Same Board, Fewer Committees

Middlebury College's board of trustees decides it isn't ready for the 21st century and announces a makeover.

December 13, 2013

In a nod to the fast-changing times, Middlebury College – the quintessential New England private college – announced a redo of its governing board designed to keep trustees up to speed.

Accreditors and the college’s trustees concluded the board was unprepared to deal with rapid change in higher education and associated financial and educational risks. Some things unique to Middlebury prompted the change. But other changes could fix an American higher ed board structure that many administrators believe is broken and unable to guide institutions ably in the 21st century. In a recent survey, only 3 percent of college presidents said they were strongly confident American colleges are well-governed by boards.

Middlebury is keeping its 35-member board but changing how it does its work. One thing that could spark interest elsewhere is doing away with a cumbersome number of committees. The plan reduces the number of committees to six from 15.

Why did there need to be an audit committee, a budget and finance committee, a fund-raising committee and an investment committee? Instead, the new board structure has one “resources committee” to handle all of that. Instead of short meetings with barely enough time for questions, the new meetings will allow board members more time to delve deep into the complexity of college finances.

In regular surveys of the board, Middlebury trustees said they realized they were spending too much time receiving reports and not enough time talking about what to do. Middlebury President Ronald Liebowitz said trustees – almost always people of significant accomplishment, often in running big organizations themselves -- aren’t interested in PowerPoints or “show and tell.”

“It really doesn’t pay to make the. schlep all the way to Vermont, especially in February, for a two-and-half-day meeting to have things presented to them they could have read on their own time,” Liebowitz said.

Now, trustees will do more reading on their own and talk among themselves by phone between meetings. Liebowitz said there was some concern about the new time commitment.

Of the committees Middlebury will have, two of the six will be devoted primarily to thinking about the future: a strategy committee and new programs committee.

Ronald Ehrenberg, the director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute (and himself a trustee of the State University of New York System), said these two committees may be unique for higher ed. Typically, he said, committees don’t focus on long-term planning.

“In a sense, that seems to be saying that the world is changing so quickly we have to be aware of it and we have to keep up with it,” he said.

Middlebury is also creating three new boards of overseers: one for the historic Middlebury College campus, which educates about 2,500 undergraduates; one for the Monterrey Institute, Middlebury’s California-based graduate school; and the third for Middlebury’s summer and overseas programs. Each of those boards will be a mix of trustees, “partner overseers” akin to members of a visiting committee, one professor, one staff member and one student.

Unlike typical committees that advise colleges or schools within an institution, the boards of overseers will include members of the main governing board, which gives the oversight boards a unique tie to the main decision makers.

How actively the trustees become involved as a result of the new structure could become an issue, though. The new programs committee anticipates that trustees will be “developing, evaluating, and supporting new programs, opportunities, acquisitions and joint ventures,” according to an October report that formed the basis of the plan adopted Thursday. Domains like program development have traditionally been left in the hands of faculty.

Members of the six-member Faculty Council, a group of professors that advise the president, either declined to comment or did not respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment about the new board structure.

Jon Isham, a former member of that council, said the direction of the board “makes a lot of sense” but he was not sure yet how faculty members would react to the plan. Faculty, he said, knew something was coming but did not know the precise details until Thursday afternoon, when Liebowitz sent a campuswide email. 

Liebowitz said the faculty voice on the Board of Trustees has been insufficient and the new plan opens the way for new faculty input. He said he expects trustees to push the college to engage issues but he does not expect them to cross a line into areas that should be faculty-controlled.

“I think it’s crucial that the trustees have a faculty voice and at least a faculty perspective in any conversation they have,” he said.

Part of that will include a separate effort to overhaul the faculty structure that will last throughout 2014 and at least into 2015. The college doesn’t have a senate, but instead has 300 voting faculty members. The meetings are an hour and a half once a month and struggle to get a quorum.

In the meantime, there have been questions about which unit – the Board of Trustees, the administration, the hundreds of voting faculty members, a department or an individual faculty member – has control as new decisions are being forced by the times. For instance, one professor recently wanted to “flip” his classroom by giving students audio files of his lectures in an effort to free up lab time. But it was unclear whether he had the authority to do that: Did he need departmental approval? Or was it his academic freedom to teach as he wanted?

Liebowitz, a former dean of the faculty and provost at Middlebury, also announced Thursday that he plans to step down in 2015, after 11 years as president.

The new board structure, which he helped develop, will take effect in summer 2015.

“It is sort of interesting that they will change the governance structure while the current president is there so that the new president doesn’t get caught up in any new political battles that arise from the faculty,” Ehrenberg said.


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