Letter to the Editor: Who are the Board of Trustees and what do they do? Board of Trustee Chair Nancy Serrurier answers student questions

Cameron Conner and Nikki Delgado

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During the week of Nov. 4, 2019, the Whitman College Board of Trustees convened on campus for their first meeting of the year. As Whitman’s highest governing body, the trustees meet to oversee the long-term development of the college and discuss how best to ensure its future sustainability.

In the days leading up to the November meetings, Whitman’s four student representatives on the Board of Trustees collected questions from the student body via campus-wide surveys, social media outreach and office hours held at the Cleveland Commons. These questions were presented to the board, raised in committee meetings and discussed directly with board members. In an attempt to communicate those conversations back to students and increase transparency about the board’s role, Board Chair Nancy Serrurier also agreed to respond to them personally. Here are her answers to your questions:

Q: Who are the Board of Trustees?

A: We are 24 volunteers who love Whitman College and want to see it thrive today and in perpetuity. Most of us are alumni, some are parents of former and/or current students and some are community members. We were selected because, collectively, we have the experience and expertise to help guide the college, given the issues we face today and expect in the future. We are diverse in race and ethnicity, age and geography.  We pledge to make Whitman one of our top philanthropic priorities, at whatever level we give.

Q: Why are you a trustee?

A: I am a trustee because I believe in the liberal arts education and residential college experience that makes Whitman stand out.  Whitman is a gem in higher education due to its distinctive mix of thoughtful, rigorous learning coupled with plentiful opportunities for exploration and a supportive, caring community. I want Whitman to be the best it can be.

Q: What makes you qualified to make decisions for the student body that you are not intimately related to?

A: Board members start with a deep affiliation to the college. Mine developed through my son, Ben ‘11. Commitment to the college which is informed by our life and career experiences, expertise and judgment, informs the decisions we make on behalf of today’s and future students.

Student voices are an important part of our deliberations. Formally, student voices are expressed at every meeting by the student representatives on board committees, the full board and by the ASWC chair. Each time we are on campus, we try to schedule time with students over meals or in other venues. President Murray and I meet with students during our open office hours. Informally, board members spend time with students individually when we are on campus.

Q: What is the board’s responsibility to current Whitman students?

A: The quality of current students’ experience at Whitman is a top board priority. We hold the administration accountable for it through our oversight activities. By adopting a learning mindset, we look for ways to improve students’ education. Additionally, we are responsible for assuring that Whitman will be a desirable choice for future students, faculty and staff. Our work on strategic direction and policies is generally future-oriented, but it may also be meaningful to today’s campus experience.

Q: How does the board balance their position of responsibility for oversight and leadership of the college when they are only on campus three times each year?

A: The day-to-day management of the college is the responsibility of President Murray and the vice presidents, along with the faculty and staff of the college. They provide us with information about key challenges and opportunities facing the college. Our job is to ask tough questions and make sure that they have the resources and support to succeed. Meeting three or four times a year is considered best practice for nonprofit boards.

Q: In making decisions for the direction of Whitman, how does the board balance economic objectives with the desire to promote environmental sustainability, social responsibility and community development?

A: In addition to its primary fiduciary responsibility, the board is also responsible for holding the administration accountable to its goals of increasing access and affordability, becoming more diverse and inclusive, innovating the curriculum and supporting life after Whitman. Since there are always more good ideas than money to pay for them, trade-offs are essential. The board relies on President Murray, Chief Financial Officer Peter Harvey and the President’s Budget Advisory Committee (whose membership includes four students) for advice on how to weigh these trade-offs. Environmental sustainability, social responsibility and community development are all underlying themes of our strategic priorities, and there are many examples of how we are able to promote those themes in ways that are also fiscally responsible. The one that comes to mind is last year’s decision to divest from fossil fuels. That’s a good example of our desire as a college and as a board to promote environmental sustainability in a way that honors the fiduciary responsibilities of the Board of Trustees.

If you have questions for the Board of Trustees or want to learn more, contact your student reps by emailing them at [email protected]. Or just stop us around campus! Stay tuned for upcoming office hours and outreach events. The four student representatives are:

Cameron Conner – Overall Board of Trustees

Nikki Delgado – Whitman Experience Committee

Blair Bingham – Whitman Resources Committee

Alex Izbiky – Advancing Whitman Committee