This just in

On Yale & Yale alumni.
Ico print Print | Ico email Email | Facebook | | RSS

Ex-Yale president Schmidt calls on college trustees to step up

The latest salvo in the higher ed wars comes from the keyboard of former Yale president Benno Schmidt ’63, ’66LLB. And where other recent critics have addressed their messages to parents or the moviegoing public, Schmidt—who is board chair of the City University of New York—is talking to his fellow college trustees.

The bottom line: with the future of higher education “in jeopardy,” you, the trustees, need to take charge.

“[L]eadership of higher education is out of balance,” declares Governance for a New Era, a report from a group convened by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and chaired by Schmidt.

“Trustees should take a more active role” in overseeing “a billion dollar industry critical to the preparation of America’s next leaders,” the report continues. “Too many have seen their role narrowly defined as boosters, cheerleaders, and donors.”

Schmidt has long experience with both elite and nonelite schools. A graduate of Yale College and Yale Law School, he was law dean at Columbia University before serving as Yale president from 1986 to 1992. For the past 13 years, however, he has chaired the board at CUNY, whose hundreds of thousands students are mostly immigrants, first-generation Americans, and/or the first in their families to attend college. (Schmidt also cofounded two for-profit K-12 ventures with entrepreneur Chris Whittle.)

Governance for a New Era—dubbed the Schmidt Report and subtitled A Blueprint for Higher Education Trustees—aims primarily at the public and small private institutions that serve the vast majority of American college students. These schools are “in grave danger,” Schmidt says in an interview.

“At all but the very most selective institutions, student failure rates are scandalously high,” he says. “Just to give you an example, 45 percent of all higher education students are in community colleges,” where graduation rates average about 25 percent.

“So we’re looking at a 75 percent failure rate.”

Those figures are “socially, for the country, a disaster. And they’re also a disaster for the ability of students to fulfull their potiential,” Schmidt says. Even students who do graduate are often ill-equipped to “compete in the global economy,” he adds.

Weaknesses in the K-12 system and underfunding of public universities contribute to the woes of higher ed, Schmidt acknowledges. Nonetheless, college trustees—private as well as public—need to step up to the challenge.

“The board of a public institution is the duly constituted representative of the people and has a primary duty to the public,” the report declares.

“Its responsibility is to ensure high quality, affordable education. Even trustees of private institutions have a fiduciary duty to the public, not only as recipients of significant amounts of federal financial aid, but also for their institutions’ role in educating the next generation of citizens.”

Among other responsibilities, the report says, trustees must:

  • clearly define their schools’ academic mission, including concrete expectations about what students will learn before graduating;
  • set clear benchmarks and hold people to them;
  • “be engaged in the dialogue and policymaking that ensures that the faculty, including research faculty, contribute to the overall teaching mission”;
  • “be willing to withstand pressure to grow athletic programs that are a net drain on resources, and they should ensure that salary contracts for coaches reward academic performance first and athletic success second.”

Besides Schmidt, other Yale-affiliated members of the group that produced the report include José Cabranes ’65JD, a federal appellate judge, and Donald Kagan, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Classics and History.

Cabranes, who was Yale’s first general counsel in the 1970s, covered some of the same ground in a scathing speech to an association of university lawyers in 2002.

Titled “University Trusteeship in the Enron Era,” the talk drew on Cabranes’s personal experience as a trustee at “five very different institutions of higher learning,” including Yale during the presidencies of Schmidt and his successor, Rick Levin ’74PhD.

“The plain truth,” Cabranes said then, “is that university boards frequently fail to act with transparency and accountability—indeed, they frequently fail to act to much effect at all.” Through his assistant, the judge declined to comment for this article, citing a longstanding no-interviews policy.

ACTA, which convened the Schmidt committee, was cofounded in 1995 by Lynne Cheney—former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities and wife of ex-vice president Dick Cheney ’63—and then-senator Joe Lieberman ’64, ’67LLB, among others. It’s often seen as pushing a conservative agenda, and American Association of University Professors blogger Hank Reichman dismisses the Schmidt report as “the usual suspects saying the usual things.”

Schmidt, however, says ACTA didn’t sponsor the report but merely “helped with the logistics.” He calls the committee that wrote it “a pretty diverse group” that “found we had a pretty strong consensus,” with no dissenting members.

In an e-mail, the Yale Corporation’s senior fellow, Margaret Marshall ’76JD, calls the document “a thoughtful report” that “generally reflects my own views about university governance.”

Over more than a decade, “Yale has already implemented most of the ‘best practices’ outlined in the ‘Blueprint,’” Marshall writes.

These include, for example, rigorous orientation for new Fellows (trustees) of the Yale Corporation (my own orientation was the best that I have experienced before joining the board of any non-profit entity) and yearly strategic planning retreats for trustees. We have for many years had annual goal-setting, attention to issues like undergraduate education, and emerging concerns like alcohol consumption on and off campus.”

Furthermore, Marshall notes, “Campus climate was the subject of an in-depth evaluation by an independent committee, which President Levin asked me to chair. Its results were discussed at length with the Corporation.” And “I know from my own tenure as a Fellow that the Corporation has paid keen attention to financial aid and college affordability.”

Nonetheless, Marshall says, “I welcome the ‘Blueprint’ as Yale is always interested in suggestions or ideas to improve our own University’s governance.”


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under Benno Schmidt, higher education
The comment period has expired.