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Hidden Treasures: The Board of Trustees

By Lisa Cania  M’82, P’07

No smoke-filled rooms allowed. (And we’re not talking about “no smoking” policies.) When the St. Lawrence Board of Trustees meets in the glass-walled, sun-lit Hannon Room in the Sullivan Student Center, its members are visible to anyone who visits the third floor of the building. And faculty, staff, students and alumni are present in the meeting.

Yet as visible as they are, Board members do their best work behind the scenes, allowing the students and faculty to capture the imagination and attention earned by the institution. Great Board members study the issues; prepare for meetings; attend to responsibilities; respond to new challenges; support the faculty, staff and students; and assure the institution’s contemporary and future success. Even before he arrived on campus in July, President William L. Fox knew he could count himself lucky. The St. Lawrence Board of Trustees, to which he reports, is known as one of the best.

As a candidate for the presidency, Bill Fox read this information about the Board in the Search Prospectus:

St. Lawrence trustees travel from across the nation to attend three official meetings per year and a fourth meeting that serves as a strategic planning retreat. Attendance at trustee meetings averages close to 80% per meeting. Those who join the Board experience an orientation session at the first fall meeting of their tenure. The session provides trustees with an introduction to the most critical strategic issues facing the University and works to ensure that they understand the distinctive features of University culture and operations and what constitutes best practices in University trusteeship.

Trustee dedication can be measured in many ways: talent, time and treasure are equally valuable assets that every trustee brings to the duties of governance. The measurement of philanthropy is illustrative of St. Lawrence trustee dedication. In the current comprehensive campaign, trustees have donated $66.8 million of the $133 million raised as of June 30, 2009; that trustee total already exceeds the trustee goal of $50 million determined at the start of the campaign.

The Board of Trustees consists of 40 members, of whom one is the President of the University, 35 are designated term trustees and four are young alumni who have graduated within two and 10 years at the time of their election to the Board. Term trustees shall be elected for six-year terms, and young alumni trustees for four-year terms. The Board has a mandatory retirement age of 70 years. Emeriti Board members may attend Board meetings and participate fully in discussions, but may not vote.

The Board of Trustees fulfills its responsibilities through in-depth committee discussions and by at least three discussions as a whole at every Board meeting. Current Bylaws call for five standing committees and nine committees of the corporation. Visiting campus in the fall, winter and spring, with a summer planning retreat and a December Executive Committee conference call, brings the Board members in touch with one another and the University five times a year.

The culture at St. Lawrence is one of collaboration, and the Board of Trustees enjoys a strong and cherished partnership with administration and faculty. In practice, this collaboration can be witnessed with a policy consistent with the tripartite governance system. The Board welcomes non-voting delegates to its committee and full Board meetings: two faculty, two students and one alumna/alumnus (the president of the Alumni Executive Council). Most Trustee committees have faculty and student representatives who attend meetings and are invited to make remarks and participate in discussions. Informally, Board members and members of the University community enjoy dialog in many ways, from trustee-faculty dinners focused on strategic issues and the annual Senior Dinner, at which imminent new graduates share experiences and make career connections with trustees, to casual discussions over coffee at Brewer Bookstore. Trustees are accessible and welcoming of all perspectives as they respect the lines of responsibility for policy and administration.

What We Learned in the Presidential Search

Trustee Barry Phelps ’69 chaired St. Lawrence’s recent presidential search and the experience gave him unusual insight to the special strengths of the Board, strengths he may have not known were special until he began to learn how other colleges work.

 “We really do have an open, transparent, respectful, caring, welcoming culture,” says Phelps. “We share deep commitment and caring for the University, but the caring also extends to the personal relationships.” Trustee commitment extends to time, dollars and active participation in committee and Board meetings, Phelps acknowledges, and this approach allows the University to take advantage of the broad range of expertise and experiences of board members and provides a forum for respectful debate on issues and recommendations to the president and senior staff.

“Our ‘rich ’n’ full’ Board weekends allow Board members to participate in four or five committees that can provide a view of a wide cross-section of the SLU community,” he says. “Another strength is the working relationships that have developed between the respective senior staff members and their committee chairs and vice chairs in discussing issues, recommendations and agendas for committee meetings.”

Phelps also honors the strategic nature of the Board’s discussions, knowing that his time is spent at the highest level of guidance, rather than the detail levels of management.

Strong Leaders, Effective Governance

Chairman Emeritus Bruce Benedict ’60 (chairman 1988-1995), says that the effectiveness of the Board is a result of St. Lawrence’s cultural expectation of respect and cordiality. “We do not have, because of the nature of Laurentians and because of the leadership of the Board, individuals who try to dominate the Board or belittle other Board members’ comments, which creates an environment for each trustee to express their opinion,” he points out.

“Noses in, fingers out” is the way Chairman Emeritus E.B. Wilson ’53 (chairman 1995-2001) describes a wise trustee. Sniffing out the strategic opportunities and obstacles, providing advice about the University’s direction, and trusting the faculty and administration for hands-on execution: that’s a good model for trusteeship. Wilson is a nationally recognized leader in governance, as a consultant to the Association of Governing Boards, and seminar facilitator at colleges across the U.S. “We have a governance system within which issues of strategic importance are professionally framed, the options defined, the risk assessed and decisions made, all in an environment of trust and inclusion. Hierarchy is absent, egos are marginalized but prerogatives are protected and the best interests of the University are  served with rigor, consistency and transparency. You may be saying ‘So what’ and ‘isn’t that the way all universities conduct their business?’ I can assure you that so many do not and that the St. Lawrence model is not commonly replicated but universally emulated. To get where we are took hard work and deliberate intentions.”

The new trustee selection process is built upon selection of highly intelligent and motivated individuals who have a skill set that will complement or augment those found on the Board, points out Chair Emeritus Larry Winston ’60 (chair 2001-2008).  “All of the candidates are carefully vetted to insure that they understand that we are looking for individuals who understand that they are expected to attend all meetings, that they should be willing to look at all aspects of the problems and opportunities with an open mind and without a personal agenda and finally, that they should support the University to the best of their financial ability.”

A well-defined mentoring and evaluation process ensures trustee success and satisfaction, according to Winston. “After selection they are carefully mentored and their performance is evaluated with them after the first  year, at mid-term and at the end of their first term, especially if they are going to be asked to continue on the Board. This insures that the Board members have a good idea as to how they are performing and can improve their performance, if necessary. ”

Chair Donald Rose ’64 has held the leadership position on the Board since 2008. He agrees with his colleagues on all counts, and had the experience of the presidential search to provide exceptional insight. He adds, “many boards have an executive committee that struggles with the most serious issues and brings proposals forward to the Board for approval. Our process has the full board engaged with the most serious issues, both in full board session and in appropriate committee meetings. We expect all trustees to participate on these difficult topics. Each Board member is then familiar with the essential details and is in a position to make contributions to those topics.”   

Facing page, Board of Trustees leaders from 1988 through today: E.B. Wilson ’53, current Chair Donald Rose ’64, Bruce Benedict ’60, Larry Winston ’60.

Lisa Cania is recording secretary to the Board of Trustees as well as associate vice president for University relations.

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