If a Harvard prof thinks trustees are a good idea . . .

It’s six weeks into the eight-week online course I’m teaching in Messiah College’s master’s in higher education program and I’ve yet to convince all 17 of my students that governing boards are a smart idea. That volunteers with limited involvement in the day-to-day are calling the shots for America’s colleges and universities doesn’t sit any better with this bunch of 20-somethings than with most faculty members.

Apparently, my powers of persuasion aren’t what they used to be. Or maybe it’s the challenge of working in a virtual environment. Could I sit the doubters down in front of me for an hour or two, I’m confident I’d bring them around.

But such is not in the rules of this game. If it can’t be communicated via an article, textbook, video, poll, threaded discussion, or any of the other online teaching tools I’ve managed to master, it won’t be communicated at all.

Which has me on the hunt for well-stated, winsome resources to help make the case I’m trying to make. A couple of days back,  I bagged a good one. I found a fantastic apologetic for trustees nestled in the pages of the New York Times opinion pages. Written by a university professor, no less. A member of the Harvard faculty.

In a piece titled “Reinventing Ethics,” Howard Gardner, the Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, writes:

. . .  I recommend the re-invigoration of the role of ‘trustees’ — individuals afforded the privilege of maintaining the standards of an institution or profession. Traditionally, trustees were drawn from the rank of wise seniors, and such persons can offer both time and experience. . . These trustees should have vested in them a spectrum of powers, ranging from an identification of best practices to the institution of rules governing admission to or expulsion from the profession.

Clearly, in an era marked by fast change, the creation of attractive agoras and of respected trustees will not be easy.  Nor will the relation between these spaces and these persons be straightforward. Yet, given the importance of establishing ethical practices in our time, we need starting points, and these appear to be the most promising. . .

. . . while we can draw inspiration from the classical texts and teachings of neighborly morality, we cannot expect that dilemmas of professional life will be settled by recourse to these sources.  But we need not tackle these alone.  If we can draw on wise people across the age spectrum, and enable virtual as well as face-to-face discussion,  we are most likely to arrive at an ethical landscape adequate for our time.

What a lovely way to describe the roles and responsibilities of governing boards of colleges or universities. It’s likely not all Gardner’s colleagues at Harvard share his enthusiasm for trusteeship, but he had me at “re-invigorate.”

Now if I can only get my students to agree.


  1. You convinced me! As an undergrad, I didn’t have a clue about the vital role trustees play. Now working in higher education fundraising, I’ve had the privilege of seeing the direct impact trustees have on the institutions they serve. I wish I knew this when I was an undergrad. There is certainly a disconnect between the board and students. The trick, as you have noted, is finding creative and appropriate ways in which the two can constructively interact.

    • Thanks, Dan. I feel a little less of a failure knowing you understand the vital role of the board — although I’m not sure I can take the credit. Working in development does that for you.

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