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Record Article On Trustees

This Record article about the Trustees is one part interesting, one part cloying and all around naive.

First, it is naive in its failure to confront any of the difficult issues connected to the trustees. Reporter Yue-Yi ought to know that, if you are writing a story about group X, then the first thing you do is contact critics of group X and, thereby, learn about the controversies surrounding group X. (You also ought to quote those critics in the story, but the more important part is the education you receive from those critics and the better questions that you will ask as a result.) Consider some controversial aspects about the trustees that the article fails to touch upon.

  1. Transparency: Professor Frank Morgan argues for a “more open decision process, in which we can practice what we preach about the free exchange of ideas leading to better understanding, more ideas and better solutions.” Given that, why doesn’t the Board allow Morgan (and others) to review the written material that they use during their meetings? The Board’s discussions are private, but there is no reason why the rest of us can’t see the Powerpoint slides and budget reports that the Board uses.
  2. Wealth: Doesn’t Yue-Yi know that the number one criteria for Board membership is wealth, and a charitable inclination toward Williams? “[T]he Board has seen changes in its demographics, which are designed to represent composition of the Williams alumni body.” Hah! The mean/median wealth of the Board is at the 99th percentile of the alumni population. Not every trustee is rich but, as a group, they are immensely wealthy. There is nothing wrong with that and, indeed, it is a standard feature of non-profit boards everywhere. But to not even mention money in several paragraphs of discussion on board membership is incompetent.
  3. Outsiders: The trustee selection process, especially that for Alumni Trustees, is dominated by insiders, a practice which is quite different from some other schools, like Dartmouth. There are hundreds of alumni who would like to see, say, Wick Sloane ’76 on the board. Why aren’t we allowed to place him on the alumni ballot?
  4. Student membership: Other schools, like Vassar, have a student on the board. Why doesn’t Williams? Background here.

Obviously, it is not Yue-Yi’s job to take a position on these controversies. But the article would have been much more interesting if she had questioned the various trustees about these topics.

Second, the article is a bit cloying. Student X thinks that trustees are amazing people! Trustee Y thinks that the students are amazing people! Great. Let’s just sit around a circle and tell each other how wonderful we all are. Now, of course, this is Williams and, objectively speaking, we have some very accomplished trustees and students. Yet a little less praise and a little more critical reflection make for a more professional news article.

Third, the article is genuinely interesting in the details that it provides about Board activities and procedures. Kudos to Yue-Yi for good descriptions and thorough reporting on that. I have quoted the most useful sections below the break.

These dinners with faculty, staff or students are typically the first component of the Board meetings that take place on campus every October, January, April and June. The weekend meetings often begin with dinner and informal meetings on Thursday. On Friday, most of the 11 Board committees meet separately. Every Board member serves on three of the committees: executive, nominating, audit, governance, degrees, investment, faculty and instruction, budget and financial planning, operations and planning, institutional advancement (alumni and community affairs) and student experience. Later in the day, there is usually one full-board session, called a plenary, and a working dinner. The Board weekend ends on Saturday, after a session with the senior staff to talk about major issues that came out of committees, and then an executive session first with the Board and President and then the Board only. The president of the Society of Alumni, currently Sarah Mollman Underhill ’80, attends Board meetings by invitation. All Board members also participate in monthly hour-long phone updates with the President. In addition, the executive committee and investment committee meet in Boston four times a year.

According to Thomsen, in any given year there may be one to three openings on the Board, depending on which Board members’ terms are ending. “We assess the needs of the Board, in terms of what experience we’re losing with people rotated off the board, and what diversity we want to bring,” she said. “It’s a little bit like putting a class together.” Thomsen also emphasized having at least one academic on the Board and maintaining a geographic mix. She noted that Horn, who is based in Singapore, is the first international trustee.

Thomsen explained that the Board selects term trustees in a robust process that examines a “pipeline” of roughly 150 names. This pipeline gleans potential board members “through our own knowledge of people, or hearing from alumni relations and development office of people who have been volunteering with the College in different ways,” she said. “We are looking for people who are engaged with education, and who have had enough career success and board experience to be confident around a table of people who are leaders in their fields.”

The term trustees, who are chosen by the nominating committee, serve for a maximum of one five-year term followed by one seven-year term. In contrast, the five alumni trustees serve staggered five year terms, with one alumni trustee being replaced on the Board each year. Alumni trustees are chosen annually through a vote of all members of the alumni body. The office of alumni relations creates a short list of 17 to 20 alumni to be considered by the Society of Alumni’s nominating committee, which is distinct from the Board’s nominating committee. According to Brooks Foehl ’88, director of alumni relations, usually two to three of those on the short list are self-nominations or nominations by fellow alumni. “There is an expectation that the candidates on the short list have a history of engagement with the College and the Society of Alumni, typically through any number of volunteer roles,” Foehl said. The nominating committee then selects three candidates and three alternates to appear on the ballot each spring.

Last year, 6321 alumni, or 25 percent of the alumni body, took part in the election process. “That was actually an increase in participation,” Foehl said. “Fifteen to 18 percent had been the norm in previous years.” Foehl attributed this rise to a streamlined online voting system, which drew 4523 e-votes.