Author: Stephen Nemeth
The board of trustees has a legacy as old as Occidental itself. When the college was founded in 1887, there were far fewer trustees, most of whom were Presbyterian ministers, according to Vice Chair of the Board Dave Berkus ‘62. Now the board is comprised of around 50 members who have an interest in the college and its students.
Many of the trustees live in Los Angeles and make it a point to attend events such as commencement and convocation. But even the Chairman of the Board Christopher Calkins ’67 believes there is a need for more casual dialogue between trustees and students.
“One of the things that we decided to do beginning a little earlier this year was to try to consciously get some opportunities for trustees, on an informal basis, to meet with students,” Calkins said. “That’s one of the things that we actually lack.”
Many of the trustees are CEOs, presidents and founders of organizations. But apart from their jobs and busy schedules, Calkins says they take the time to show their dedication to Occidental and the students who attend the institution.
“They [the trustees] genuinely care about life on campus, and students,” Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) President Nick McHugh said.
WHAT ARE THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES?
The trustees work with the administration to support the needs of the college.
“We grow and preserve the asset that is the college, and that is everything from the money to the physical assets, to the professors to supporting the president,” Berkus said. “Our goal is to help the president in every way. Of course, we are the ones who select and supervise the president, and then supply the resources necessary to make things happen. We are the stewards.”
Instead of overseeing the daily functions of the college, the trustees are tasked with looking after its long-term interests.
“I wouldn’t say that the board is in on the day-to-day functioning and operations of the college, nor should they be,” Vice President for Finance and Planning Amos Himmelstein said. “Boards really provide an oversight, they sometimes bring expertise that they can lend, but they are not the ones who are on the ground and managing what needs to happen on the day-to-day basis of the college.”
That is not to say that communication between the board and the college is restricted to the three to four weekends per year that full board meetings are held. In fact, there is a committee which specifically deals with taking action when the board is not convened on campus.
“There is an executive committee, which is a subsidiary to the board, and really exists just to take action between board meetings when something has to be acted,” Calkins said.
Apart from the formalities of business, there are also informal conversations between the chairs of committees and members of the administration on many important issues. Although they are separate entities, the board and the administration work together to ensure that Occidental stays on track with its mission statement.
The board’s process each year begins when the faculty and administration convene their budget committees and build proposals for the following year. The trustees then meet in their committees and go through the budget proposals to make necessary recommendations. Changes are suggested until everyone agrees on a final version of the proposal. As long as the administration stays within their allotted budget for the year, the trustees are not involved after this point. For projects that do require financing beyond the funds that have already been allocated in the budget, the administration must send a proposal to the board.
As far as the relationship between the administration and the board of trustees goes, Himmelstein and Berkus both agree that trustees are to be involved but not hold the reigns.
“A long time ago — ten years ago or so — we had a session with an instructor who happened to have been the president of the Getty [Museum],” Berkus said. “We have these occasionally on our retreats and we’ve had them several times since, but this one stuck in my mind. He said, ‘You trustees remember one thing; even after all the things you are learning now: noses in, fingers out. You can find out what is happening on campus, and you can certainly listen, but don’t ever try and make any decisions that go beyond the administration, because you are taking the administration out of an equation and it becomes impossible for them to administer.’
How does the Board of Trustees carry out its operations?
Students may be familiar with the recent assault weapon investment ban that was passed by the board of trustees in February. At the behest of faculty members, this action was successful as the first ban of its type by any college across the nation. Although the divestment is one way in which the board can operate, it is not their typical way of conducting business.
In fact, as far as Berkus can remember, similar actions have been taken only twice in the college’s history.
“We have to go back to 1985, I believe it was, the very last time this happened. It dealt with Apartheid in South Africa. So, it doesn’t happen very often,” Berkus said. “It’s a bad precedent to set because it is difficult for us to make the most money for the endowment, which helps everybody, at the same time as trying to micromanage those people that are trying to make the money for us. There are times when you do want to do that.”
The investment committee operates through an outside investments manager who helps decide where its funds go. Luckily, because there were no current investments in assault weapons, it was easy for the board to vote to keep from investing in the case of assault weapon manufacturers.
Primarily, the board of trustees works when they meet on campus three times per year, and occasionally off campus for retreat meetings. According to Calkins the point of retreat meetings is to take the trustees out of the regular business environment of Occidental. It helps them get their minds off the usual agenda, so that instead they can think about more long-term issues, such as how the board can help effectively shape the direction that the college is going in the 21st century.
At other times these meetings are held to celebrate Occidental’s relationships with other institutions. There was a meeting held in New York, according to Duffy, to celebrate the anniversary of the Occidental’s United Nations program. Calkins remembered one meeting when the board met at the Autry Museum to honor the newfound connection with that institution.
When they meet on campus, the board works mainly through committees. They do not typically implement restrictions. Task forces, also called working groups, can be set up to address specific issues when they arise, according to Calkins.
“A task force is named by the board for a period of one year, which can be renewed, depending on how well we do, how important our job is, and how well we do it,” Berkus said.
In the past, when the strategic plan was in its primary stages, the trustees established a task force to help deal with any additional matters that could arise in the process. Currently, there are task forces for planning, off campus real estate, and technology (known as the Information Resources Task Force).
There are also currently 11 standing committees composed of trustees, administration members, faculty and student representatives. By law, the board of trustees of any institution must have both an audit committee and a compensation committee. The audit committee members’ responsibility is to review the financial statements from outside auditors. The compensation committee looks at the reasonableness of compensation for the president and the chief financial officer of the college, according to Calkins.
The board also has committees on academic affairs, budget and finance, building and grounds, honorary degrees, institutional advancement, investments, student life and trustee affairs. There is also the Executive Committee, which acts as a subsidiary to the board.
Why are trustees seldom seen on campus?
The trustees are on campus three times per year for board meetings – two day-long events. According to Calkins, the two days are extremely busy, leaving little time for interaction with faculty and students. In those few days, the trustees are updated on what has happened at the college since their last meeting to ensure that they take appropriate and necessary actions in committees or at their full board meetings.
In addition to board members, the college’s Vice Presidents, Faculty Council President Nalsey Tinberg and the ASOC president attend the board meetings regularly. Select faculty and student representatives also participate and vote on all but the Audit, Compensation, Executive and Trustee Affairs committees. Depending on the subject, students and faculty might also become involved in the decision-making process by participating in task forces set up by the board. After each meeting is finished, the president sends out an email to students. For many students, this is as close as they get to the board members and learning about what they do.
There are a few occasions in which the board of trustees interacts with students outside of official business.
“I think board members have contact with people in areas related to their responsibilities on the board but also where they are interested,” trustee and President and CEO of the Commonwealth Club of California Gloria Duffy ’75 said. “If they can help in any way, I know they try to help.”
In late January this year, students were invited to a mixer at Dumke Commons where they could meet with both the trustees and the board of governors. This was one of the occasions when the trustees wished to open up an informal dialogue with the students. In attendance were trustee and Executive Director of the Transamerica Center for Health Studies Hector De La Torre ’89 and Chair Emeritus Virginia Cushman ’55.
Unlike the administration, which is more visible to students and faculty, the board of trustees tries to stay out of the daily happenings of the college.
“You don’t want the board to be too much in the day-to-day because that is not really their role. That’s not their job,” Himmelstein said. “They play a role, but not a significant role that you would notice them as much.”
What are the most important issues that the board must deal with?
Topping the list of duties for which the board is responsible is the selection of the college’s president.
“The most important decision we made was, it is in each case, the naming of the president,” Berkus said. “I guess if I have to go down from there, it is the allocation of resources, because in any organization, even Harvard, resources are scarce.”
After former President John Slaughter left the college in 1999, the board was shocked by the short term of Ted Mitchell, who led the college for only four-and-a-half years. Between the end of President Mitchell’s term in 2005 and Veitch’s appointment in 2009, the college hosted three different interim presidents. According to Berkus, a high rate of presidential turnover has been especially problematic for the institution, as donations tend to plummet in periods of rapid turnover. However, Berkus for one is happy with the progress Veitch has made since his arrival.
“Jonathan Veitch has been very successful in raising money for the college,” Berkus said. “He has been with the college long enough to be recognized as the president. We had a problem before him because there was such turnover. So it’s been very helpful for us.”
What is the board currently working on?
The board is working on several projects around campus, as well as dealing with its typical duties set out by its committees.
The Board members are working to promote the growth of the endowment, which is continuing to grow under Veitch’s direction. According to Calkins, raising money for building projects is another very high priority for the board. They are looking into plans for renovations to the Academic Commons, Taylor Pool, the McKinnon Family Tennis Center and the Career Development Center.
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