The Ethical Responsibility of Trustees for the Interpretation of Institutional Mission


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This paper presents a normative argument about governance in independent higher education. It is intended to recover an understanding of the centrality of trustee responsibility for institutional mission. It is not intended to be descriptive or empirical, rather it presents an argument about ethical accountability in the discernment of beneficent ends. If this paper has a primary intended audience, it is trustees who have abdicated to presidents and faculty the fundamental trustee responsibility for the interpretation of institutional mission, a primary moral responsibility that shapes all other policy, personnel, and resource allocation decisions a board may make.

The paper also focuses on independent or private higher education rather than public higher education. Although the role of trustees in both sectors may appear to be functionally equivalent, they are related to different traditions of legitimacy and moral accountability.

When an independent American college or university recites its founding story, the narrative typically follows a pattern. The establishment of the college or university rests on the voluntary initiative of a group of founders who couple a conception of institutional mission with the capital resources necessary to accomplish the mission. The founding trustees define the initial beneficent and charitable purposes of the college or university, declaring a mission to serve a particular set of beneficiaries in a specific geographic and social context, and within the understanding of a particular moral tradition and community. Ambitious in conception, the college or university is to continue to pursue its mission in perpetuity. In a sense, the founding trustees invent the institution. They also garner the capital and operating resources to make the conception of mission institutionally and legally concrete. The founding of independent higher education institutions relies on moral imagination -- the definition of mission -- and acts of philanthropy.

As time passes, the founders entrust the stewardship of the institution to successor trustees. Social and institutional circumstances change. New opportunities and challenges present themselves. The institution adapts in order to ensure its survival or to exploit new opportunities. The interpretation of mission is occasioned by the need to ensure that the founding beneficent purposes are faithfully served in light of new conditions. This paper contends that the interpretation of mission is the primary ethical responsibility of successor trustees, and that trustees -- rather than presidents or faculty -- have the lead moral responsibility for this interpretation. The renewed conception of beneficent ends shapes all other policy and fiscal decisions, including the definition of educational program, the nature of the faculty to be hired, the allocation of resources, and the selection of leadership.

Further, the responsibility of trustees to discern new mission directions in light of new circumstances rests on apparently paradoxical ethical imperatives. As fiduciaries of the institution's mission and resources, trustees are legally and morally accountable to preserve faithfully the institution's founding purposes. The same fiduciary accountability also makes trustees the transformers of the original mission. Trustees' ethical accountability as fiduciaries makes them both the preservers and transformers. In the terms of the title of this conference, ethical accountability for the stewardship of independent higher education rests primarily with trustees, and their moral duty includes discerning new opportunities that renew or transform institutional mission.

David H. Smith's important work on trustees, Entrusted: The Moral Responsibilities of Trustees, rightly describes trusteeship as, "A special kind of moral responsibility distinguished from some other fiduciary duties by the fact that it is triadic. In its simplest form, it comprises an entruster, a trustee, and a beneficiary" (5). An individual entrusts another to act for the benefit of a third. Trust relationships may pertain to individuals or institutions.

In a nonprofit organization, a founding trustor places an institution in the stewardship of successor trustees to carry out its beneficent mission, faithfully preserving its assets. State law regulates trustees' fiduciary duties to preserve the institution with loyalty and care in the interests of those served. Under the law, trustees are fiduciaries, responsible for the stewardship of institutional resources, yet trustees' specific performance is not dictated in detail by legal prescription. Rather, trustees are interpreters, acting in their best judgement according to the contextual circumstances and the interests of the beneficiary. The moral responsibilities of trustees extend beyond legal obligations.

In the case of higher education trusteeship, institutional founders entrust the college or university to successor trustees. Just as the founders coupled an understanding of mission with the resources necessary to carry out the mission, so successor trustees are entrusted not only with the prudent administration of institutional resources, but, importantly, with the charitable and beneficent mission of the institution.

A discourse on the meaning and practice of ethics is certainly beyond the scope of this paper, but it is important to state that ethics is not a matter of simply enunciating rules or moral codes, rather it is the application of moral understanding to new situations and contexts. The process of ethical reflection necessarily entails interpretation, discernment of what is, "morally fitting in the place and time of action" (Gustafson, 106). Ethics as discernment involves interpreting moral understanding in light of subjective and objective circumstances.

If the mission of college or university is the declaration of moral purpose that brought the institution into being and guides all aspects of its life, then the interpretation of mission is a process of ethical discernment. In this sense, trustees are a, "community of interpretation" (16), as David Smith so aptly observed, and specifically a community of moral interpretation.

That trustees have a primary responsibility for the interpretation of institutional mission and that this responsibility is ethically grounded, are propositions that have generally been absent in the literature on trusteeship. This body of literature addresses the role and responsibilities of trustees in American nonprofit organizations, and higher education in particular. To the degree that the literature is prescriptive, it addresses issues of management and effective governance rather the moral accountability of the board.

Like many writers on trusteeship, Cyril Houle presents a list of trustee responsibilities, even placing accountability for the institution's mission first among eleven board functions (90). Similarly, Clark Kerr and Marian Gade place responsibility for institutional mission first among board functions (12). Yet when Houle, and Kerr and Gade list prescriptive behaviors, they are concerned foremost with the effective functioning of the board. Their orientation is to effective institutional administration, not moral accountability.

Many scholars of higher education oppose the idea that trustees have a primary duty for and priority in the interpretation of institutional mission. There appears to be little attention to trusteeship's ethical grounding. The absence of a thorough case for the leadership of trustees in the interpretation of institutional mission is itself an indicator that this point of view is marginal. Instead, trustees are focused on matters of administrative policy, resource generation, and resource management.

Some argue that trustees have should have no role whatever in interpreting the educational mission of the college or university. Thorstein Veblen's classic denunciation of trustees (and academic administrators it should be noted) in The Higher Learning in America, declares, "That, as seen from the point of view of the higher learning, the academic executive and all his works are anathema, and should be discontinued by the simple expedient of wiping him off the slate; and that the governing board, in so far as it presumes to exercise any other than vacantly perfunctory duties, has the same value and should with advantage be lost in the same shuffle" (209).

In more polite tone, Robert Maynard Hutchins was equally dismissive of trustees though his disdain does not extend to presidents. In Hutchins' view, trustees simply have no place in the interpretation of the educational mission, though they do have expertise and responsibility to manage financial matters, shepherding resources and raising money. He deems trustees incompetent to address the educational purposes of a university:

But a university that is run by its trustees will be badly run. How can it be otherwise? Ordinarily the trustees are not educators; usually they are nonresidents. If they are alumni, they must overcome the vices inherent in that interesting group. If of their own motion they take an educational problem in hand, they can decide rightly only by accident (33).
Hutchins and Veblen represent an extreme in advocating exclusion of trustees from exercising any responsibility for a university's mission.

The "Joint Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities" of the American Association of University Professors presents a framework for shared governance that acknowledges the importance of governing boards. However, the fundamental premise of the AAUP statement is precisely that governance is shared, that trustees ought only to act on such matters as the interpretation of institutional mission in concert with faculty and an institution's administrative leadership.

The AAUP statement holds that, "The governing board has a special obligation to ensure that the history of the college or university shall serve as a prelude and inspiration to the future," and but also states that, "The board should undertake appropriate self-limitation" (122). The self-limitation extends precisely to the "general educational policy" of the institution. It should be shaped instead, "By the professional aspirations and standards of those directly involved in its work" (120). The interpretation of mission is shared. It is not evident who has the lead responsibility, but it is implied that trustees stray out of bounds when they address educational policy.

A second governance tradition has ascended to challenge trustee accountability for interpreting mission. A chorus of voices advocates strong, visionary presidential leadership, placing the responsibility for envisioning new mission directions in the hands of the institution's chief executive officer. A great leader theory of higher education leadership gives the heroic, visionary president the primary role in discerning new directions. In 1996, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB), an organization committed to strengthening the functioning of governing boards, issued the Report of the Commission on the Academic Presidency, Renewing the Academic Presidency: Stronger Leadership for Tougher Times. The commission concluded that, "The academic presidency has become weak" (x). The solution is to strengthen the presidency. The commission's first recommendation is:

The role of the president, under the authority of the board, is to provide strong and comprehensive leadership for the institution by developing a shared vision of its role and mission, forging a consensus on goals derived from the mission, developing and allocating resources in accordance with that plan for reaching those goals, and ensuring the highest standards of performance, efficiency, service, and accountability (19).
Presidents are urged to, "Formulate a vision of the future, build consensus around it, and take the risks required to implement that vision, on campus and beyond, as the essential mission and function of the institution" (19). The AGB, though otherwise an advocate for the trustee role in governance, subordinated the board's role in the interpretation of mission, yielding to visionary presidents the initiative for the formulation of new vision and mission. The president takes the lead in reinterpreting the mission and then secures the support of the board for his or her vision. The board is not excluded from the discussion of mission, but the initiative rests with the president; the board is in the position of approving and supporting the new mission as delineated by the president.

James Fisher, writing about the relationship between presidents and boards, similarly advocates that a board ask the president to initiate a review of institutional mission, presenting the results of that review to the board for its deliberation. The president, and not the board, is to undertake the inquiry, involving campus constituencies except the board. The outcome of this process including a "reviewed and possibly revised mission", is "presented to the board" (98). It is not surprising that Fisher holds, "The five most fundamental responsibilities of a governing board [to be] - presidential appointment, presidential review or evaluation, presidential support (notably compensation), board policies and institutional governance, and institutional evaluation" (91). Fisher and James Koch have argued elsewhere that, "Unless the president articulates a special vision, mission or cause for the institution, he or she will not be viewed as a true leader" (68). They offer the practical advice that when the new mission is presented publicly, it "should not be the product of a committee or any other campus group - it should be the president's" (69). In the hierarchy of trustee responsibilities, the selection of strong presidential leadership precedes any consideration of institutional mission. The primary function of a board is, as is often colloquially said, to hire and fire the president.

The advocates for presidential leadership turn the fundamental relationship of moral accountability for higher education mission on its head. The strong president leads, taking the initiative to articulate a new understanding of institutional mission, and the board follows supportively. This paper argues, on the contrary, that trustees, as fiduciaries of mission, are entrusted with the moral responsibility to lead in interpreting mission anew in light of changing conditions and opportunities, recruiting a president and faculty to share the board's vision, and pursuing the accomplishment of the mission in its details through the president and faculty as the board's colleagues in mission.

Do the president and faculty have a role in relation to the board's fulfillment of its moral accountability? Most definitely. Presidents or faculty play a shared governance role with the board in understanding the contextual changes impacting an institution and the new opportunities being presented to the institution as society changes. The president and faculty may well be equally morally motivated, and their role and professional understanding makes them moral agents in supporting the accomplishment of an institution's beneficent purposes. The president and faculty may have a profound sense of personal moral value, an understanding of moral or even religious calling to serve in higher education, and a profound sense of mission. However, the moral accountability of faculty and presidents for mission derives from the prior establishment of trustee responsibility for institutional stewardship.

This is an argument about the primary locus for moral accountability for mission that has as its consequence an understanding of the ordering of the relationship among board, administration, and faculty. It aims at recovering an understanding that trustees' primary responsibility is for the continuing interpretation -- and when fitting, transformation - of a college's or university's beneficent mission. Founding trustees create an institution's moral mission, and trustees are the continuing stewards of the mission, discerning how to renew or transform the fundamental moral purposes of a college or university in light of changing times.


Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. Report of the Commission on the Academic Presidency. Renewing the Academic Presidency: Stronger Leadership for Tougher Times. Washington, D.C.: Association of Governing Boards, 1996.

Fisher, James L. The Board and the President. New York: Macmillan, 1991.

Fisher, James L. and Koch, James V. Presidential Leadership. Phoenix: Oryx, 1996.

Gustafson, James M. Theology and Christian Ethics. Philadelphia: United Church, 1974.

Houle, Cyril O. Governing Boards. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989.

Hutchins, Robert Maynard. The Higher Learning in America. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1962.

"Joint Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities," American Association of University Professors. Policy Documents and Reports. Washington, D.C.: American Association of University Professors, 1990.

Kerr, Clark, and Gade, Marian L. The Guardians: Boards of Trustees of American Colleges and Universities, What They Do and How Well They Do It. Washington, D. C.: Association of Governing Boards of Universities & Colleges, 1989.

Smith, David H. Entrusted. The Moral Responsibilities of Trusteeship. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Veblen, Thorstein. The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men. New York: Sagamore, 1957.


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Last updated: July 10, 1998