The Great Divide: The Classroom and the Boardroom

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Author: Dean DeChiaro

Last week John Farmer ascended to the top position in Oxy’s governing body, the Board of Trustees. Previously the Vice Chair, Farmer assumed the position of Board Chair, replacing Dennis Collins, who served in that capacity for the past four years. The power shift was anything but a demotion for Collins, who will assume the new role of Senior Vice President for Institutional Advancement, essentially the school’s chief of fundraising. The shift was not widely publicized – there was no e-mail sent out to the community, and though the story was temporarily published on Oxy’s website, it was subsequently replaced. The power shift was the latest in a long line of unpublicized or unpopular decisions by the Board of Trustees, furthering its reputation as the mysterious, shadowy government that holds court over the college. But is this perception ill-conceived?

Occidental’s Board of Trustees is made up of 37 people, not including President Jonathan Veitch and Officer Ex Oficio Robert Cunningham. Most are middle-aged to senior-citizen Caucasian males. There are 13 women, two African-American men and one Latino man. Most of their job titles include the words “President,” “CEO” or “COO.” There are seven lawyers, a handful of people in real estate, one dentist, one marriage and family therapist, and then there is Anne Cannon Enders ’74, who is described on Oxy’s Web site as “self-employed.” Thirty-one of the trustees are Occidental alumni. By some measure, they are a diverse group. And they are a group, it seems, tasked with a huge undertaking.

“We keep the institution in trust, literally. That’s where the name came from,” said David Berkus ’52 (namesake of 1601 Campus Road). “The idea is to keep the institution alive by making sure that is has all the resources it needs, in perpetuity.” He described the Board’s primary duties, in no particular order, as supporting programs that contribute to the school in the long run, handling the administration and making sure that it is capable of operating the institution, and protecting all of the College’s constituents as well as the campus itself with proper forms of insurance.

The Board’s other job, says Berkus, is that of a handler. “[The Trustee’s other job is] hiring, nurturing and sometimes even having to replace the CEO, who is obviously the President of the college.”

According to California law, any non-profit organization, like Occidental, is required to have a governing Board of Trustees, and it is because of this that Dennis Collins believes that Oxy’s board is simply “typical,” given the role of any Board of Trustees anywhere. Nobody technically owns Occidental, but the Trustees, in perpetuity, are as close as it gets. “We work with the administration with regard to the building and approving of a budget and we are responsible for raising funds to support the institution,” Collins said. According to him, and by an official estimate, Oxy’s annual tuition only covers about 65 percent of the education offered by the college, and so the challenge of raising the rest of that money falls to the Board.

But it is not all about money, as many students may believe. Though the school’s curriculum is delegated by the Board to the Faculty Council and the offices of various Deans, the Board still manages to keep a hand in the jar when it comes to academics. “We ensure that the academic program represents accurately and ambitiously, I would say, the mission of the institution,” Collins said.

The Board meets three times a year on campus, and once elsewhere for a weekend retreat at a location in Southern California which changes every year. The most recent of these meetings took place last weekend, and coincided with the inauguration of President Veitch. In addition to the Trustees, the meetings are attended by Veitch, Cunningham, the chair of the Faculty Council (this year ECLS Professor Raul Villa, in the past DWA Professor Movindri Reddy) and the ASOC Student Body President, this year Andrew DeBlock.

While they don’t attend the actual Board meetings, eight students, each one assigned to a different subcommittee of the Board (including Building and Grounds, Institutional Advancement, Student Affairs, etc.) attend meetings specifically dealing with their area.

One common perception of the Board is that the meetings are private and secretive. Just how secretive, though, is difficult to define. Berkus seemed to think that the Board published the minutes of every meeting, except for segments dealing with salary issues. “We have never tried to meet behind closed doors,” he said. “When I was a student I had the same feeling . . . that there was this difference, this distance, when in fact the minutes of the meetings are very available,” he noted.

However, when The Weekly attempted to obtain the minutes, the search proved futile. Upon contacting Director of Communications Jim Tranquada, it was confirmed that they were indeed closed to the public.

The divide, it seems, exists. If he was not an elected official, DeBlock admits he would feel as lost as he says many students are. “I think if I were an average student, I wouldn’t really have an understanding of how often they meet, what they do at their meetings, what their actual role in the college is, how they play a leadership role, how much power they actually have, how much command they have over the vice presidents and the president of the school and how they interact with one another,” he said. “It’s really not something that’s within the purview of the daily life of a regular student.”

Collins too admits that there is a gulf between the Board and the students. Of the average Oxy student, he commented that “they probably know that there is something called the Board of Trustees. They probably have some notions about power and authority and command and control and this idea of ‘If we can’t do something, it’s because the Board doesn’t permit it.'”

Tuition, he believes, is one of the main causes of contention between the students and the Board. “I think there’s an idea that the Board is charging [students] an outrageous amount of money, and that if [we] could only get our act together, we could offer this kind of education for a lot less cost,” he said.

Collins, who began working at Oxy in 1963 in admissions, and then as the Dean of Students until 1970, says he understands the divide. When asked what he thought the ideal image of the Board would be, Collins said he just wants the students to know that the members of the Board serve the college, not themselves. “I wish the students would see that the Board of Trustees is here to advance their education, through the support of the institution that they are attending,” he said.

Noting that Trustees serve on a volunteer basis, covering their own travel costs to and from campus, Collins also revealed that it is customary for Trustees to donate annually to the college, and that the donation is equal to the cost of supporting one student per school year. But despite this, the students and Trustees have still clashed, twice recently.

Last school year, controversy erupted surrounding two decisions by the Board that Collins admits were not handled as well as they could have been. The first, which provided that if a student on scholarship moved off-campus, their financial aid would be cut, was somewhat tied to the second, which dictated that incoming first-years would be required to live on campus for three years. The student body was highly discontent, and the Board was again their enemy, but if there is to be blame, says Collins, it should not lie with the Trustees.

“Those were administrative decisions that were made by the senior administration, and when I say that, I mean the Vice Presidents and the President,” he said. The decisions were then put into effect when the Board ratified them, but Collins said that it was not a monetary issue, as many students believed. It was more a decisio
n, he said, based on the philosophy of the school.

“We are a residential, liberal arts college,” he said. In making the decision, the Board looked at other such institutions that they believe Oxy falls in the same class as, and noticed that, although they are not in urban settings like Oxy, the majority of their student bodies live on campus. “We looked at the Middleburys, the Carletons and Oberlins . . . and when you read their literature, the philosophies are very similar to Oxy’s, but the reality is that they have 90 percent or 95 percent of their students living on campus,” he said. The Board also did research at Oxy and determined that in the long run, it was students who lived on campus who were overall more active in the college than those living off campus.

Berkus also highlighted the college’s residential philosophy as a reason for the new rule. “It’s a residential college, and students really should be given the opportunity to take advantage of that. It’s half of your education, in my opinion. It was half of mine,” he said.

But neither Berkus nor Collins ignored that the school had just built the new Rangeview Residence Hall and had been having trouble filling all of its rooms. “We’ve got 275 beds and 40 million bucks sitting up on that hill,” Collins said. “We needed to fill the inn.”

The other decision, regarding the adjustment of financial aid awards for students living off campus, was also data driven. “If it costs less to live off campus compared to living on campus and two students were on financial aid, why should they both be getting the same award?” he asked. He admitted, however, that this announcement may not have been made in the best way. “The medium is the message,” he said. “Pouring cold water warmly is a very hard thing to do.”

Another example of cold water being poured in the past was centered on the revolving door that was the Office of the President. But after Collins and other officers of the Board spent most of last year searching for a long-term chief executive, and settled upon the native Angelino Jonathan Veitch, the Trustees think the sky is the limit for Oxy.

“They’re giving him a lot of leeway, more leeway than I’ve ever seen any President get from the Board of Trustees,” said DeBlock. “They call him the firehose, because he’s making a lot of changes very quickly.”

DeBlock indicated that the Trustees have already given the green light to Veitch’s edits to the master plan (which took ten years to create) and to his new approach to the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) accreditation process, which “didn’t go too well last time,” DeBlock said. In fact, Oxy was temporarily deffered from being the process, but by now is again accredited.

The relationship between the Board and President Veitch is more of a partnership, a relationship that is unique to Occidental, says Collins. Collins described Veitch as a man who “had the combination of personal qualities, intellectual skills, values and orientations.” Now that Veitch is in office, Collins said that the Board is taking on a supporting role, doing what they can to lighten the President’s load as he goes about implementing his plans on campus and opening doors for him to achieve his full potential.

“This is probably the most exciting time that I’ve ever been associated with this college. The guy is so charged, so energetic and so intellectually and strategically alive. He has a penchant for action,” said Collins. And his action, hopefully, will be felt in perpetuity.

The idea of perpetuity, as well as longevity, brings to the forefront one of the biggest issues, maybe the ultimate issue, that divides the student body and the Board of Trustees. Obviously, any average Occidental student is only here for four years, and, not surprisingly, they want the decisions the Board makes to be in their best interest. But the Board makes its decisions with the best interest of the institution at heart, and their job is to support the college in the long run. The question is, does one need to be sacrificed for the other to succeed? It is definitely a possibility.

“There may be a time. There may be a time when you have to have that short-term versus long-term worry. But the Trustees want to make sure that the environment at the college is as good as it can be,” said Berkus.

Collins believes that in an ideal world, the interests of the students and of the institution ought to be compatible, but this is simply not always the case. “Clearly there is a relationship there, but the perspectives can be different,” he said. For example, Oxy’s endowment (about $300 million) is much smaller than the endowments of schools with which Oxy competes, that are mostly in the $700-$800 million range (Pomona’s is about $1 billion), and this provides for a difference of opinion between the Board and the student body for how the school should proceed.

“Students who are here now say we charge too much for tuition. They say ‘You charge x for admission, and x is too much. We want you to charge y for tuition and take the rest out of the endowment.’ If we take the difference out of the endowment and serve the interests of the student body now, then in the long term, the students who come along down the road are going to be impacted by that,” he explained.

Another example of debate, happening presently, surrounds the rehabilitation of Swan Hall. The building badly needs a full renovation, but it is unclear whether or not this money should come out of the endowment or whether there should be a capital campaign to raise the money from outside donors. It would be easier to dip into the endowment, said Collins, but that would impact today’s students, as opposed to a capital campaign that would not.

So what it comes down to is perspective. “There are probably more alignments, more compatibility than there is disjunction,” Collins says. When things are not compatible is when the student body has immediate demands, i.e. while they are here at school. The Trustees cannot act so quickly to immediately improve student life, said Collins, as they must make sure that any newly implemented plans are in the best interest of the college in perpetuity.

So is there a better connection between the Board and the students on the horizon? According to Collins, it is not likely. He looks back to his time during the tumultuous Vietnam years when he was the Dean of Students and recalls student discontent with the Board then, as well as during the early ’80s, when protests for divestment from South Africa were common on college campuses. “This lack of understanding has always been thus. In the late ’60s, when I stood behind a bull horn and said ‘I’ll give you three minutes to disperse’ as they were taking over my office and then hauling me out of my office, the bad guys were the Board of Trustees. We’re the bad guys because we let Vietnam happen, [and later] because we were investing in South Africa,” he said.

It’s difficult to close the gap, but Collins says it is always worth a try. “I’m not suggesting for a moment that this should all be kumbaya, that we should all sit around, hold hands and say that we’re all working towards the same purpose,” he said. “But when the degree to which there are [opportunities] that try and clarify what the roles and functions are, and clarify ways that we can enhance communication, then that’s terrific.”

For a group that has little immediate impact on a student’s life, DeBlock says that the Board really does have the power. “As an average student, I feel like they don’t play any real role in my daily life except for the fact that they do have the final say over so much,” he joked. On a more serious note, though, he commented, “It really is clear that they are the be all and end all of the college.”

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