Board of Regents

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Board of Regents

An independent governing body that oversees a state's public Colleges and Universities.

All 50 states have governing bodies that oversee the administration of public education. A number of states call the body that administers the state college and university system the board of regents. The word regent is an English term that originally meant ruler. In the British university system, a regent presided over academic debates; this association with higher education increased over time. Some states refer to their educational bodies as boards of trustees, which suggests the type of role such boards play in education. In a few states, including New York, the board of regents also oversees elementary and secondary education. Most boards of regents, however, deal only with post-secondary education institutions.

Boards of regents gain their authority from either state constitutional provisions or statutes. States that create a board of regents through constitutional means grant these boards great political independence. For many states such a provision creates a "fourth branch of government," insulated from direct interference by a governor or legislature. Board members, however, are selected by these branches. They are either nominated by the governor and confirmed by the legislature, or elected directly by the legislature. Regents serve for specified terms of office and are selected as at-large members or drawn from particular regions of the state.

A board of regents has a number of duties it must perform. It must do short-range and long-range planning, develop and articulate the vision and mission of the university system, hire and oversee the university chief executive and other top leadership, and make broad policy decisions. Regents are not expected to be involved in day-to-day administration, but they do serve on standing committees that review all aspects of university life. In addition, they are often called on to lobby the governor and legislature for funding. Though these boards meet monthly or bimonthly, the work is constant. This is not surprising, as the annual budgets of state college systems rival those of midsize corporations. Unlike corporate directors, regents do not receive compensation for their service.

Boards of regents approve policies that may be challenged in court. For example, numerous university systems have implemented student codes of conduct, which ban certain types of speech and behavior because they are considered to be "hate crimes." These policies sometimes result in lawsuits alleging the restriction of First Amendment rights (UWM Post, Inc. v. Board of Regents of University of Wisconsin, 774 F.Supp. 1163 [E.D.Wis.1991]). Boards of regents also have been involved in controversy over Affirmative Action admission policies. Some policies have generated litigation that has reached the Supreme Court (Gratz v. Bollinger, __U.S.__, 123 S.Ct. 2411, __L.Ed.2d__ [2003]).

Because of such high profile issues, boards of regents have been attacked by those who have opposing viewpoints. In some cases, a new governor or a displeased legislature will replace regents with whom they disagree. In general, however, boards are usually diverse bodies, composed of business executives, doctors, labor leaders, farmers, lawyers and, in some cases, a member of the student body. Historically, the independence of boards of regents has been respected.

Further readings

Birnbaum, Robert. 2001. Management Fads in Higher Education: Where They Come From, What They Do, Why They Fail. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

——. 1988. How Colleges Work: The Cybernetics of Academic Organization and Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Duderstadt, James J. 2000. A University for the 21st Century. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

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