Straight from print: Inside AU’s Board of Trustees

How the university's governing board is driving AU's next steps

Straight from print: Inside AU’s Board of Trustees

This article originally appeared in The Eagle's Feb. 24, 2017 special edition.

Following a year-long search, Chairman of AU’s Board of Trustees Jack Cassell announced in January that former Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell will become AU’s next president. That decision, which will impact the University’s direction for years to come, is just one of many responsibilities the board is tasked with undertaking.

Since the start of the spring semester, the Board of Trustees has announced new changes for the AU community, including the selection of Burwell and the resignation of Gary Cohn, the former president of Goldman Sachs and a trustee since 2001. Cohn resigned after taking a position as a top economic advisor in the Trump administration.

As part of the University’s two-year budget cycle, the Board of Trustees will also determine changes to the school’s operating budget and student tuition for the upcoming fall semester. The board “acts in the best interest of the university” and therefore has legal and financial responsibility and oversight over American University and the Washington College of Law.

Though AU’s Board of Trustees plays a significant role in the operation of the University, many students do not have a clear idea of what the board’s specific responsibilities are or who on campus holds them accountable.

The makeup of the board

In 2006, the Board of Trustees underwent governance restructuring following the ousting of former AU President Benjamin Ladner for embezzling money from the University. Previously, the 22-member board did not include members of the AU campus community. However, in an attempt to increase transparency and more diverse input, the board created three non-voting positions, including two faculty members and one student trustee.

“We became a role model for governance,” Cassell said recently of the change. “I have talked to people around the country [and] they have told me that they are trying to model their boards similarly.”

Since the restructuring, the board has invited six representatives from the AU community to join board committees, said trustee member Pamela Deese, an AU alum and parent of an AU graduate and current freshman. The campus representatives include one member each from the AU Alumni Board, the Graduate Leadership Council, the Student Bar Association and Student Government, the Faculty Senate and the Staff Council.

“In almost all of our committee meetings, where most of the board’s business is done, we have members of the AU community present,” Deese said. “We are hoping students feel they have regular connection to the board.”

The student trustee serves as a liaison for the board to the AU student body. Shyheim Snead, a junior in the School of Public Affairs who serves as the current student trustee — a non-voting position — said he applied for the position to bring the experiences of a student of color to the board. The board itself includes four people of color and nine women, not including Snead or student trustee-elect Valentina Fernandez.

“I experienced what a lot of students of color experienced when they first came to AU. It was important to figure out how we could make the institution a place that would be more open no matter where students came from or how much their parents made or what they looked like,” Snead said. “Social justice movements need force from the outside, but you also need people in certain institutions and spaces who understand the needs and concerns of that grassroots community.”

Fernandez, a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs, was selected by the board as the student trustee-elect in November 2016, and will replace Snead in May. Fernandez noted the difficulty of trying to connect the student body with the board.

“They want to learn about the student body more, they want to know what the students are thinking, they want to learn what the campus climate is like, and I think that’s one of their biggest strengths,” Fernandez said.

Students and faculty who serve on the board are not able to participate in voting because of the potential conflict of interest, which would go against the board’s legal and financial responsibility for the University institution, Deese said. For their part, if a student was impacted by a tuition increase, the student might vote against a board decision to increase tuition, which compromises the board’s efforts to act in the best interest of AU and the student body, Desse said.

How is the board governed?

Several Board of Trustee members work or have leadership roles in legal, philanthropic, communications or finance and business backgrounds. Chairman of the Board Jack Cassell is the President of Cassell Global Investments, an investment banking firm. The Vice Chair of the Board, Marc N. Duber, is the Executive Vice President and Chief operating officer of The Bernstein Companies, a large, D.C.-based real estate company.

Another trustee, Gerald Bruce Lee, is a Judge on the United States District Court in the Eastern District of Virginia. Two former east coast university presidents from Lafayette College and Centenary College also hold seats on the board. David Trone, the millionaire owner of the multi-store chain Total Wine & More, was named to the board last fall. Trone ran against and lost to former Washington College of Law professor Jamie Raskin in a Maryland congressional race last year.

As a Methodist institution, AU also has two members of the Methodist church who sit on the board as “ex-officio trustees.” Kim Cape serves on the General Board of Higher Education for the United Methodist Church, which oversees the 119 Methodist universities across the U.S. The other is Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, the first female Bishop for the Baltimore-Washington Conference of The United States Methodist Church.

In addition to “acting in the best interest of the university,” board members are expected to make annual financial contributions to the university, though the specific amount they should be donating is not disclosed in the board’s bylaws or policies. According to the Board Policies, “each trustee will contribute annually to the university, commensurate with the trustee’s ability to do so and to participate actively in fundraising activities.”

When deciding on new members, the board looks for a range of experiences, expertise and commitment to financial support for the University, Deese said.

“When we look at who would be a good fit for the board, we are looking at diversity of many things: not just gender, sexual preference [and] race, but also diversity of ideas, intellectual capabilities, life experiences,” Deese said. “Another is a willingness to commit financially to the institution. That by no means is the most important criteria. If you are not a millionaire, you can't make million dollar gifts but you can give to the fullest extent.”

The voting members of the board are responsible for both the selection and, if necessary, the removal of trustees. Trustees are elected for a three year term, though they can be re-elected with approval from the board. A trustee may be removed with a two-thirds vote by present members “for adequate cause shown,” from present, according to the board’s bylaws.

The board votes on funding and budget oversight for the University as well as the hiring of senior administrators, such as the Provost and the President. University policies are decided by President Kerwin and top administrators, Cassell said.

Though the board has sought faculty input for administrator hiring, there is no formal obligation or requirement for the board to consult faculty on the process, said Todd Eisenstadt, the Chair of the Faculty Senate who serves as a non-voting member on the board. However, this is something Eisenstadt said he would like to see change.

“This board has taken faculty very seriously. However, we would like a more institutionalized role in decision making with regards to higher level administrators,” Eisenstadt said. “It would behoove all of us to codify and institutionalize a role for faculty in all of the search and in the evaluation of higher administrators such as deans, associate provost[s] [and] presidential cabinet members.”

Tuition increase vote to occur this spring

The Board of Trustees is expected to vote on a tuition increase this spring. The “Reinventing the Student Experience” program, demands for more student lounge space and improvements to health services and other programming contribute to tuition costs, Cassell said.

“The value of an American University education is at an all time high and we will continually improve our product,” Cassell said. “We will likely have a tuition increase this year as the RiSE program will cost millions of dollars more to improve the student experience.”

Snead recognized that student concerns about a tuition increase were valid and recognized by the board.

“I think it is really hard to believe that these people in a distant room care about the lives and realities of students here,” Snead said “I can say with certainty, that while it seems their ability to empathize with students who are going thousands and thousands of dollars into debt is not possible, they do care. There is always more to be done to bridge the gap between the board and what it means to be a student here.”

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