Putting Education Reform To The Test

Explaining Why Few University Board Of Trustees Members Have Higher Education Experience

Sarah Gonzalez / StateImpact Florida

Students from around the state protest tuition increases. Students and professors say financial decisions made by boards of trustees trickle down to impact academics.

Editors note: This post was written by WLRN reporter Georgia Howard.

Every state university in Florida has a board of trustees that makes all the big financial and academic policy decisions.

But most of the trustees don’t have any background in education.

That raises a question: Is management experience or a background in higher education more important to overseeing a state university?

The powers and duties of boards of trustees include everything from handling school money to choosing its policies for student admissions.

Two of the 13 members of each university board have close ties to the school — the faculty president and student body president.

The rest are appointed by the Board of Governors or the governor’s office, and few of those appointments have university experience.

Only three of the 121 appointed trustees at Florida’s 12 universities have worked in higher education.

Another four have experience with secondary schools or the Department of Education.

More than 90 percent of the appointed trustees have backgrounds in business management, finance or law.

That’s according to the professional backgrounds board members list in their online bios. Florida Gulf Coast University is the only university that does not keep this list online.

Florida Polytechnic University, which recently split from the University of South Florida, does not yet have its own Board of Trustees. 

Thomas Breslin sits on the Board of Trustees at Florida International University, as the chair of the faculty Senate.

He says trustees don’t need to be educators.

“But people who are appointed to be influential in their communities and across the state on behalf of higher education,” Breslin said. “Whether it’s in financial or political circles.”

Breslin says trustees mostly make financial decisions.

They establish tuition and oversee audits and facility construction.

But Florida State University professor Michael Ruse says financial decisions are academic decisions.

Take tuition increases.

“I mean at one level you can say this is a financial decision but at another level it’s anything but a financial decision,” Ruse said. “Because it filters down very quickly as to whether or not you can hire tenure stream faculty or [if] you have to go for the cheapest assistant professors.”

The Florida Constitution gives trustees a lot of academic authority, too.

The board sets academic standards for college admission, approves degree programs and signs off on employee performance.

Ruse has been a professor at the FSU for 12 years.

He says he’s never had any interaction with the Board of Trustees.

Florida Board of Governors spokeswoman Kelly Layman said universities are complex institutions which require board leadership experienced in law, business and real estate.

“Boards of Trustees with business leaders and experts in finance or law or construction bonding or accounting are very helpful, because at the end of the day, they are responsible for governing a complicated enterprise with vast segmented operations,” spokeswoman Kelly Layman said. “Meantime, most academic-related policies are developed by university leadership who are expert in higher education administration.”

What do you think?

Is business sense or higher education experience more important to overseeing a state university?

Editor’s note: This post was updated from an earlier version to clarify language about the total number of trustees, who appoints trustees and to add a response from the Florida Board of Governors. The headline has also changed.


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