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Thursday, Aug 18, 2022

SLG corner: so what is the Board of Trustees, anyway?

This recurring column will feature updates from SLG. This week’s column comes from President Laurie Patton.

Greetings Middlebury! With this column, we are inaugurating the first “SLG Corner,” a project cooked up between The Campus, Senior Leadership Group (SLG) and the Student Government Association (SGA).

Every couple of weeks, we will be writing to you about what is on the SLG’s plate, the big issues we are thinking about and what we are hearing from the community.

As you might know, the Middlebury Board of Trustees meets this week from Thursday, Oct. 17 to Saturday, Oct. 19. We thought the best way to start this column was to share our thoughts as SLG and respond to some student-generated FAQs about the board. We hope they are helpful.

What is the Middlebury Board of Trustees?

The board is a group of volunteers who are responsible for the long-term well-being of Middlebury. They act as “fiduciaries” — people entrusted to ensure the financial health and good governance processes of the institution. Each trustee brings a mix of experience, talent, and resources to the table to ensure that this can happen.

What do the trustees do and what decisions does the board make?

Trustees are responsible for oversight, to make sure Middlebury is adhering to best practices in all of our offices. They are not responsible for the everyday management of Middlebury — that is SLG’s job. They typically discuss financial health, approve budgets, approve larger financial decisions (usually over $1 million), discuss overall financial, logistical and educational strategies for the future, vote on tuition costs (determined in collaboration with SLG), assess risks and opportunities that the institution should pay attention to, give final approval of tenure decisions, discuss new initiatives, review the progress of established programs, and review any legal issues that emerge. At every meeting, the board also connects formally and informally with students, staff, and faculty to discuss ongoing life on campus.  All the ways that students can connect with the Board are listed below.

Who is on the board? How are members chosen?

You can find the members of the board at go/trustees. Board members are chosen through a long-term selection process by a sub-committee of the board, called “The Trusteeship and Governance Committee,” or T&G for short. We start thinking about candidates several years in advance, and we have several people from the board meet with potential candidates to find out if they have time, talent and interest to serve. Our criteria: first and foremost, a commitment and record of service to Middlebury; a capacity to understand higher education and help find ways to address the biggest challenges facing Middlebury today; an ability to talk collegially across difference; and a sense of long-term strategic vision for our community.

We try to develop a board from a wide variety of sectors. Our current board has representatives from education, finance, law, public service, architecture, technology, industry, medicine, entrepreneurship and the arts. Currently, there are 15 women and 17 men on the board. Seven are people of color. Two live outside the U.S.

We also have emeriti trustees. These are elected trustees who have contributed long-term service to the board. They often come to meetings but do not have a vote. They serve as advisors for Middlebury.

How often do board members convene?

Trustees meet three times a year, in fall, winter and spring. It meets usually on the Middlebury College campus, but every other year it also meets once on the Institute campus. In fall, the board has a retreat, and in winter, the board has a “professional development” session, during which it explores relevant issues in higher education. Examples of past retreat topics have been strategic planning, which contributed to Envisioning Middlebury; financial aid; and the admissions process.

What is the board structure for decision-making and how do trustees come to consensus?

The board does its work mostly through its committees. The strategy committee makes recommendations on how to plan for key issues of our day and create smart decisions for Middlebury’s future. The resources committee makes budgetary recommendations and ensures that we have the funds to keep Middlebury functioning at the highest level possible. The risk committee looks at both areas of vulnerability for our institution, such as cybersecurity, and ways to mitigate those risks. It also look at opportunities for growth, such as the Green Mountain Higher Education Consortium. The programs committee works with SLG to identify key opportunities for programmatic growth at Middlebury.  It should be noted here that the Middlebury faculty are the primary authority for curricular decisions. 

Over the past several years, individual board committees worked together on environmental leadership initiatives like Energy2028. Middlebury students, through the Environmental Council, Sunday Night Environmental Group, DivestMidd and several other groups, voiced their hopes and articulated a vision for Middlebury’s environmental leadership along with faculty and staff after we achieved carbon neutrality. As the board engaged with this community of concerned leaders, the outlines of Energy2028 emerged and were refined through work with the strategy committee. The resources committee did a deeper dive on what it would take to finance the various parts of Energy 2028’s initiatives; The programs committee initially discussed our plans for environmental leadership and reviewed the proposals for Energy 2028 over several meetings; The programs and resources committees then made a joint recommendation to the larger board of trustees to adopt the plan. We anticipate that as we implement Energy 2028, the risk committee will monitor our work to identify any institutional vulnerabilities or opportunities. Throughout the three-year process, the various individual committees met regularly with students, faculty, and staff. It was exhilarating and thorough work.

There are also smaller boards that provide oversight for the different units at Middlebury. There is a smaller board for the college, the various schools (Bread Loaf, the Language Schools, and the Schools Abroad), and the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Trustees also serve on those smaller boards, alongside faculty, staff and student members of the Middlebury community. Smaller boards also include members from outside the community, such as representatives from other institutions. For example, we have benefitted from the wisdom of people from the Addison Country School District, Yale University, Junior Achievement of Northern New England and the philanthropic community in the City of Monterey. These smaller boards also make recommendations to the full board of trustees.

Can the board’s decisions be overridden?

The board’s decisions are final. However, as the above example of Energy 2028 shows, by the time the board comes to a decision, it has held many previous meetings — usually several years’ worth of discussions and consultations with SLG, students, faculty and staff. The Middlebury board is conscientious and listens to what is on people’s minds.

How can students communicate with trustees?

Students can connect in four different ways. First, student representatives serve on the boards of the College, the Schools and the Institute, and the investment sub-committee of the resources committee. Second, students talk with trustees informally throughout the course of the meeting, when they attend lunches and dinners hosted by the board. Third, student groups always participate in the programming throughout the weekend. In spring 2019, for example, students from the “How We Live Together” project shared their thoughts with the board; students from DivestMidd gave their perspectives in fall 2018 as the board voted on divestment; students from residential life participated in the fall 2018 retreat, which led to the new student center becoming a priority in planning. Fourth, if students would like trustees to consider particular issues, they should contact the Associate Secretary to the Board Sue Ritter, who will work with students to share their thoughts through the right channels.

What are the top three things about the board of trustees that you would most like to communicate?

First, even though some of their work has to be confidential, trustees really want to connect. They are constantly looking for more ways to engage with folks on campus. Second, we sometimes hear that students worry that the board is mostly wealthy people who only care about the past, or about money. That is not the case. As the description of board members above shows, it is a diverse group from a wide variety of sectors, representing a wide variety of opinions. They disagree well. And they love Middlebury (a large majority of them were once MiddKids). Third, I trust the trustees completely; they always challenge me and the senior leadership team. They ask us tough questions (that’s their job), and make us better: “Can we really reach the goal we’ve set with the tools we’ve got?” “Are we fully prepared for the next economic downturn?” “What is the true cost of a specific part of our educational vision?” They also encourage me and my team to ask them tough questions, too, and we have. In this “strong challenge and strong support” environment, our partnership makes us stronger.

What is on the docket for this week?

We are excited about this meeting. We will focus this year on the faculty-student relationship. At the board retreat, we will hear from several groups of faculty and students whose work together in research, entrepreneurship, and community service has been transformative for all people involved. Trustees will give us feedback on how we can support this kind of collaborative learning even more energetically.

In addition, trustees will hear an update on the progress we are making in the “How We Live Together” initiative. They will also learn about and give us feedback on our new long-term building projects, such as the student center. We will plan for the next steps in our upcoming capital campaign — a long-term fundraising initiative that helps us support our vision for the future. We will also discuss patterns in enrollment at our graduate schools. On Friday night, students from the Environmental Council and the Sustainability Solutions Lab will share their research. It is going to be packed and we are looking forward to reporting back.

Thanks for these questions. And thanks to our representatives from the SGA and The Campus for getting us started.

— President Laurie Patton