Barry Mills on a Strong Board, Strong College

In his latest post, President Barry Mills discusses what makes a strong and efficient Board of Trustees, prudent financial decisions, and how they all work together to maintain and improve the academic excellence of the College.

I have been absent from the Bowdoin Daily Sun for a while, as life at Bowdoin has been very busy. I also wanted to give folks more time to read and comment on my Convocation speech, which has continued to generate many comments. Most of these comments have focused on the political and intellectual diversity section of the talk. We will certainly have many more opportunities to discuss these issues in the months and years to come.

We held Homecoming at Bowdoin last week; the Saturday of Homecoming was one of those glorious Maine days when all at Bowdoin sparkles. Many alums were back on campus. Tim Foster and the folks in Student Affairs hosted a reunion for alumni who have worked in residential life as proctors and RAs over the past few years—it was wonderful to greet this very enthusiastic group and to welcome them back to campus. There were sporting events on nearly every field and Bowdoin had a great day (except on the football field).

The trustees of the College also meet on Homecoming Weekend. Our Board of Trustees has 45 members, which is a large group. When I first became president of the College, I was concerned about whether a board this size could effectively lead the College. (Candidly, I had the same concern when I was a trustee myself in the ’90s). But over the years I have come to realize that there are advantages to a large board—particularly as I solicit advice from different groups at different times when various issues arise. Having a large board with a diverse set of interests and expertise is very helpful to me and to the College.

I was asked over the weekend what I think we need to consider as we configure our board for the future. There are many considerations that apply when one considers new board members. I think I got people’s attention, however, when I answered that the general qualification that should apply for all board members is that they be ambitious for themselves as individuals and ambitious for the College. The charge over the past decade while I have been president has been to focus on maintaining and enhancing our excellence as an institution. Board members committed to that ambition are essential to our continued success.

We spent a good deal of time, as we often do at the board meetings, examining our financial condition. The issues I raised in the first half of my Convocation talk were at the forefront of our discussions: rising costs, affordability, financial aid, and the comprehensive fee. We were pleased to report to the board that we completed the 2009-10 academic year meeting or exceeding our financial goals for the College, and we continue to be well positioned in this uncertain economy. Our endowment recovered at an excellent rate with investment return of 10.3 percent, which is well above our budget assumption of zero for the year. The investment return for the year is a bit below the average return for colleges and universities, but given our risk adjusted returns, we are very pleased and very grateful to Paula Volent and our Investment Committee for helping us navigate through these complicated times.

We still do live in uncertain economic times—an understatement, obviously. Nobody can tell us with confidence whether we are facing a period of sustained inflation or deflation, and that uncertainty in the world suggests quite clearly to me and to our board that we should adopt a strategy that is very conservative financially, with a focus on generating cash reserves for the future.

A trustee asked me how we should think about the next period and how we can improve our College, given this economic uncertainty. I think the focus should be primarily on our academic program, as it always should be. While there will always be needs for facilities and real estate as we improve our academic program and offerings, this is a time when we should redouble our efforts to enhance our academic program and the strength and depth of our intellectual life on campus for our students, faculty, and the entire Bowdoin community. There is no more important priority for our College than to continue to maintain and improve the academic excellence of the College, and this is a priority that can be supported in a period of more limited economic resource if prudent and imaginative decisions are made by the faculty and the leadership of the College.

Comments

  1. Don Doele says:

    Great comments as always from Barry – keep up the good work!

    Don ’59

  2. Barry,

    I really appreciate the transparent reflections and observations you’re sharing. I think it’s fantastic as a way to keep alumni and all who care about the Bowdoin engaged and updated on the most important/interesting topics facing Bowdoin. Further, I’ve admired your courage in taking on big, fundamental questions in the face of plenty of ambiguity about the answers, etc. (a la your convocation speech). I have a question on the current post.

    RE: “Mills discusses what makes a strong and efficient Board of Trustees. . . . over the years I have come to realize that there are advantages to a large board—particularly as I solicit advice from different groups at different times when various issues arise. Having a large board with a diverse set of interests and expertise is very helpful to me and to the College.”

    I have no idea whether a big board is a good design or not (I lack the threshold level of understanding to have an informed point of view), but I wouldn’t be confident that it’s a good design based on the exploration in your post because it lacks a principled exploration of the design of the board as means of achieving Bowdoin’s goals.

    People can of course differ in their principles to apply in designing to achieve goals, so let me articulate mine so that it’s evident what I see as principled questions/objections re your post. My opinion is that in pursuing any goal, one must first have a rich picture of the goal (i.e., what does one want to achieve and why?) and then needs to select from multiple possibilities a design that will enable achievement of the goal. The multiple design possibilities are not all created equal. They all have pros and cons vis-a-vis the goal. So if one wants to select an excellent design, one should study the pros and cons of the various design choices and select amongst them a design that has a great ratio of pros (many) and cons (few, no uncompromisables, etc.).

    So when I evaluate your post relative to these principles I see two failures:

    1. A lack of a clear goal statement. What is purpose/mission of the Board? One can’t evaluate the goodness of the design until there is clarity about the goal(s).

    2. Your exploration of the design (large board) is limited to its pros without any exploration of the cons. Like trying to lose weight (goal) through starvation (design), if one studies only the pros in selecting a design one will probably make bad design choices over time–i.e., one sees clearly the upside (weight loss) and will be blindsided by the cons, possibly to an unacceptable degree (premature death).

    Now, I don’t presume that because your post lacks the above (i.e., clarity of goal; logical exploration of design choices) that you and others haven’t done hard and good thinking about these topics. However, I do think given these two points that if the goal of your post was to “[discuss] what makes a strong and efficient Board of Trustees” you’ve come far short of that bar.

    I’d be interested in any thoughts/reactions you have and again I really appreciate your transparent reflections through forums like this and hope you’ll continue to engage in this way.

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