The Case for Reforming Governance at Colgate University

To The Colgate Community –

This is how Colgate frequently addresses us when it has a point to make or to request a donation.

We are a Colgate Community. We are also members of many other communities: our neighborhood association, our school district, our city or town and, of course our state and nation.

What is different about the Colgate Community? We have no vote in selecting the Trustees who set academic, residential, athletic or social policies, approve budgets and tuition, oversee construction, and select the president of the school. There is little transparency as to how Colgate is managed and no mechanism for accountability to those who fund the University.

Voting for leadership is among the best of American traditions. Stakeholders have a right to elect leadership in Congress, state government, school boards, corporations and clubs. This is a core American value because we know that representative governance leads to better outcomes than does autocratic rule.

More and more alumni agree that reforming governance at Colgate is an idea whose time has come. It’s time to open the doors of the currently closed Trustees’ secret selection process. By allowing alumni to elect a significant number the 35 trustees, there would be sunshine on the thinking behind policy decisions. It would restore confidence in alumni who are continually asked to send money with no questions asked.

This modest reform would still allow a majority of seats to continue to be hand-picked by the Trustees’ Nominating Committee, allowing the administration to reward significant donors and recruit for specific skill sets or backgrounds.

Success at other prestigious universities results in higher alumni donor rates.

Numerous colleges and universities have some members of the Board of Trustees that are elected, either by alumni in the case of private universities, or by the citizens in taxpayer-funded public institutions.

A method for alumni to elect trustees either through a petition process or through an alumni council is the protocol at Amherst College, Colby College, Colorado College, Davidson College, Hamilton College, Haverford College, Middlebury College, Penn State, Smith College, Tufts University, Wellesley College, Williams College, and Yale University, to name a few.

Alumni at Wesleyan University elect nine of the 33 trustees. Alumni of Harvard and Radcliffe elect all 30 members of Harvard’s Board of Overseers, one of Harvard’s two governing boards. Of Yale’s 19 Fellows, alumni elect six.

Oberlin alumni elect nine of its 24 Trustees. Alumni of Duke University elect 12 of the 36 members of their Board.

Princeton alumni elect 12 of the 36-member Board of Trustees. Importantly, this process has propelled Princeton to the top of the Annual Giving League Tables over the last 20 years; Dartmouth has the second highest giving rate over this period. For FY14, Princeton’s Annual Giving rate was 62% and Dartmouth’s was 50%. Colgate’s annual giving rate is 39%. 1

Famously, there is Dartmouth College, where, since 1891, alumni elected half (eight) of the Trustees. As independent candidates have become increasingly successful in challenging the status quo, the Dartmouth Board recently changed the Bylaws to dilute the alumni-elected trustees by increasing the number of those from the Board Nominating Committee slate from eight to 13.

So let’s have a Trustee Election Work Group to talk about reforming governance at Colgate University.

Even though Colgate does not yet allow alumni to vote for the Board of Trustees, the administration embraces elections by students for self-governance. “Finally our efforts to encourage student governance have taken hold on campus. About 70% of our residence halls have fully functioning community councils. “The Student Government Association has become much stronger with contested elections, increased attendance at weekly meetings, and moving legislation through the university.” 2

Former President of the Alumni Council Ron Joyce reported that to achieve the Council’s mission, “…to actively enrich the relationship between Colgate and its alumni and to advance Colgate’s success…critical success factors are maximizing inclusiveness, transparency in the process, on-going dialogue, timely responsiveness and continuous improvement.” 3

In a letter published in the Summer 2009 Colgate Scene, Alumni President Gus Coldebella said, “A central part of the Alumni Council’s mission is to promote dialogue among alumni, students, faculty, administration, and the Board of Trustees on issues of importance to the welfare of the university.” 4

Election by alumni of a significant number of the members of the Colgate University Board of Trustees need not be complicated or expensive.

Since 2011, the Colgate Alumni Council has conducted on-line elections in the contested races for Directors.  A shared election website would give access to all candidates to the voters. Also, Colgate could make the database available to candidates, with provisions to ensure the University’s control of the alumni list and fair treatment for all candidates.

A partially elected board promotes the elimination of “group think.”

Colgate Trustees engaged the law firm of Bond, Schoeneck and King to direct Trustees on their duties and responsibilities. Special emphasis was given to “loyalty, obedience and care.” 5

Granted, it’s inefficient to ask questions and challenge assumptions. With only four meetings a year, which some trustees rarely attend, trustees have little more than a staff report before committing alumni donations and increases in student charges. They decide on tuition and fee increases, raises for faculty, buying properties for the Hamilton Initiative, hiring more staff, funding capital construction projects, changing student life policies, and designing the core curriculum, for example.

Yet, such inefficiency might well have saved Colgate from a $21 million cost overrun at the Case Library. Such inefficiency might slow the growth in the administrative staff that has grown 25 times faster than the student body. The inefficiency of debate among the Trustees might keep Colgate from being among the most-expensive colleges in the nation.

We have documented only one dissenting vote – once – on the Board in more than 42 meetings. That vote was on the question of increasing the budget for the Case Library – again. Elected trustees may not vote the same way on every issue – as they do now. But, there is every reason to believe that elected trustees will work collaboratively for the good of Colgate University.

The Colgate University Charter allows the Trustees to amend the Bylaws to make reform governance as times change.

Colgate University’s Charter, which was passed by the New York State Assembly in 1846, actually says, “The said corporation will have perpetual succession…” It is the entity of the university that will continue for an indefinite length of time. The Charter speaks only to the number of trustees, not the method by which they are selected. The organization of the Board and terms of office are defined in the By-laws, which the Board of Trustees reviews and alters as circumstances dictate. The Charter does not define how the Trustees are to be selected.

Alumni elections will make Colgate University stronger with better transparency, better accountability and better alumni participation.

Colgate alumni/ae are an intelligent and activist cohort. They can be trusted to understand the complexities of running a major corporation. They can be trusted to support the Board when policies ideas are presented and explained in a rational and transparent manner. They can be counted on to support our alma mater as she faces the tremendous economic and social challenges of the 21st century. The Board of Trustees need not fear sunshine and open debate. In fact, the debate that results from open elections will likely engage more alumni and make them even more committed to Colgate’s success. There is no legitimate reason to believe otherwise.

You won’t find much info about the Trustees on the Colgate website. You won’t know how they became a Trustee, on which committees they serve, their philosophy on education, whether they ever attend a Board meeting, or how many total terms they’ve had (some re-cycle).

Board minutes are distributed to trustees and trustee emeriti three to four months after the Board meeting. A copy is housed in Case Library. Workbooks of the Board meetings may be viewed only with the express permission of the president.

Join the Movement for A Better Colgate!

Colgate University can be even better with an accountable and transparent Board of Trustees that asks for and values the input of alumni, students and parents – the people who fund the institution.

Even in these tough economic times, the administration expects you to contribute. Why shouldn’t alumni have a say in Colgate’s future?

Sign on-line. Ask your Colgate friends to sign.

This is the era of change and the time for transparency and inclusiveness. This is the time for reform of governance at Colgate. This is the time to give alumni a vote in Colgate’s future!

1 US News & World Report, Best Colleges 2014
2 Colgate University Minutes of the Board of Trustees, Report of the Dean of the College, Jan. 30, 2005
3 Colgate University, Minutes of the Board of Trustees, Report of the Alumni Council, Oct. 6, 2007
4 Minutes of the meeting of the Board of Trustees, April 5, 2008
5 Colgate University, Minutes of the Board of Trustees, Sept. 30, 2006