Committee reforms board of trustees

by Erin Brock

Transylvania University’s board of trustees, a body of appointed individuals who oversee the activities of the university, has recently undergone some significant changes in its size, regularity of meetings and focus, all in hopes of having a greater impact on the college’s function and image.

“Frankly, the challenges facing colleges today are greatly intensified by the economic environment in which we operate, all the more reason to roll up our sleeves and think very seriously about how we manage the risks and challenges associated with running a college today, in this economy,” President R. Owen Williams said.

Previously, the board of trustees consisted of 55 members plus 11 lifetime members. After the restructuring, the official count is now 36. However, lifetime members have the option to attend any meeting they desire.

The paring down of the board was a “very customized and democratic process,” according to Williams.

Each member had the choice to continue serving or to join the newly created board of regents, an advisory body closely related to the board of trustees but without its governing responsibilities.

The board of regents is larger than the board of trustees and meets only twice a year. It consists of what was known as the board of visitors as well as former trustees who opted to serve in this capacity instead.

“It will be more significant and more involved in the governance of the college or in the oversight advisory role to the college than what the board of visitors had been,” said Williams.

Another new practice introduced to the board of trustees is that of term limits. Members can now serve no more than three successive four-year terms without sitting out for a year.

The goal of this limit is to “keep things interesting, and to keep the board stimulated by the presence of new ideas,” Williams said.

While the number of trustees has decreased, the number of annual meetings for the board of trustees has increased. In the past, the board met only twice a year. Now, the body plans to meet four times a year in two-day meetings.

“We’ve also not only restructured the composition of the board, but we’ve redesigned the purpose and activity of the board so that the board is meeting more regularly for longer periods of time and at a much higher level of engagement,” said Williams.

Meetings now consist of short reports given by different individuals followed by a focus on one or two issues for the majority of the time. In the last meeting, the very first meeting of the newly restructured board, the recently approved strategic enrollment plan was introduced.

The changes are a result of observations made by Williams as well as other members of the board, including William T. Young Jr. and Norwood Cowgill.

“We all sort of sensed that we needed to look and decide whether we had the best structure or whether it was something else,” Young said in an interview with The Rambler.

Young created an ad hoc committee which consisted of Cowgill and several other board members to address this quandary.

Williams attended several conferences over the past two years, where seminars were held on the size and functions of college governance bodies. Also taken into consideration was a canvas of the boards of 12 colleges considered both peer and academic research institutions, which suggested the typical range of members be between 32 and 36.

After meeting over six times to discuss the particulars, the committee presented its findings to the board at large and the change was initiated.

“The overarching theme that ties the restructuring of the board in with everything else that we are doing is that we have to position ourselves in all respects in a fashion that allows us to achieve our objectives. And the objective is to become a Tier One liberal arts college,” said Williams.

“Tier One” refers to schools ranked Nos. 1 through 50 on the U.S. News and World Report list of top liberal arts colleges. Currently, Transy is ranked in the second tier, which contains Nos. 51 through 104.

Williams has high hopes for the impact that this change will have on campus.

“A greater level of board engagement will make Transylvania an even better institution so that hopefully, Transylvania will offer more resources and more programs of the sort that drew (students) here in the first place,” Williams said.

Both Williams and Young expressed the hope that this new structure would lend itself to a greater amount of discussion concerning issues facing the university and a greater usage of the expertise of the board.

“(Before the change) we really didn’t use all of the talents of our board members,” Young said. “Based on our first meeting (of the newly restructured board), we’ve started that.”

The next meeting is scheduled for February 2012.


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