Ivory towers, grass-roots accountability

This post original appeared on VCOG's Substack Newsletter, September 13, 2022

This isn’t a criticism, more of an observation: Our public institutions of higher education are technically state agencies, but they should act more like local public bodies. School districts.

State agencies tend to be topic-specific. They attract the attention of specific interests because they perform specific duties and services. Their work tends to be more obscure to the broader community because only certain segments of the community care or are impacted.

By comparison, local school districts have wide-ranging constituencies. They perform multiple duties and services and they are accountable to a broad community. They cover a multitude of interests, any one of which is bound to impact some member of the public.

Universities are like that, too. They have wide-ranging constituencies of students, faculty, alumni, parents, business owners and town residents who are all invested in something the university is doing or going to do.

When individuals run for a seat on a local body (or are appointed to one, as is the case in some school districts) there is an expectation that meetings of that body are going to be public.

No doubt some newly elected or appointed school board members balk at FOIA’s cumbersome meeting rules, but with our longstanding, small-d democratic traditions of town halls and local government control, again, there is an expectation and awareness that public business will be conducted publicly. This expectation extends into the community and is relied upon by citizens invested in public body’s decisions. When districts make decisions without citizens being able to observe or, when appropriate, participate, mistrust is born.

Individuals appointed to higher ed boards are being chosen for their skills, talents and prestige, not because they’re good bureaucrats who know the ins and outs of public body governance. There is not so much of a tradition of public meetings, so they may view their role more as stewards removed from the fray of local politics. They may chafe at the restrictions FOIA places on their ability to GET THINGS DONE! and are understandably frustrated with some of the seemingly arbitrary restrictions.

I do not question the sincerity, dedication or integrity of any higher ed board member. They get plenty of perks for their service, but they work hard and they care. But they could all benefit from a system-wide reorientation from high-level state operators to local-level decision-makers.

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