… is, as you know, a category on this blog which watches the ways a university’s trustees can wreak havoc.

There’s a strictly limited number of ways, but with a really bad board of trustees, you don’t have to do too much to make a school take a tumble.

The crucial characteristic really bad boards of trustees share is cronyism. They’re all sort of buddies. With each other and with the university’s president. Culturally, they’re very similar to one another. Almost no outside voices are heard. It’s an insiders’ game.

Take scandalous, conflict-of-interest-ridden, Yeshiva University. Several on its all-male board had special financial dealings with fellow board members Bernard Madoff and Ezra Merkin. That didn’t work out well for them, or for the school, whose Madoff-related woes aren’t over — another Yeshiva trustee and Madoff investor, Elie Wiesel, is currently threatening a high-profile lawsuit against a playwright who put him in a play she wrote about Madoff. And even without Bernie and Ezra, Yeshiva seems to have a notably conflicted board…

As does Shaw University. Shaw’s been in the news lately because its alumni association is trying to get its entire board of trustees to resign.

This is a rather dramatic gesture, but you can understand their desperation. This isn’t merely about conflict of interest (“[T]he university contracted for insurance coverage with the relative of an unnamed board member.”); it’s about institutional corruption and financial irresponsibility generally:

Citing “gross neglect,” Shaw University’s national alumni group has called for the school’s board of trustees [which includes “boxer Evander Holyfield and boxing promoter Don King”] to step down or be dismissed, an appeal addressed to multimillionaire lawyer, alumnus and board Chairman Willie Gary.

The May 14 letter from the alumni association’s president, Emily Perry, cites no specific grievance, but says: “We can no longer stand by and allow Shaw to appear to deteriorate due to poor judgment. … We have serious concerns regarding conflict of interest, fiduciary responsibilities, adverse interest and commitment.”

Shaw, the South’s oldest historically black college, has spent the last year trying to shovel its way out of debt exceeding $20 million. The May 14 letter is not the first rebuke. In March, the school’s Florida alumni group sent a letter to Shaw administrators saying it was “amazed” that giving among board members totaled only $41,089 since July, despite Gary’s pledge that each of the roughly 40 board members would chip in $50,000.

When the alumni refer, in their letter, to “continued mistrust, negative news media coverage, hostility, calls, faxes and letters,” they allude to the predictable outcome of trustees who don’t attend board meetings, who may be financially corrupt, who hand out contracts to relatives (or to themselves), who have financial dealings with other trustees, and who simply do not understand what a university is.

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