All in the Family

At Cornell University's medical college, the daughter of a wealthy donor is replacing her father as leader of its board.

December 12, 2014

Leadership of the board that oversees Cornell University’s medical college is passing from father to daughter, an unusual transition of power for a higher education board.

Weill Cornell Medical College’s Board of Overseers has been chaired for the past two decades by its namesake and major donor, Sandy Weill, the former CEO of Citigroup.

His daughter, Jessica Bibliowicz, is now set to take over Weill's role. She is the founder and former CEO of a major insurance brokerage, and has also been on the board for a decade.

Family torch-passing of this sort is unusual in higher education, according to several people familiar with college governance.

Peter Eckel, a former vice president for programs and research at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, said keeping leadership within a family raises questions. He said it is important for board members to think about leadership succession, and good to have more women move into board chairs.

“On the other side of the coin, within-family succession planning adds complexity to the issue -- it just raises certain questions,” Eckel said.

Eckel said he doesn’t think data on the issue exist, but generation after generation of family members do get involved at their colleges, though not necessarily at colleges in the Ivy League, as Cornell is.

“My sense is you see this a lot more in small private institutions, oftentimes in church-related institutions, those in rural areas,” said Eckel, who now directs a program on leadership at the University of Pennsylvania.

Sandy Weill and his wife began in 1992 to give their money to the medical college – which is in New York City, geographically apart from Cornell’s main campus in upstate New York. In 1998, they gave $100 million to the medical college. At the time, that was the largest gift to Cornell and one of the largest ever in higher education. In 2002, they gave another $100 million. In 2006, they gave $250 million. The Weills have given a total $550 million to the medical college, which was renamed in their honor in 1998.

It’s no secret that boards are often filled by wealthy donors.

According to Richard Chait, a professor emeritus at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who has studied and advised colleges on leadership issues, “There is often a correlation between individual philanthropy and individual power and influence within an organization.”

Chait said that’s not a bad thing. Just because a person has money doesn’t mean they don’t deserve their influence: “Not having money is not a sure sign that you’re going to be a good leader, so we have to be careful about that.”

At the medical college, the Board of Overseers' leader is elected by the 85-member board, according to its bylaws. Members include Chelsea Clinton; Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs; and Rupert Murdoch.

Critics of large boards have said that, paradoxically, the largest boards end up having power concentrated in the hands of the fewest people.

Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said Cornell’s large medical college board (and the 64-member board that governs the entire university) is “very rare and very large.”

“Best practices call for a smaller size and one that will encourage engaged decision making,” she said in a statement. “Perhaps it’s time for dialogue and discussion about what practical steps this board – and others – might take to maximize their effectiveness in a spirit of accountability to the public trust.”

In an interview with The New York Times, Weill said he felt it was "a good time for younger blood to lead the board."

In a statement, Cornell said, "Weill Cornell Medical College engaged in a comprehensive process to select its chair of the Board of Overseers by canvassing multiple members of the board in full consultation with senior leadership. The search was headed by a group of senior trustee overseers with extensive knowledge of the institution and Weill Cornell firmly believes it has selected the best choice as chair."

Weill’s time heading the Board of Overseers is itself unusual in private higher education (as is the amount of money he’s given). Weill has been on the medical college board for three decades, including his two decades as its chairman. At some colleges, such a long term would not be possible.

According to a 2010 survey by AGB, two-thirds of private college boards have term limits of, on average, three terms; the typical length of a single term is four years. Half of private colleges also limited the number of terms a board chairman can serve, typically to three terms.

The medical college’s Board of Oversees is not quite comparable, though. It was created by Cornell’s main Board of Trustees and given power over the medical college, though the main trustees reserve final say over the budget and other major decisions.

Some nonprofit boards have built-in hereditary passage. The Board of Trustees for the Rockefeller Foundation, founded just over a century ago, is still led by a Rockefeller, for instance.

Even Cornell’s main Board of Trustees is required by its charter to have as a member the eldest living descendent of Ezra Cornell, the university’s founder.

At Princeton University, an arrangement to give a major donor’s family say over the use of family money meant the Robertson family controlled three of seven seats on a board of a university-affiliated family foundation. That arrangement proved unsatisfactory, and eventually the Robertsons sued Princeton over how their money was being spent, resulting in one of the messiest donor intent lawsuits in history.

Clemson University, in South Carolina, has a different arrangement that could have sparked hereditary power but apparently has not. Acquaintances of its founder, Thomas Clemson, originally held seven of the 13 seats on the board, as Clemson dictated in his will. When one of those seven died, the other six picked the successor, though that did not result in hereditary control of the board. The board still has 13 members, including seven known as "successor members."

Ronald Ehrenberg, the director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, said that nepotistic arrangements can work out well for institutions. He cited King Alexander, who took over as president of Kentucky's Murray State University after his father, and went on to a successful career. Alexander is now president of Louisiana State University.

“Sanford Weil has been a very generous benefactor and an extraordinary, forceful leader of the Medical College Board of Overseers and Cornell has been lucky to have his involvement,” Ehrenberg said in an email.

A news release from Cornell about Bibliowicz’s succeeding her father did not explicitly mention their kinship, though the story about the succession that included interviews with both father and daughter and noted their relationship in its headline ran this week in The New York Times.

In an interview with the newspaper, the father-daughter pair expressed enthusiasm for the medical college and their work on the board. Weill also promised to stay involved with its affairs. He’s also begun to focus some of his attention on funding the arts out in California’s wine country, where he helped build a performance hall at Sonoma State University.


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