Faculty Members on Boards of Trustees

The 2012 Cornell Higher Education Research Institute Survey of Faculty Trustees provides insight into the faculty role on boards of trustees.
By Ronald G. Ehrenberg, Richard W. Patterson, and Andrew V. Key

During the 2011–12 academic year, a group of faculty and student researchers at the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute (CHERI) gathered information on which public and private institutions had faculty members on boards of trustees and obtained the names of the faculty members serving in these roles.1 In April and May 2012, we conducted a web-based survey of those faculty trustees to learn about their experiences as board members.

We asked them how they came to serve in their board positions, the length of their terms, the roles they played on their board, and how they related as board members to their faculty colleagues and to other board members. We asked unionized faculty members whether being at an institution with collective bargaining influenced their role as board members. We also asked faculty trustees whether they were voting members of their boards and, if they were not, whether they felt that the lack of a vote influenced their role. Respondents were promised that their answers would be kept confidential.

Faculty Service on Boards

Discussions of “best practices” for governing boards consistently cite improved relationships with the faculty as one of the characteristics of highly effective boards. We are in an era of increasingly “activist” boards, leading to significant mutual distrust between boards and faculty members and creating an impetus for improving faculty-board relations. Recent conflicts—such as the dispute at the University of Virginia, where the board of visitors forced the university president to resign only to vote unanimously to reinstate her just a few weeks later after being pressured by the faculty and other constituencies—make apparent the importance of faculty-board relations.

While both faculty and governance groups have advocated for greater dialogue between faculty members and boards of trustees, there is considerable disagreement as to whether faculty members should serve on boards of trustees. Those opposed to the inclusion of faculty members on boards, such as the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB), emphasize the possible conflicts of interest. Those in favor emphasize the principle of shared governance.

A 2010 article in Trusteeship, the magazine of the AGB, reported the findings of an AGB survey on board membership, which indicate that a growing number of boards of trustees are involving faculty members as either voting or nonvoting members. Voting faculty members served on the boards of trustees of 14.9 percent of private institutions and 13.3 percent of public institutions. Another 14.1 percent of the private institutions and 9.7 percent of the public institutions had nonvoting faculty members on their boards.

Institutional Characteristics

In our initial search for faculty trustees we identified sixty-one trustees from fifty-two public institutions and 142 trustees from ninety-seven private institutions. Information about which public higher education institutions had faculty members on their boards (and the voting status of these faculty members) came directly from the public boards database of the AGB’s Ingram Center for Public Trusteeship and Governance. No public data source, however, has information on which private academic institutions have faculty trustees. To identify faculty trustees at nonprofit private institutions, research assistants at CHERI searched institutional web pages for the names of trustees and then performed subsequent website searches to identify which, if any, board members were also active faculty members. Not all private institutions publish information about their boards of trustees on their web pages, but we were able to find ninety-seven private higher education institutions that had faculty members on their boards.2

We sent each of the 203 faculty trustees we identified a link to a web-based survey asking fifteen multiple-choice questions and seven core freeresponse questions. Based on respondents’ answers to several of the multiple-choice questions, we then asked up to three additional free-response questions. Respondents were asked about their institution type, how they became board members, their voting status, their term length, their board training, and their committee membership. In the free-response portion of the survey, respondents were asked about their interactions with other faculty and board members, whether they perceived themselves as equal to other board members, the areas in which they had an impact as board members, and the factors influencing their effectiveness.

We also asked respondents for names of other faculty colleagues who were serving, or had recently served, as faculty trustees. Using this “snowball” sampling method, we identified sixty-three additional potential respondents.

Of the 266 total individuals to whom we sent surveys, we received 123 responses, a response rate of 46.2 percent. With various adjustments, the overall sample was reduced to 242 and, with 108 usable responses, the response rate was 44.6 percent.

 The 108 respondents to our survey came from fifty-nine institutions (forty-three from twenty-six public and sixty-five from thirty-three private institutions). Table 1 presents summary statistics for the public, private, and combined sample of institutions. Public institutions have fewer faculty members on the board (1.12 versus 1.69, on average) and fewer board members (15.00 versus 29.25). Public institutions were also much more likely to have a bargaining unit for tenure-track faculty members (50.0 percent versus 3.0 percent), higher average faculty salaries ($94,110 versus $79,850), and much larger enrollments.


Table 1. Summary of Institutional Characteristics
Variable Public Private Total
Number of faculty trustees 1.12 1.69 1.43
Total number of trustees 15.00 29.25 22.86 15.00 29.25 22.86
Faculty term length 2.06 2.37 2.24
Faculty has bargaining unit  0.50 0.03 0.24
Average nine-month salary ($1,000s)  94.11 79.85 86.45
Total institutional enrollment (1,000s)  16.14 2.91 8.74
25th percentile SAT (math and reading)  923.20 1011.70 963.00
75th percentile SAT (math and reading) 1147.90 1228.50 1184.20
Observations 26 33 59


We sought to identify the terms of service of faculty trustees, including how they are selected, what fraction of the board membership they represent, and the length of their terms relative to other board members’ terms. We found that 60 percent were selected by faculty election. Another 17 percent were ex officio trustees (often by virtue of their role in the faculty’s governing body), and 13 percent were nominated by the faculty but subject to approval by the board. The remaining 10 percent were appointed in other ways. On average, the faculty members in our sample made up 7.1 percent of the boards on which they served, with faculty members making up 7.9 percent of the membership of public boards and 6.4 percent of the membership of private boards. In related research, Ronald Ehrenberg and colleagues reported in a 2012 article in the Economics of Education Review that female faculty trustees significantly influence the rate at which academic institutions diversify their faculty across gender lines only after women make up 25 to 33 percent of the board’s members. With faculty members constituting such small percentages of total board membership, one might expect faculty board members to have relatively limited influence on board decisions.

The influence of faculty board members may also be diminished as a result of their relatively short term lengths. Short terms were the norm among respondents, 66 percent of whom reported that they served for less time than other board members. At public institutions, 86 percent of faculty trustees reported a shorter term than other trustees, while 52 percent of faculty trustees at private institutions reported shorter terms. The institutions in our sample had average faculty term lengths of 2.24 years (2.06 and 2.37 years for public and private institutions, respectively), while the AGB’s 2010 survey reported an average nonfaculty trustee term length of six years at public institutions and three to four years at private institutions.

Although a majority of faculty trustees serve shorter terms than the other members of their boards, eligibility for reappointment could potentially compensate for any diminished influence. In our sample, 76.6 percent of faculty trustees were eligible for reappointment. Furthermore, it was more common for faculty members to be ineligible for reappointment as a result of a faculty governance body’s policy than as a result of a board’s policy: 17.8 percent were ineligible for reappointment because of a faculty governance body’s policy, while only 5.6 percent were ineligible because of a board’s policy.

Role of Faculty Trustees

Faculty trustees must balance perceived obligations to represent faculty interests with the broader interests of the institution. To gauge how faculty trustees view this issue, we gave the following prompt:

Faculty trustees have fiduciary responsibility for the institution as a whole. However, many people believe that it is difficult for them to act in this manner because their board colleagues assume that they will always serve the role of advocating for faculty positions. Did you experience such pressures from your faculty colleagues in your role as a trustee?

Only 10.2 percent of the faculty trustees indicated that they viewed their role as representing the institution as a whole without specifying their role as being a faculty representative. In contrast, 41.7 percent of the trustees indicated they viewed their role as that of a faculty representative. Another 22 percent indicated that they played a dual role and were able to fulfill their fiduciary responsibility to the institution while also advocating for faculty colleagues.

Table 2. Faculty committee membership*
Committee Institution has committee Faculty have
served on
Faculty are
eligible to
Faculty have
Academic Affairs 0.83 0.98 0.31 0.06
Alumni Affairs/Development 0.59 0.74 0.29 0.00
Audit 0.70 0.63 0.20 0.02
Board Membership/Governance 0.70 0.46 0.17 0.02
Building and Properties 0.63 0.73 0.27 0.08
Compensation/Personnel 0.44 0.58 0.19 0.00
Executive 0.80 0.26 0.06 0.00
Finance 0.85 0.72 0.28 0.04
Research 0.17 0.40 0.10 0.10
Student Life 0.56 0.82 0.33 0.00

*Proportions in the three rightmost columns are for institutions that have the specific committee.

With a majority of faculty trustees stating they represented faculty colleagues, how faculty trustees interact with other faculty members may be an important component of faculty governance. We asked respondents whether faculty members approached them with concerns. In response, 11.1 percent said that they were never approached by faculty colleagues, 9.3 percent indicated that they were seldom approached, and 47.2 percent indicated that they were routinely approached. Among those who were approached, 9.8 percent indicated that they redirected concerned faculty members to more appropriate venues.

 In addition to the relationship faculty trustees have with other faculty members, a potentially large difference between faculty trustees and nonfaculty trustees may be voting status. Eighty-five percent of institutions in our sample, a much higher share than in the AGB survey cited above, granted their trustees voting privileges. Furthermore, when asked whether there were any issues on which they were not permitted to vote, only 12.1 percent of voting faculty members indicated that they were restricted.

While few faculty trustees in our sample were restricted from voting on board matters, greater differences from other board members existed in committee membership and leadership roles. Table 2 shows the frequencies across institutions in our sample of the board committees on which faculty trustees serve and of the ones that they chair. Two patterns emerge from this table: membership is not evenly distributed across different committees, and faculty trustees rarely chair committees.

 Nearly every institution with an academic affairs committee had faculty trustees on the committee, with 98 percent of institutions having faculty representation. Faculty trustees were also well represented on certain other committees: 82 percent of student life committees had faculty trustee members, and more than 70 percent of alumni affairs, building and properties, and finance committees had faculty trustee members. Faculty trustees were not as well represented elsewhere. There was moderate representation on compensation committees (58 percent) and on board membership and governance committees (46 percent), but only 26 percent of institutions had faculty trustee members on the executive committee. Faculty representation on the executive committee was rarest (12 percent) at public institutions.

While the representation of faculty trustees as members of different committees varied widely, boards generally excluded faculty trustees from serving as chairs. The committees most likely to have faculty membership, such as academic affairs and student life, were also those most likely to allow faculty chairs; however, only slightly more than 30 percent of the institutions allowed faculty trustees to chair these committees. Consistent with committee membership, the least commonly allowed committee for faculty trustees to chair was the executive committee; only 6 percent of institutions permitted a faculty trustee to chair that committee. In practice, chairing committees was even rarer. In our sample of fifty-nine institutions, respondents from only six institutions reported that faculty had ever served as chair of any committee. Additionally, no faculty members reported having served as chair of the alumni affairs, compensation, student life, or executive committees.3

Areas of Influence

Despite being generally excluded from committee leadership and often being excluded from certain committees, many faculty trustees identified areas where they were able to have a major impact. In the free-response portion of the survey, each respondent was asked the following:

What is the major impact you feel you had on board decision making during your term on the board? (Please provide some specific examples.) What issues did your colleagues on the board pay most attention to your views on (e.g., academic, budgetary, student life, evaluations of administrators)? What were the issues that the board discussed that were most important to you?

As table 3 indicates, the most commonly mentioned area of impact and influence (at 49 percent) was academic affairs. Feelings of significant influence on academic affairs were relatively consistent across different types of institutions. The second most commonly mentioned area of influence was finance and budget, with 31 percent of faculty trustees saying that they had a major impact in this area. As with academic affairs, influence was not correlated with most institutional characteristics. However, faculty trustees were much less likely to influence financial matters if their board had a separate finance and budget committee.

Table 3. Areas of Influence
Variable Mean
Influenced academic affairs 0.49
Influenced finances/budget 0.31
Influenced student life 0.15
Influenced faculty compensation 0.21
Influenced presidential evaluation 0.10
Influenced presidential search 0.08
Influenced presidential removal 0.05
Observations 108

Another area of influence commonly mentioned (by 21 percent of respondents) was faculty compensation. While influencing compensation was uncorrelated with most institutional characteristics, faculty trustee influence on faculty compensation occurred more frequently if an institution had a compensation and personnel committee. At institutions with such a committee, faculty trustee influence on faculty compensation was more likely to be expressed if the faculty trustee had served on the committee.

A final identified area of influence was presidential evaluation, search, and removal. However, as table 3 indicates, very few faculty trustees reported that they had influenced the evaluation of, search for, or removal of presidents.

Our survey asked several questions about factors having an impact on the level of general influence by faculty trustees. Respondents were asked how term length, nature of meetings (public or private), and previous board experience influenced their effectiveness, and they were asked to identify factors that limited their influence.

In the free-response portion of our survey, each respondent was asked the following:

Some faculty trustees have complained that the short terms that they have (and often being ineligible to serve a second term) limits their effectiveness as a board member. Do you agree with this perception? If so, why?

Fifty-four percent of our faculty trustees identified short term lengths as limiting their effectiveness, and 17 percent identified the ability to be reelected to the board as enhancing their effectiveness. The importance of term length was not significantly correlated with institution type, voting status, the existence of a faculty bargaining unit, average faculty salary, relative term length, or institutional enrollment level. While the ability to be reelected to the board was cited as a factor enhancing faculty trustee effectiveness, this effect was observed only at institutions where the faculty trustee was a voting member of the board.

Respondents were also asked about their perceptions of how the public or private nature of their meetings influenced their performance as trustees. Specifically, faculty members from public universities were asked the following:

Many discussions at public boards, due to open meeting laws, are public in nature. Does the public nature of such discussions make it harder for you to take positions on issues relating to the faculty that might not be widely supported by the faculty?

Those at private universities were asked a different question:

Many discussions at private boards are confidential and not open to the public. Did the privacy of such discussions allow you to take positions on issues relating to the faculty (for example, size of faculty salary increase decisions) which it would have been harder for you to take if all discussions were public?

In response, 38 percent of faculty trustees indicated that it was harder to take positions at public meetings than at private meetings. Answers to these questions did vary by institution type, as 23 percent of those from public institutions and 49 percent of those from private institutions said that taking positions was harder at public meetings. A greater share of faculty trustees who were voting members (41 percent, compared with 10 percent for nonvoting members) agreed.

We also asked faculty trustees who indicated that they had previously served on another organization’s board whether this experience had a positive impact on their ability to be an effective member of their institution’s board. Of the 55 percent of faculty trustees with previous board experience, 58 percent indicated that the experience had helped. Those with voting status were more likely (64 percent) than nonvoting faculty trustees (30 percent) to indicate that their previous board experience enhanced their effectiveness.

In addition to these specific questions, our survey asked respondents to identify the major factors that limited a faculty trustee’s ability to have a substantive impact on the board. Although responses to this question were highly variable, a few common themes emerged. The most frequently identified limiting factor was exclusion from the executive committee, which 16 percent of faculty trustees mentioned. Other limiting factors included strained relationships with the institution’s administration (12 percent) and having an administration that closely controls the information that flows to board members (9 percent).

Many participants volunteered information on factors that they believed enhanced their effectiveness. The two most commonly mentioned factors are related: almost 27 percent of the respondents mentioned the importance of personal relationships with other board members, while 12 percent mentioned communicating with other board members outside the formal board meetings (at trustee luncheons or other such gatherings).


Our survey of faculty members who have served on boards of trustees suggests that on balance faculty trustees believe their participation was positive and that they contributed to the well-being of their institutions. While some felt they were constrained in their effectiveness by their shorter term lengths or their inability to serve a second term, these constraints often result from the faculty governance process rather than board of trustee regulations; a number of respondents told us that, given the small number of faculty members on their boards, it seemed fair to constrain term lengths or reappointment possibilities to allow as many faculty as possible the opportunity to serve as board members.

One weakness of our study is that we surveyed only faculty members who served as trustees. Asking board chairs for their views on the contributions of faculty trustees could yield further insight into the role faculty members play on boards. Such a study, however, would likely need to include a larger number of institutions in its sample than our study did.



Ronald G. Ehrenberg is Irving M. Ives Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Economics and director of CHERI. He served as an elected faculty trustee on Cornell University’s board of trustees from 2006 to 2010, and he currently is a gubernatorial appointee on the State University of New York’s board of trustees. His e-mail address is [email protected]. Richard W. Patterson is a third-year PhD student in policy analysis at Cornell University and a graduate research assistant at CHERI. His e-mail address is [email protected]. Andrew V. Key is a junior at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations and an undergraduate research assistant at CHERI. He currently is director of government relations for the SUNY student assembly. His e-mail address is [email protected].


1. We are most grateful to Hannah Clark, Ilea Malaney, and Kristy Parkinson for their help in this endeavor.

2. T he 2010 AGB survey of 496 private institutions identified 138 private institutions that had faculty members on their boards of trustees, but the AGB data were collected under conditions of strict confidentiality, and the AGB was not free to share the names of those institutions with us.

3. An area that we had hoped to explore more deeply in this study was how the role of faculty trustees was influenced by whether their campus was one in which a collective bargaining unit for faculty was present. Having had only fourteen institutions with bargaining units in our sample, we were unable to draw any strong inferences about the impact of faculty bargaining units on the faculty trustee role.