Fall 2010 Report on Board Offsite

23 November 2010

Dear members of the Faculty and Staff,

Under the leadership of newly elected Chair Mike Bonney and Vice Chair Alison Bernstein, the Bates College Board of Trustees met for a two-day retreat in lieu of their regular on-campus October 2010 meeting.   To guide the planning and processes of the meeting, the Board formed an ad hoc Steering Committee (comprised of the chair and vice chair together with trustees Michael Chu, Sue Kozik, Sarah Pearson, and Vicky Wicks as well as President Elaine Hansen and Vice President Nancy Cable).  The committee worked with a facilitator (Tom Gilmore of the Center for Applied Research) to design a meeting with the following three goals:

  • First, to attain “alignment” about what it means to be a Bates trustee, including expectations for selection of new trustees, orientation, and communications between the executive committee and the full board.
  • Second, create a shared understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing higher education in general and the College in particular, and how trustees can distinctively join with faculty and administrative leadership in addressing these issues.
  • Third, to develop a plan to leverage board energy and expertise in light of our common purpose and current momentum to make the best strategic decisions in the decades ahead for Bates.

In preparation for the meeting, board members and senior staff members, who were present for most of the meeting, read materials that included a memo from the President about Bates’ key strategic issues for board engagement, a summary of a recent book on board governance (Chait, Ryan, and Taylor, Governance As Leadership: Reframing the Work of Non-Profit Boards, 2005); and a review of the findings of a trustee survey conducted by the Board Governance Committee.

Board members brought high energy and engagement to the meeting as they considered carefully both matters of their own service as trustees and the larger pressures and opportunities just now for Bates College.

The first portion of the meeting highlighted findings from the Board and Trustee Self-Assessment Survey and addressed a series of questions about issues such as clarifying the roles of individual trustees and the board as a whole, attending carefully to new trustee selection and orientation, and utilizing the board’s committee structure most effectively.

Through afternoon sessions on the first day, the board discussed the opportunities provided by this particular moment in the College’s history, marked by the convergence of:

  • planning for curricular initiatives as revealed through the Choices for Bates document;
  • campus-wide Facility Services analysis and planning as summarized in the latest Campus Facilities Master Planning Update;
  • recent re-organization in the admission, financial aid, career development and communications/media relations area to refresh our strategic messages to all external and internal audiences;
  • and recent upgrades in our philanthropic and fund-raising efforts to strengthen the College’s revenue and alumni/donor engagement.

Most notably, the trustees spent considerable time on ways that they can join with the administrative and faculty leadership to strengthen the College’s financial resources, culture of philanthropy, and reputation in higher education in the next decade.

One session engaged all board members in an exercise about the future of Bates, allowing them to raise their various visions for the College and consider its position in global higher education, its points of academic and programmatic distinction, and its fiscal plans for the next decade. This activity brought to light the many and varied talents of the current board members as they engaged one another in “thinking forward” about the Bates’ priorities. Throughout this session, trustees were gaining an appreciation for the trade-offs inherent in leading an institution of Bates quality, history, and complexity.

Several themes emerged at the conclusion of the nearly two days of discussion and work together:

  • First, board members care deeply about supporting Bates by exemplary execution of their roles as fiduciary and philanthropic leaders.  With an eye to being a model of excellence in trustee performance, they agreed to a variety of new approaches to their own work together in the coming year, focusing attention on how board members are chosen and oriented, how individual members can deepen and broaden their modes of participation, how they wish to be held accountable for their commitments, how the executive committee and the chair communicate with the full board, and how  governance matters will be reviewed in the years ahead.
  • Second, board members have confidence in the quality of Bates now, given the excellence of the educational opportunities and the institutional stewardship provided by our faculty, staff, and administration together with the measured progress we have made in the past decade on a number of key priorities, ranging from faculty compensation and curricular planning to financial aid, diversity, and facilities.
  • Third, the trustees confirmed their alignment with and strong encouragement of recent initiatives intended to create a stronger, more distinctive, and differentiated position of visibility and stature for the College as a whole, especially in our admission and advancement efforts.
  • Fourth, they also look forward to informed participation with faculty and administration in thematic discussions about the priorities and opportunities of the College.  Our trustees have abundant energy for becoming more involved in identifying and supporting innovations that will leverage Bates’ historic strengths into the future.

The 2010 Bates Board of Trustees retreat was marked throughout by open, engaged, robust, creative, and reasoned discussion. We are, indeed, fortunate to have among our trustees exceptional talent and deep commitment to leading the College in these challenging times.

Best Regards,

Mike Bonney, Chairman of the Board

Elaine Hansen, President