Political Patronage in Higher Ed Could Derail Attempts at Reform

By Matthew Cameron

Perhaps the most important thing to come out of the National Governors Association annual conference last weekend was a report on higher education that highlighted ways to achieve efficiencies at a time when public university systems are facing severe budgetary constraints as well as increased demand for their services.

Improving efficiency in higher education is crucial to long-term economic growth in the U.S. Therefore, it’s encouraging to see governors taking the issue seriously and advocating the use of enhanced metrics to guide funding decisions and to measure student outcomes so that cost-effective universities can be rewarded through the state appropriations process.

Crucial to the success of this approach will be university boards of regents, which will have to shoulder much of the responsibility for designing appropriate metrics and implementing effective policies that improve institutional performance. Unfortunately, regents usually aren’t appointed on the basis of their academic experience or policy-making prowess. Rather, as this Richmond Times-Dispatch article makes clear, governors tend to hand out these positions to those who contributed generously to their election campaigns:

At least four of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s recent appointees to boards of visitors of state colleges or universities donated $10,000 or more recently to McDonnell’s Opportunity Virginia PAC.

Two other appointees are wives of major donors.

McDonnell announced 52 appointments to the public institutions July 1 and three more Friday.

University of Virginia political commentator Larry Sabato said it is not unusual for Virginia governors to make such appointments.

“It is not a shock to anybody that these key contributors have an advantage for these plum positions,” he said.

Indeed, records of the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonpartisan tracker of money in state politics, show that former Govs. Timothy M. Kaine and Mark R. Warner also appointed major donors to college boards.

Virginia is hardly the only state where board appointments are given out as political patronage. A recent survey by the Knoxville News Sentinel found that appointees to the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees had donated an average of $8,273.41 to the campaigns of Don Sundquist and Phil Bredesen, the state’s past two governors.

In fact, sometimes the political meddling goes even further. Earlier this year, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley removed a member of the University of South Carolina board in the middle of her term and filled her seat with a major campaign donor. And Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad is under fire for forcing the resignation of two members of the Iowa Board of Regents and promptly replacing them with political allies.

Using the spoils system to determine the leadership of what are supposed to be among the nation’s most meritocratic institutions has looked bad symbolically for a long time. Now, however, governors must face the reality that if they want university regents at the head of higher education’s transition to the 21st century, they no longer can appoint them according to practices from the 19th century.