Back to school for university trustees?

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James Applegate, executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, speaks during a legislative hearing Monday. | AP Photo

There are no training wheels for rookie trustees appointed to the boards of Illinois’ public universities and colleges.

They need a little help getting their feet wet, especially when you consider how their decisions affect thousands of students and ultimately the well being of a sizable chunk of the state’s workforce.

With this in mind — and with the specter of a mismanagement scandal at the College of DuPage looming over taxpayer-funded higher education — James Applegate, executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, suggested the creation of an orientation camp for trustees.

He offered the advice to a panel of state legislators charged with investigating the costly administrative practices of Illinois’ public universities, many of which can be traced back to decisions made by board of trustee members.

“Many states have launched trustee orientation education activities,” Applegate said during the hearing Monday at the Bilandic Building in the Loop. “Some are mandated for new trustees.”

Applegate envisioned an annual conference for all trustees — but mandatory for new trustees — to deal with issues such as executive compensation and what the proper relationship should be among trustees and university presidents, which can become too cozy when they are meant to provide oversight.

“You don’t want trustees under the hood and rebuilding carburetors,” Applegate said. “You want them sitting and looking at the dials and making sure everything is going in the right direction.”

Panel members thanked Applegate and asked how much something like that would cost.

State Sen. Michael Connelly, R-Wheaton, wondered if it would be just as productive and more prudent, from a spending standpoint, to host such a conference online or in a webinar format.

Whatever form it takes, Applegate was convinced the move would mitigate the trustee learning curve.

“We feel like this would be a very positive move in the right direction. We’ve been working on it for months,” he said.

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