Despite the importance of trustees as leaders in US higher education institutions, our knowledge and understanding of their behavior is limited. This is increasingly problematic as trustees engage more directly with institutions as institutional boundaries have become more porous. We utilize social network analysis and document analysis of exchanges to explore trustees’ involvement in a qualitative comparative case study of four elite US research universities. We draw on the microfoundations tradition of neo-institutional theory to frame and evaluate how the actions of these individuals reproduce, expand and reorganize these institutions and their boundaries. Results show that these leaders are heavily involved with the universities they govern, but in widely varied ways and to different degrees. We inductively derive two forms of trusteeship — traditional trusteeship (e.g., governance) and expanded trusteeship (e.g., capacity building and collaborative partnerships) — that occur unevenly across our four institutions. These findings demonstrate that the nature of trusteeship at US research universities varies across institutions in profound ways that have substantial consequences for their boundaries, behaviors, and governance as well as the organizational stratification in the field of US higher education.
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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1262522. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. We would like to thank Denisa Gándara and Michael S. Harris for their thoughtful comments on earlier drafts.
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Mapping trustee affiliations
In order to determine which boards were the most- and least-connected, we had to first ascertain the full scope of trustee affiliations for all university boards that were members of the AAU. Therefore, we obtained the list of trustees from each US AAU university in 2010 from either the respective university Web sites or university archivists. Specifically, we included trustees that were voting members for each board. We analyzed the 2010 trustee affiliations because this allowed us to explore how trustees had been involved that year, prior years and how they continued to be involved in subsequent years. This provided us with a more comprehensive sense of the nature of the exchanges between trustees and universities than we would be able to obtain if we examined trustees currently.
Once we had the list of trustee names for the 54 public11 and private AAU university boards,12 we used the 2010 Standard and Poor’s Register of Corporations, Directors and Executives to determine the for-profit firms, nonprofits and government organizations that trustees were affiliated with, and therefore tied to, in 2010 when they were on the boards of these institutions. Affiliations, for the purposes of this data collection, existed if the trustee was in an executive-level role (e.g., board member, owner or CEO) within the external organization. This is consistent with the expansive literature on board interlocks as well as previous literature on trustee affiliations in the higher education literature (e.g., Barringer et al., 2019; Chu and Davis, 2016; Mathies and Slaughter, 2013; Mizruchi, 1996, 2013; Pusser et al., 2006).
The boards, trustees and their affiliations provided us with a three-mode university by trustee by organization network for each of the four university boards examined here (Figure 1). These networks formed the basis for an aggregated two-mode university by external organization (i.e., nonprofit, government organization or firm) network where the trustees serve as the links (i.e., lines) between the university boards, nonprofit, government and for-profit organizations (i.e., the nodes) in 2010.13
Identification of cases on two dimensions
From this two-mode university board by external organization network, we determined the connectivity of each board. Connectivity reflects differences in institutions’ number of ties to other organizations and, as we argue here, is a measure of the porosity of these institutions. We used the degree centrality of each university board within this network to measure the connectivity of these elite university boards. Degree centrality is, in this case, the number of ties a university board has to external organizations via their trustees (Borgatti et al., 2013) and is therefore an intuitive measure of boundary porousness and board connectivity.
The second dimension of case selection we used is institutional control, which we argued is likely to influence trustee involvement in the universities they steward. We used IPEDS data on institutional control to identify public and private university boards.
We chose to maximize the variation on board connectivity, which provides greater nuance in our understanding of trustee roles in both less-connected and more highly-connected AAU universities. Therefore, we focused on the boards which exhibited the most and least connectivity. When combined with our second dimension of institutional control, this led to the selection of the most- and least-connected public and private elite universities which are depicted in Table 1.
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Barringer, S.N., Taylor, B.J., Riffe, K.A. et al. How University Leaders Shape Boundaries and Behaviors: An Empirical Examination of Trustee Involvement at Elite US Research Universities. High Educ Policy (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41307-020-00193-y
- higher education
- social network analysis
- organizational stratification
- organizational boundaries