




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Education - Free Encyclopedia Search EngineEducation Encyclopedia: AACSB International - Program to Septima Poinsette Clark (1898–1987)