Bowdoin’s trustees: who they are and what they do
February 7, 2020
Before the members of the Board of Trustees convened in Beverley, Mass., this Thursday, they read a 60-page packet about Gen Z.
Among the materials trustees were required to read prior to the meeting was an article by Jeffrey Selingo, a journalist who covers higher education, titled “The New Generation of Students: How colleges can recruit, teach, and serve Gen Z.”
“Today’s students are attentive to inclusion across race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity, and they want colleges to live up to those ideals as well,” writes Selingo. “At the same time, Gen Zers are less receptive to the principles of free speech, especially when that speech offends their values.”
The readings were intended to help the trustees familiarize themselves with the students who attend the college they are entrusted with guiding. These students’ lives will invariably be affected by the decisions made at this weekend’s meeting. But how much do students know about the Board of Trustees?
In a recent Orient survey sent to current students, 353 of the 372 respondents reported that they do not “feel connected to the Board of Trustees,” 308 reported that they have “never met any of the trustees” and 310 reported that they felt they could not “communicate with one or multiple trustees” if they wanted to.
The Board of Trustees has been in the spotlight this past year. Students and faculty questioned the standing of trustee James “Jes” Staley ’79 P’11, a known associate of Jeffrey Epstein, and asked the Board to support the campaign for a living wage.
So who sits on the Board of Trustees, what do they do and why should students care?
Who are the trustees?
Bowdoin’s Board is comprised of 40 trustees. They are led by the Chair of the Board Robert White ’77 P’15, Vice Chair Paula Wardynski ’79 and the President of the College Clayton Rose.
Thirty-six of the 40 trustees are alumni and, of the others, three have children who attended or attend Bowdoin. Rose is the only board member who is neither a Bowdoin alum nor a Bowdoin parent. Of the 40, 21 trustees are Bowdoin parents, six of whom have children who are current students at the College.
The members come to the Board from a variety of professions. Seventeen—just under half—of the trustees worked or work in finance. Seven trustees have a background in education or academia. Five trustees come from politics or law. Three come from the healthcare industry. Two are entrepreneurs and work in waste management and the food industry. Two are doctors, two are high-profile executives, one was an Olympic athlete and one is a journalist.
Only four trustees graduated college after 1998, while 27 graduated before 1985.
“We will continue over time to see more trustees from more recent graduating classes,” Rose said of the Board’s aging composition.
Women hold only 14 of the Board’s 40 current seats. The gender imbalance of the Board can be accounted for by the unequal gender distribution of Bowdoin alumni more generally, said board member Michele Cyr ’76 P’12. The first women to graduate from the College did so in 1975.
“The pool that you’re drawing from is not 50-50,” she said.
Trustees are appointed to the Board by a majority vote of the current trustees. The College relies on community members—including alumni, faculty and former and current trustees—to recommend qualified candidates. The process is “organic,” said Rose.
Each trustee serves for a term of five years, and cannot serve more than three consecutive terms.
What the Board does
The Board is tasked with safeguarding the long-term health of the College, which includes hiring the President of the College, nominating and approving new board members and directing the College’s money for the foreseeable future. The trustees determine “the right programs for the future of the College,” as Rose put it.
The trustees’ effect on the student experience is, in Rose’s words, “both everything and nothing.” Their decisions affect both the College’s development over a period of years and decades and the experience of students on a daily basis.
To this end, the Board is broken down into nine standing committees: the Executive Committee; the Academic Affairs Committee; the Audit, Risk, and Reputation Committee; the Beyond Bowdoin Committee; the Governance Committee; the Committee on Inclusion; the Investment Committee; the Resources Committee and the Student Experience Committee.
Across these functions, the Board’s primary concern is to ensure the financial viability and growth of the College.
Bowdoin’s current financial aid program is among the large-scale accomplishments for which the Board is responsible, Rose said.
“[The College’s financial aid program] is everything that we are about today, but [the Board is] not involved in delivering financial aid in any specific way,” said Rose. “Without the Board … we would not have the financial aid program that we have today.”
Deciding how to allocate the College’s finances requires more than just reading a 60-page packet before each of their three annual meetings, said Diana Spagnuolo ’96, a trustee since 2018.
“We have plenty of homework to do before we step on the campus,” said Spagnuolo. “The expectation is that the meetings are not so much for us to be debriefed, but for us to be debriefed through communications and through reading and through phone calls before we arrive for those meetings, and to be prepared to dig into these issues, to provide guidance, to provide oversight, to hear from students and faculty who participate in those meetings, and to give advice … advice that’s in the best interests of the College.”
In addition to their advisory role, trustees are also expected to donate to the College, “in accordance with their capacity to do so,” as stated in the Trustee Roles and Responsibilities.
The benefit of such donations has an enormous impact on the lives of students and the results can be seen across campus.
In 1997, hedge fund manager Stanley F. Druckenmiller ’75, a trustee emeritus and a current member of the Investment Committee with a net worth of $4.7 billion, donated $35.6 million to build Stanley F. Druckenmiller Hall in honor of his grandfather. Minutes from a 1995-96 meeting of the Board indicate that the construction bid for the new building went to a construction company owned by another trustee, John Fish ’82 P’10. Fish is the CEO of Suffolk Construction Company, the 112th largest private company in America, according to Forbes.
Philip Schiller P’17, Apple’s senior vice president, has also made significant financial contributions to the College. In September 2017, Schiller and his wife donated $10 million to renovate the Schiller Coastal Studies Center. A year and a half later, in May 2019, he was elected to the Board.
The Roux Center for the Environment, the Schwartz Outdoor Leadership Center and Studzinski Recital Hall were all named after trustees (now emeriti) who provided the donations to build them.
What they bring to the Board
Trustees say they serve out of a deep sense of appreciation and connection to the College.
“Beyond my fiduciary responsibility, I’m motivated and driven because of my love of the College and my respect for the role the institution played in my life,” said Spagnuolo.
Many trustees draw on their professional experiences to guide their work on the Board, especially those who work in the financial sector, given that the Board’s primary responsibility is fiduciary.
“I spend my professional life thinking about how institutions like Bowdoin and others can invest in order to earn the types of returns that they need to earn to support their spending,” said John Thorndike ’02, a trustee since 2011 who currently works in asset management at GMO, an investment firm based in Boston.
Trustees who work in other industries say they also bring valuable professional skills to the Board.
Cyr is a senior associate dean for academic affairs in the Division of Biology and Medicine at Brown University and has served on the University’s Title IX panel. Both Cyr and Spagnuolo, a lawyer who has worked extensively on issues of gender equality and sexual misconduct, said they draw on their professional experiences to better understand any challenges around Title IX that the College might face.
“Those really heavy issues that clients are dealing with every day at work gives me, I think, a perspective that helps me when I’m sitting in a trustee meeting or I’m preparing for a meeting,” said Spagnuolo.
How Trustees engage with the community
Trustees say that their interactions with community members, including faculty, staff and students, are foundational to their work on the Board.
“I have so many interactions with faculty and students and I think that those interactions are constantly informing the questions I ask or the comments I may make in the context of committee work or other board work,” said Cyr.
“There’s always a student, if not more than one, at the table,” Thorndike said of his work on trustee committees. “And when that student speaks, we listen.”
During his undergrad years, Thorndike himself served as a student representative on the search committee that nominated Rose’s predecessor, President Barry Mills ’72.
Spagnuolo recalled hearing that it was because of a student’s comment on the importance of pre-orientation trips that the trustees decided to incorporate the price of the trips into tuition, making them mandatory for all.
“I really try to take advantage of my time on campus so that not all of my information is coming through the senior leadership,” said Spagnuolo. “[I try] to hear directly from not just those students who are the formal liaison, but someone who may be sitting out in front of a building, and maybe not expect to have me walk up and raise a point of conversation, so that I can better educate myself about what’s happening on campus.”
Before joining the Board, a number of the current trustees served in other positions at the College. Spagnuolo worked on the Alumni Council. Ron Brady ’89 P’19 has advised current students on careers in the nonprofit sector. Thorndike worked as a financial analyst in Bowdoin’s investment office.
Nevertheless, the vast majority of students polled by the Orient felt distanced from the trustees.
“I think usually when you think of the Board of Trustees, that inspires the image of a fair amount of money and wealth and power,” said Frances Zorensky ’20. “A lot of students maybe don’t share an identity or feel that they can connect with them very easily.”
Faculty, too, have expressed a feeling of distance from the Board.
“Our relationship with the trustees is … very minimal,” said Ann Kibbie, associate professor of English and president of the recently-founded Bowdoin chapter of the American Association of University Professors. “We have very little contact with the trustees and we have virtually no unstructured contact.”
Kibbie characterized the relationship between the faculty and the trustees as almost non-existent, save for the six faculty who sit on the Committee on Governance and Faculty Affairs and thus attend certain meetings with trustees. Rose said at a Bowdoin Student Government (BSG) assembly on January 29 that approximately 10 faculty will be present at this weekend’s Board meeting.
Professor of Physics Madeleine Msall noted a decrease in recent years in the number of interactions between trustees and the faculty.
“Senior colleagues have said to me that, in the past, the trustees had more unstructured time in their meeting schedule to wander campus,” wrote Msall in an email. “They report that alumni trustees used this time to meet informally with faculty. This provided a chance to collect first-hand information about departmental issues and faculty concerns.”
Kibbie also described a change in the nature of interactions between trustees and faculty.
“[Meeting informally] provided a chance to collect first-hand information about departmental issues, faculty concerns,” she said. “Current trustee meeting structure is heavily scheduled so that faculty interactions with trustees, even when faculty are part of trustee committee meetings, is quite limited.”
Kibbie said she wished trustees would more actively seek out perspectives from the faculty.
“I do think that the faculty would have valuable information and insights to contribute to any sort of long-term planning,” she said.
Trustees say they derive motivation to chart Bowdoin’s future from the Offer of the College and the principles of the common good, and also from the school’s profound effect on their own lives.
“[The College] profoundly changed my life,” said Brady. “And when … I was a junior or a senior, I said, ‘whenever Bowdoin asks, whatever it is, I will always say yes.’”
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“In a recent Orient survey sent to current students, 353 of the 372 respondents reported that they do not “feel connected to the Board of Trustees,” 308 reported that they have “never met any of the trustees” and 310 reported that they felt they could not “communicate with one or multiple trustees” if they wanted to.”
These answers pretty much are what students in my era (Class of 1976) would have given then. I don’t think there was any expectation then of anything different.
Perhaps the trustees should work more directly with the students both then and now, Tom. Is that crazy to suggest? Everything the trustees do is supposedly for the students of the college. Why not communicate directly with them? Either in the 70’s or 2020’s.