Sep

17

The Deciders: Four Trustees Share the View from the Top

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Illustration by Alexander Pines

Illustration by Alexander Pines

From the Orientation issue of The Blue and White: Somer Omar sat down in Low Library to talk with some of the Trustees about their role at the University. The Blue and White will hold the semester’s second open meeting tonight, at 9 p.m. in the crypt of St. Paul’s Chapel.

Setting:

The King’s College Room in Low Library.  Nestled in a corner next to the Secretary’s Office on the first floor, the room is unlisted in the receptionist’s computer’s directory. It is the summer of 2013, after one of the four annual meetings of the Board of Trustees.

Cast:

Bill Campbell, CC ’62, has been the Chairman of the Board of Trustees since 2005. He serves on the boards of Apple and Intuit. From 1974 to 1979, he coached the football team, earning his moniker: The Coach. The Campbell Sports Center bears his name.

Philip Milstein, CC ’71, is a Vice Chair on the Board. He is a principal in Ogden CAP Properties LLC, which owns and operates luxury residential buildings. The official name of the 24 hour reading rooms in Butler is: The Philip L. Milstein Family College Library.

A’Lelia Bundles, J ’76, is a Vice Chair on the Board and co-chair of the Columbia Alumni Association Strategic Planning Committee. She is president and chair of the Foundation for the National Archives’s board.  She also serves on the boards of the Madame Walker Theatre Center in Indianapolis, the Friends of Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, and the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute.

Lisa Carnoy, CC ’89, chairs the Alumni Affairs and Development Committee. Carnoy joined the board in 2010, and is both its newest and youngest member. She is Head of Global Capital Markets for Bank of America Merrill Lynch. In 2008, Forbes published “The Climb: Lisa Carnoy,” a story about her speedy ascent on Wall Street.

David Stone is Executive Vice President of the Office of Communications and Public Affairs. He has served in state and federal government, worked as a lawyer, public affairs television producer, writer, and strategic communications consultant. He helped arrange and guide the meeting.

Role of The Board

THE COACH: We treat ourselves with the responsibility that a board of directors would have in a public company. Our responsibility is to hire and fire the CEO. You smile about that, but we don’t.

I quickly wipe the nervous smile off my face. The Coach is bent on providing a no-nonsense definition of how the Board operates. He spoke before I asked questions. But the Board’s function has not always been so neatly defined. The foreword of a 1957 pamphlet titled, “The Role of the Trustees of Columbia University,” reads: “During the academic year of 1956-1957, Mr. Maurice T. Moore, Chairman of the Trustees of Columbia University, appointed a Special Trustees Committee,” to determine the proper role that the Board should adopt within the University.

The fact is, the university’s administration—the president and his team—are the decision makers, all the time. We are a band of people that have a lot of expertise and we try to provide our expertise to that group … and see if we can help them.

There is no linear chain of command between the Board and President Bollinger; neither can operate independent of the other. While the Board offers advice and helps finance the President’s ideas, most board members have full time engagements outside of the University and cannot draft a University agenda of their own. The President takes on the role indicated by his title and the Board operates like a combination of his electorate and the House of Representative’s Appropriations committee.

According to the Organization and Governance section of the Faculty Handbook, “Six of the 24 are nominated from a pool of candidates recommended by the Columbia Alumni Association. Another six are nominated by the Board in consultation with the Executive Committee of the University Senate. The remaining 12, including the President [an ex officio member of the Board], are nominated by the Trustees themselves through their internal processes. The term of office for Trustees is six years. Generally, they serve for no more than two consecutive terms.” The Coach explains that every aspect of a candidate’s profile is considered: race, gender, professional background, commitment to Columbia, and, notably, what expertise they bring to the table. The current Board of Trustees is made up of 19 men and five women.

The Board in Action

THE COACH: A few years ago we really felt like we had been weak in the sciences, and really had not been as up to speed on what was going on the computing world so we could make sure our students had … access to the best undergrad academic teaching in the sciences and we put a subcommittee together with the faculty. We feel really good about that now.

The board exercises most of its policy power through nine committees: Alumni Relations and Development, Audit, Compensation, Education Policy, Finance, Health Sciences, Physical Assets, Public Affairs, and Trusteeship. Each board member is assigned to a committee based on his/her background and expertise. The committees spearhead policy that board members advise on and support with their own resources. With respect to the undergraduate science initiative, the same structure held; a policy oriented subcommittee was assembled and the trustees advised it and approved its financial arrangement.

LISA CARNOY: THE WHIZ KID: Depending on the priorities of [both] the president and the board, certain things gain focus, so there are certain committees that we’ve brought to the fold in recent years. We take direction, naturally, from the president. And he’s been very clear about his priorities including science, including Manhattanville, including globalization.

The Coach pipes in with athletics as another example, which several board members echo.

A’LELIA BUNDLES: So when you say, “What’s the next big thing?” … Lee has a vision of the next big thing, so Manhattanville was something that was very important to him; Mind Brain Behavior very important to him; improving alumni engagement … Those things, he brings to us and says, “This is my vision,” and then…we try to help facilitate that.

Several board members simultaneously share examples of recent initiatives for a liberal five seconds.

Manhattanville

PHILIP MILSTEIN: THE MOGUL: Let me amplify on that: Manhattanville.

The group talk ends—due deference is paid to Manhattanville.

The first thing that [Lee] kept saying to everybody was that we need more space … It required someone with his courage and risk taking to say, “Listen this is uncharted territory.” [given Columbia’s historically tense relationship with the surrounding neighborhood]

The Manhattanville web page states that Columbia has the least square footage per student than any other school in the Ivy League, at roughly 194 square feet—slightly larger than a Carman double. Harvard nearly doubles that ratio, and UPenn lavishes 440 square feet per student. In an interview with Columbia Magazine, President Bollinger stated, “If college and university rankings were based on creativity per square foot, Columbia would far surpass everyone else.”

THE COACH: One of his missions in not only doing Manhattanville and getting the space was to say, “We’re good people, the University is a good neighbor, and we’re going to show it.”

Manhattanville and its surrounding controversy within the student body most resembles the 1968 demonstrations against the building of two separate gymnasia in Morningside Park: one for Columbia students and the other for the residents of Morningside Heights and Harlem. Current Manhattanville procedures and literature stress inclusion and cooperation, rather than division; Ms. Bundles cites the Community Benefits Agreement as a prime manifestation of this change. Inevitably, there are still protests against the University’s expansion. The Coalition to Preserve Community accompanied by many Columbia students staged its last demonstration against property seizure in March 2012.

I ask Milstein whether he really believes that the University has changed on such a fundamental level since its more riotous days.

MILSTEIN: I really do: it’s a people change, from the president on down. There’s an approach that we have to work within this neighborhood as good neighbors. Previously all the issues when I was a student involved the fact that Columbia viewed itself as superior.

BUNDLES: And it was evolving even before Manhattanville with many of the programs in the community, Community Impact and some of the others.

Community Impact, was founded in 1981. According to its website, CI oversees roughly 950 Columbia students who volunteer in Harlem, Morningside Heights, and Washington Heights, serving an approximate total of 5,000+ community members.

THE COACH: This is more attitudinal, this comes from Lee Bollinger, it comes from all of us here and wanting to do the right thing. We want to be really good members of our community … That’s a Lee Bollinger Principle. Will that remain? We sure hope so.

MILSTEIN: [Community Impact] is one of the major activities for the students on the campus in terms of engagement in terms of giving back service and so it’s certainly a major priority of the trustees. We’re in the middle of raising an endowment for this organization for the future because we recognize how important it is.

CARNOY: We also have a Student Affair committee within the board and that group is focused on topics ranging from student advising to major advising to quality of student life, and also that group meets before three out of the four board meetings.

To give you an idea of the past relationship between students and the Board: in 1969, 12 conservative students filed suit with the Supreme Court of the State of New York, demanding the expulsion of all 24 trustees, blaming them for causing the infamous riots. The students believed that the trustees were deliberately allowing left-wing radical professors to shape impressionable students, instigating the demonstrations.

Columbia and its Peers

THE COACH: [In the Ivy League] all of the presidents will help the chairs, so twice a year … chairs of the board meet with a different president who provides us with feedback on what they’re doing uniquely in their university that might be able to help us all. Now we happen to be very close with Stanford, I live right in the area, and the president there happens to be a very good friend of mine.

There was a professor at Stanford who was a Columbia grad and he gave us a lot of his time and introduced us to a lot of local people here in New York including a professor over at the business school who came up with a lot of that research [about how to compete as a top ranking research institution]for us. So, yes, there’s a lot of exchange.

I step on some toes when I press the assembled members about the perceived weakness in the undergraduate science department.

THE COACH: It wasn’t the department—it was how we were deploying the curriculum that we had in the sciences … We thought that and a lot of the feedback that we got from the student life groups that Lisa talked about felt that Frontiers of Science was not strong enough and what were we going to be able to provide the students to give them a richer understanding of science.

MILSTEIN: And plus, with Northwest Corner Building, that became the physical imprimatur of saying, “Science is very important to us”; and they hadn’t built a science building in 50 years.

BUNDLES: Having Manhattanville and Northwest Science Building … the idea is not just to have more space, the idea is to be able to give labs to faculty. When you’re recruiting faculty and they say, “I [could] go to some other school, one of our competitors, they’ll give me lab space, but at Columbia they’ll give me a desk and a cubicle,” you can’t really compete with that. So in order to compete for really top people you have to be able to have those labs.

Noam Scheiber wrote a piece in New York magazine in 2005 about Columbia’s professor poaching strategies as it assembled a more robust economics department. The approach was, fittingly, based on an economic principle called “sunspots,” which holds that people are more productive when surrounded by other productive people. Instead of recruiting a couple of star professors, Columbia would attempt to poach a group of economists simultaneously from its competitors which would put the “sunspot” principle to test with respect to the economics department’s success. I ask the Coach where he draws the line between poaching to boost the university’s reputation and respecting a preexisting relationship.

THE COACH: All’s fair in love and war. There’s nothing hostile between [us] … we can get a faculty member, give them somebody. People try to take our people, we try to take other people’s faculty. It’s a war game.

Why They’re On Board

At this point, David Stone hints that the trustees have other engagements on campus. So I ask, “Why do you all want to help this school?” This time, no one tries to speak first. 

BUNDLES: You guys start first.

CARNOY: My debt to Columbia only grows with time. I think the esprit de corps of this group and the sense of satisfaction, and hoping that this institution be even better is tremendously rewarding and Bill is a phenomenal leader, he calls us ‘the dirty fingernail’ group because we work hard and we keep on taking on more but it is rewarding…the best is ahead of us and that’s really exciting.

MILSTEIN: Since I’m the oldest serving trustee, I’ll say a few words. It comes from love, it comes from passion, it comes from competition—that you feel inside that you want your school and your university to be the best. I started off in a very odd way, I was a member of the Athletic Varsity Club in tennis my freshman year with the riots at Columbia … the grittiness of having to go to school and missing a lot of semesters of school, it only made me better as a person better as a human being … It comes from a warm feeling that you just have, or that as the more you get involved the more you desire to do.

THE COACH: I came by here in the summer, I was taking my son around visiting colleges and Jim McMennamon, who’s the head of principal gifts in the university, had set up a meeting … with Lee in his office and I started to talk to him and … Manhattanville was only a little bit of a dream, he was talking about what would go there … And I’m listening to this guy’s incredible view of expanding the campus to make sure that it can grow so we can add more faculty, more research. So the following year, he was coming out to California … he comes over to my office and he asked me to be a … a Trustee. And I didn’t know what to do.

It feels like a good time to chime in.

ME: Did he get down on one knee?

THE COACH: I could feel a tear coming out of the corner of my eye, I couldn’t wait to call my wife and tell her. I never thought … that I would have an opportunity to … help the institution that helped me develop. Everything about it has made me a better person.

All eyes are on the Coach. He is giving us a rundown of how Bollinger wooed him. Like a group of teenagers watching a romantic comedy, we laugh on cue and—despite knowing the inevitable end—delight in the story.

So I told Lee, “Could I let you know?” And he said, “Sure, you could let me know.” I called my wife on the way and she said, “Did you tell him, ‘Yes?’ ” I said, “I didn’t tell him anything.” She said, “You get over there and tell him ‘yes’ before he changes his mind!”

We work hard. This isn’t some ceremonial role that a couple people do, this is people working hard to make sure that our University gets better and better and better.

BUNDLES: As someone who didn’t go to the College … one of the wonderful things I think about from the board is… while the core is people who went to the College … From the moment I walked in, Bill’s big bear hug makes you feel like you’re a part of it.

A Trustee’s Wishlist

It is the board’s prerogative to skeptically assess the agendas and various policies that are brought before it. And in order to better understand the root of its decisions, it seems appropriate to determine what the trustees would do if they were on the other side of the aisle.

ME: If you could each set your own agenda for the school, what would it look like?

THE COACH: I’d close my eyes and go: Manhattanville be done.

MILSTEIN: We are dealing with what I call a gap in terms of our endowment, versus the other schools … but we do have what I describe as the shadow endowment. Which is, we have New York City … So as a result we can overcome most of that financial experience where we have so much less, and so what would my dream be? … If we had another five or ten billion, it wouldn’t hurt. And were working towards that, because remember when Lee originally started his campaign it was a four billion dollar campaign, were going to end the campaign at six billion. And except for I think Stanford, we will have raised more money by any other place … And we should all be proud of that because the last campaign was two billion and it took double the amount of time. We’re headed up and up and up.

Columbia’s endowment hovers between seven and eight billion dollars. The next wealthiest Ivy, Princeton, has more than double our endowment with only a quarter of our student body. Curiously, Columbia’s endowment has grown since the recession, while those of Harvard and Yale have yet to fully recover.

THE COACH: Lee surrounded himself with really good people, both in the academic side and on the administrative side, so we feel fortunate that we get to work with people that we view as peers … maybe except for the communications guy.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity. 

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