Massachusetts spends almost $1.25 billion a year on its 29 public colleges and universities. It makes sense that the hundreds of trustees who help spend that money be well-versed in matters ranging from finance and administration to open government and conflict of interest laws.
Sadly, that is not always the case. In too many instances, trustees fail to provide oversight of college executives, serving instead as rubber stamps with little interest in or knowledge of the institutions and people they are supposed to be serving.
Legislation filed by state Inspector General Glenn Cunha, while not guaranteeing an end to the problem, would at least ensure trustees are fully aware of their responsibilities and have the training to meet them.
Cunha's bill would require that every board member of the state's colleges and universities receive training on everything from from open meeting law to fraud detection.
Such training, Cunha said earlier this week, could have prevented a disastrous situation at Westfield State University, where in 2014 the inspector general's office found that former President Evan Dobelle "misused hundreds of thousands of dollars" on travel and personal purchases. Westfield State's trustees told the IG's office they were "unaware" they could question Dobelle's conduct, Cunha told the Legislature's Joint Committee on Higher Education.
"That isn't what's supposed to happen," he said. "The president, the executive, reports to the board."
The type of training Cunha is proposing would help prevent such issues in the future. It would also serve an equally important role: driving home the point that such trusteeships aren't vanity appointments meant to return a favor or pad a resume.
To that end, it would be a good idea to extend Cunha's proposal to include the state's private colleges and universities. Had the trustees of Swampscott's Marian Court College been better stewards, for example, that institution might still be in existence, rather than shuttered since 2015, its financial records disappeared.
Schools such as Marian Court, while private, operate as nonprofits and enjoy tax-free status. It seems like a small requirement that their trustees receive the same training as the public sector counterparts.