Updated Dec 13, 2023 - Politics & Policy

College presidents' skewered testimony raises question: What do they do?

Image from congressional hearing

(L-R) Harvard President Claudine Gay, former University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill, American University professor Pamela Nadell and MIT President Sally Kornbluth testify before the House Education and Workforce Committee on Dec 5. Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Three prominent university presidents' disastrous recent congressional testimony about antisemitism has cast a spotlight on what these officials do, as calls for their resignation mounted.

Why it matters: These university leaders each oversee massive endowments, and higher education institutions across the country have responded to their handling of the testimony.

  • Harvard President Claudine Gay, former University of Pennsylvania Liz Magill and MIT President Sally Kornbluth were grilled this month in Congress, where they failed to denounce calls for the genocide of Jews.
  • Magill and Scott Bok, chairman of the university's board of trustees, resigned last week following demands by the Wharton business school's board and students, as well as the loss of a $100 million donation in protest of her testimony.
  • Meanwhile, trustees at Harvard and MIT have backed their presidents, even among calls for their resignations, including from influential alumni like American hedge fund manager Bill Ackman, who went to Harvard.

The testimony came as campuses have battled a rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia, and university presidents are at the helm of administrative responses, among other responsibilities.

What do university presidents oversee?

University presidents identified financial management and budgets as the area that occupies most of their time, according to the American Council on Education, followed by:

  • Fundraising
  • Managing a senior-level team
  • Governing board relations
  • Enrollment management

Leadership in crisis communication is expected of college presidents, according to Higher Education Today.

  • "Campuses are hungry for presidential leadership that leads everyone through this moment of crisis with physical and emotional safety and healthy debates," wrote Devorah Lieberman, a senior adviser at the American Council on Education.

Zoom out: Harvard has the biggest endowment in the U.S., amounting to $53 billion at the end of fiscal year 2021.

  • MIT and Penn also have among the largest endowments, ranked #6 and #7, respectively, that year.

What do boards of trustees do?

Trustees are a dozen or several dozen people whose responsibilities include selecting university presidents and overseeing the management of institutions, according to a guidebook by accounting company Grant Thornton.

  • "Boards of trustees are the agents for directing colleges or universities toward the achievement of their mission," the guidebook said.
  • Boards are often responsible for overseeing assets including finances, buildings, land and securities; exercising financial stewardship by approving budgets and overseeing major financial transactions; and minimizing conflicts of interest.
  • Trustees serve without pay, per U.S. News, and their terms are usually staggered.

How are university presidents removed?

  • Trustees are responsible for oversight and accountability of university presidents.
  • Guidance issued by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges said boards should regularly assess the performance of their presidents based on tenets such as academic values, inclusivity and risk management.
  • "One of the governing boards' most important duties is hiring, supporting, and retaining dynamic presidents," the association said.

Go deeper: Harvard board says president will stay on amid antisemitism controversy

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect Harvard had an endowment of $53 billion (not $53 million) at the end of fiscal year 2021.

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