Today, Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust released a new report – the College Governing Board Accountability Assessments – evaluating Virginia’s college and university governing boards when it comes to transparent and accountable decision-making. The report’s release coincides with the start of the 2021 session of the Virginia General Assembly as lawmakers consider a new bill by Delegate Mark Keam (D-Fairfax), chair of the higher education subcommittee of House Education, targeting board governance.
"Service on a Board of Visitors for a Virginia public university is a highly coveted political appointment, but it is also a position of serious responsibility,” said Delegate Mark Keam. “Their decisions impact the lives of countless students, faculty, staff, and the broader university communities. At a time when the public’s trust in our institutions is frail and taxpayers demand more from government, I believe our colleges and universities must reassure their stakeholders that they are committed to the highest standards of public service. HB 2120 seeks to improve transparency and accountability in the governance structures of our institutions of higher education."
House Bill 2120 proposes reforms that provide greater public access to board records, meetings, and members. The bill would allow students, parents, and members of the public the opportunity to observe board meetings remotely, electronically contact individual board members, and provide public comment before board decisions – beyond the currently mandated public comment period on tuition and fee decisions.
“This bill raises the bar for transparent college governance and, based on our report, more than a few of Virginia’s publicly funded institutions have work to do,” said Partners’ president Dr. James Toscano. “With Virginia’s college students and their families facing unique challenges during this pandemic, it is more important than ever for governing boards to be responsive and accountable. Over the summer, a student at one of Virginia's public universities reached out to Partners for help finding contact information for the school’s Board of Visitors. This proposal by Delegate Keam would make sure that students like her know more about who is making the decisions and how to reach them."
For the College Governing Board Accountability Assessments, Partners reviewed historic meeting records, board bylaws and policies, board notices, and communications channels. Each institution was graded on their performance in three areas: board transparency, member accessibility, and board receptiveness. To ensure fairness and accuracy, Partners provided each institution and their representatives with a preliminary copy of their own assessments and gave them the opportunity to provide feedback or clarifications during a 4-week period. Following this period, scores for several institutions were adjusted to acknowledge the clarifications provided and alterations to their current practices.
“The problems the report highlights predate the pandemic,” said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. “Unlike local governments and school boards that have long been accustomed to sharing the details of their meetings and access to their board members, the governing boards of our colleges and universities have held themselves apart and made it difficult for students and parents to get the information they need. The universities need their trust, and transparency is a simple but powerful way for them to earn it."