The Problems and Politics of Governance in State Universities: A Look at the Boards of Regents – Who Runs the Universities

Representation in governing boards in political theory have two models, that of delegates and of trustees. A delegate runs an office based on the mandate given to them by those who voted or appointed them. A trustee runs an office according to their own conscience and best judgment.

The governance of public universities is a trustee model, and the governing boards are often called Boards of Trustees. These Boards are set up to govern each university as an independent corporation, setting policies and financial matters of each institution. Also, the governance of public universities have been essentially a state matter, more so than financing is. Due to fears of legislative meddling, and concerns that state universities were not living up to their potential, trustees were given autonomy from state oversight. In other words, the trustees legally became the university, with full authority over university decision-making (1).

The structure of university boards of trustees is determined by each state’s constitution. State university governing boards can be classified three ways, as either segmented, unified, or federal system. Segmented systems, the most decentralized, have responsibility for one or more institutions, with no state agency with substantial responsibility for all higher education. A unified system has a single governing board managing all degree-granting higher education institutions in that state, where it sets each institutions policies and represents each institution to the state government. Federal systems are a balance between segmented and unified systems, where there is a coordinating board to represent the public interest, and system governing boards that manage each individual institution, creating a separation of powers (2). Furthermore, a multi-state study of state governing structures of higher education showed that overall, governance questions were framed as that of institutional autonomy verses state authority, of centralization or decentralization (3). The study also gave a conclusion that state policies strike a balance between the influence of the market and influence of systems or institutions of higher education in promoting the general welfare. With this, the American higher education system is more decentralized and more market driven than European systems, and authority is delegated to each institutions Boards.

The higher education system of New Mexico is more decentralized than other states, and can accurately be described as having a segmented governing system. The state constitutions created a decentralized governance system with much institutional autonomy, where the governors and legislators are not directly involved (4), with a report stating the “current constitutional autonomy and history of the institutions provides a formidable barrier against state intervention.” New Mexico has 25 public campuses that are governed by 15 independent boards, each of these with the constitutional or statutory authorization given to them, and each with its own unique institutional mission (5). The state has three research universities, three regional-comprehensive universities, and Northern New Mexico Community College, that have Boards of Regents. These Boards are made up of members that are appointed and nominated by the Governor of New Mexico and approved by the State Senate.

A Commission on Higher Education exists to coordinate higher education policy with all these institutions in regard to planning, funding and reporting on various issues of statewide interest (6).  It was originally established in 1951 as the Board of Educational Finance (BEF) to deal with problems of funding higher education in the state. It was gradually given more responsibilities over the years, and in 1986 it was renamed the Commission on Higher Education. It is a statutory coordinating body with 13 commissioners appointed by the governor for six year terms, and charged with addressing policy and governance issues, and to offer a statewide perspective in recommending and establishing policy direction for New Mexico higher education (7). Many policy makers say the CHE has little power over universities, and is “stronger on paper” than in reality. This goes with the constitutional autonomy of the universities in New Mexico limiting the idea of a statewide view of higher education (8). Each institution approaches the Legislature independently, seeking separate agreements for additional funding (9), for capital funds and special projects, and employing their own lobbyists to the legislative body (10).  The political culture of higher education in New Mexico is basically a hands-off approach from the state government. Thus, the decentralized nature of higher education in New Mexico gives most power over each institution to its Board of Regents.

What Does the Regents Do?

According to the UNM Board of Regents Policy Manual, the Regents are given “Ultimate Responsibility for the Governance of the University.”

“The Board of Regents is responsible for the governance of the University of New Mexico. This responsibility may be exercised only by the Board as a unit; individual Regents are without power to act separately in the transaction of University business, except when one of the Board’s officers is specifically authorized to act on behalf of the Board.

The Board’s power to govern the University includes fiduciary responsibility for the assets and programs of the University, establishment of goals and policies to guide the University and oversight of the functioning of the University. The Board vests responsibility for the operation and management of the University in the President of the University.”

The duties of the Regents include appointing the President of the university and delegating their authority, adopting governance policies for the university, setting the goals and mission of the university, approve of degrees granted, approve the governing bodies of students, faculty and staff; manage the assets and programs of the university, among other things. They state “The Board reserves the right to consider and determine any matter relating to the University” (11).

Who is the Board of Regents?

The literature on the elite nature of university governing boards is immense (12).

Charles and Mary Beard wrote in “Rise of American Civilization (1927)” that “at the end of the [19th] century the roster of American trustees of higher learning reads like a corporation directory.”

Thorstein Veblen wrote in “Higher Learning in America” the following: “The final discretion in the affairs of the seats of learning is entrusted to men who have proven their capacity for work that has nothing in common with higher learning,” referring to big business control of universities.

Hubert P. Beck wrote a monumental study in 1947, “Men Who Control Our Universities: The Economic and Social Composition of Governing Boards of Thirty Leading American Universities.” He found that the great majority of university trustees and regents were from the business community, made up of bankers, industrialists, lawyers, and professionals. Beck stated:

“Altogether the evidence of major university-business connections at high levels seems overwhelming. The numerous high positions of power in industry, commerce, and finance held by at least two thirds of the members of the governing boards of these 30 leading universities would appear to give a decisive majority more than ample grounds for identifying their personal interests with those of business.” (p. 83)

Other researchers have also cited Beck’s work. Another quote by Beck states, “the white and blue-collar working class was totally unrepresented on the governing board of the universities; and students, the basic constituency of the university system, was equally powerless” (13).

Beck concluded that “…the observed pattern in trustee selection was closely consistent with the high value current American society places on pecuniary success, the high prestige and power enjoyed by certain occupations characterized by high pecuniary reward, and the common tendency to identify achievement of these awards with the furtherance of the public welfare,” concluding that in general that trusteeships go to persons who have resources, time, and prestige (14).

Beck’s study and others before him were done before the rise of public universities after World War II, but the governance of these less prestigious universities did not change in structure. Thomas Dye wrote in his classic series of textbooks Who’s Running America, about the role of university regents. Dye states “State boards of regents for state universities are on the whole composed of individuals who would probably not be among the top institutional elites … Many of these regents hold directorships in smaller corporations, smaller banks, and smaller utility companies; they frequently have held state rather than national political office; their legal, civic, cultural, and foundation affiliations are with institutions of state rather than with prestigious and power national institutions” (15 ).

The student revolts of the 1960’s on college campuses challenged the roles of universities in society, and the governance of these institutions. The Free Speech Movement in Berkeley of 1964 and 1965 created a critique of the structure of governance of their university. One analysis of their critique stated:

“Most of the Regents, FSM leaders argued, are not qualified “academically” to govern a university; moreover, they are not non-political, as the constitution requires. Indeed, the FSM suggested, it is naive to believe that this is possible. Regents have their own views of proper social policy, and their interests are intimately bound up with those views. Since most of the Regents are associated with large and successful commercial, industrial, or financial corporations, the FSM leaders reasoned, it is to be expected that they will strongly favor preservation of the status quo, will opt for stability and for little change of existing “power relations” in society. The FSM charged the Regents with pursuing such interests by systematic attempts to suppress student political action for social change” (16).

In New Mexico, like other states, the Regents usually come from the elites of the state. The only restriction on who is nominated is that no more than three or four of the seven Regents of UNM can be a member of the same political party. The state constitution was amended in 1994 to allow a student regent, but they are also appointed by the governor. The Board of Regents are appointed through a system of patronage, often coming from the campaign contributors of the governor, who appoints the Regents. A previous article/dossier I did shows the elite backgrounds of recent Regents, along with their campaign contributions to the governors. A look at other state universities finds similar results, as shown here by the organization Public Campaign (17):

Only four out of seventeen regents at the university of Wisconsin have not given contributions to Governor Tommy G. Thompson, according to original research conducted by the University of Wisconsin chapter of the Alliance for Democracy and 180/Movement for Democracy and Education. Altogether, the members of the current Board of Regents have given nearly $110,000 to Thompson’s campaigns.

The same story plays out elsewhere. California Governor Gray Davis’ first three appointments to the University of California Board of Regents together gave his campaign a total of $500,000, according to a report by the Daily Californian, UC Berkeley’s student newspaper. As Governor of Texas, George W. Bush has appointed several of his major contributors to the University’s Board of Regents. These included Laredo oil executive A.R. “Tony” Sanchez, who have Bush $101,000 for his races for the state house, according to an analysis by Texans for Public Justice. In 1998, the Seattle Times noted that all three of Gov. Gary Locke’s picks for the University’s Board of Regents were contributors to his campaign.

The list goes on. Just like ambassadorships, it appears that campaign cash, not achievement, is the surest path to becoming a regent at a university.

In the final analysis, the governance of universities is by design an undemocratic method. The decentralized nature of American higher education gives governing boards immense power. These governing boards are made up of elites of a state that do not have to have any knowledge of higher education, have no representation from the constituents of a school or the broader community, and have a certain pro-corporate ideological outlook. I will examine the corporate nature of the university in further articles here.


  1. Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The Control of the Campus: A Report on the Governance of Higher Education. Princeton University Press. (1982). pp. 8-11.
  2. Richardson, Richard C. Higher Education Governance: Balancing Institutional and Market Influences. National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. November 1998.
  3. Richardson, op. cit.
  4. Martinez, Mario C. New Mexico Case Report: The State Role in a Climate of Autonomy. Alliance for International Higher Education Policy Studies. January 2002. pp. 3-4.
  5. State of New Mexico, Commission on Higher Education. “What is Higher Education in New Mexico?” (accessed August 11, 2001).
  6. CHE website, op. cit.
  7. Martinez, op. cit., p. 7.
  8. Martinez, op. cit., p. 9.
  9. Martinez, op. cit., p. 12.
  10. Martinez, op. cit., p. 14.
  11. UNM Board of Regents Policy Manual. Section 1.1: Responsibilities of the Board of Regents.
  12. The three quotes below were cited in: Aptheker, Bettina. “Big Business and the American University.” March 1966. New Outlook Publishers. New York.
  13. cited in: Smith, David. Who Rules the Universities. Monthly Review Press. 1974.
  14. cited in: Baldridge, J. Victor. Academic Governance. McCutchan Publishing Co. 1971. p. 109.
  15. Dye, Thomas. Who’s Running America: The Bush Era. Prentice Hall, Fifth Edition. pp. 159-161.
  16. cited in: Baldridge, op. cit.,  p. 108.
  17. From: “Why Student Should Care About Money In Politics.” Public Campaign. (accessed 2001)

About elloborojo

Okay, as the subtitle states, this is a notebook from what I call a New Mexico diaspora (look up diaspora if you are asking). I was a former resident of New Mexico, now living elsewhere, but New Mexico is still my homeland. To get more in touch with your homeland one must be away from it. This is my attempt to understand it. I was a former anti-militarism activist in the Albuquerque area. Still believe that United Snakes militarism is the greatest threat to the world, as do the majority of the worlds population. Uncovered much information about the ties in New Mexico, but never processed it all. This blog is an attempt to do that. Also hope it may come of use to others with similar interests.
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