Board Plan

When Victoria Aghababian Wicks ’74 was appointed to the Board of Trustees in 1989, she assumed her new responsibilities gradually. As she familiarized herself with Bates’ history, mission, and policies, she deferred to the judgments of the board veterans who had served the College for decades. “I didn’t say much at first,” says Wicks of the thrice-yearly board meetings. “It took time before I really hit my stride.”

Marjorie “Kitty” Friedman ’95 and Quoc Tran ’95. Photograph by Phyllis Graber Jensen

Quoc Tran ’95, by contrast, hit the ground running when he was appointed to the board last summer. “[President] Elaine Hansen really encouraged the new trustees to jump right in and ask questions and challenge assumptions,” says Tran, an investment counselor with Lateef Management Associates of Greenbrae, Calif. With two meetings of the full board and several committee sessions under his belt, he has already identified a personal priority: supporting the Investment Committee’s mission to manage and grow Bates’ modest $200 million endowment. “If I can help grow the principal through prudent investments, it’s more than I or my classmates can contribute personally.”

The difference between Wicks’ and Tran’s novice trustee years has less to do with personalities than with the board’s changing age demographic (it’s younger) and, recently, sweeping governance changes affecting the structure of the Bates board, how trustees get appointed, and, most obvious to those coming on the board, its culture.

“We want to encourage new trustees to ‘own’ the board from the second they come on,” says President Elaine Tuttle Hansen.

Gone is the somewhat hierarchical, bicameral board that gave long-term appointments, to age 70, to its Board of Fellows and five-year terms to the Board of Overseers. In its place is a unicameral board with term limits for all. The result, say Bates trustees who worked on the governance changes, is an emerging board culture that promotes the recruitment of fresh and varied talent and encourages rookie Bates trustees — like Quoc Tran — to enter the big tent ready for quick involvement.

“I’m feeling pretty good about it,” says Wicks, who actually favored maintaining the status quo when the Committee on Board Governance, which she chaired, first took up the issue of governance structure in 2002. “We brought in five trustees [including Tran] this past fall and they have made terrific contributions already.”

What has not changed, say Wicks and others, is what it takes to be a good Bates trustee: a passion for Bates and the value of a liberal arts education; a manner that is collegial yet candid, bringing varied personal and professional perspectives that strengthen the board; and leadership in philanthropy and the engagement of others in fund raising.

Trustees are, according to board chair Burton Harris ’59, engaged in everything important when it comes to the “operation and future” of the College. While they serve in many tangible ways, from hiring the president to offering guidance on matters legal, financial, managerial, and academic, they also nurture an ideal — the egalitarian culture that Bates has long enjoyed.

That culture, which values social inclusion and individual expression while shunning pretension and self-promotion, was a motivating force and guiding principle when the trustees began evaluating the College’s historical governing structure. The bicameral board comprised 15 fellows serving to age 70, plus 25 overseers serving five-year terms. Two of the five overseers appointed annually were elected by means of an alumni-wide ballot; their terms were typically not renewed. When a fellow retired, the board often called upon an experienced and/or older overseer to fill the slot.

Bicameral management was once common among the nation’s venerable academic institutions; some, including Harvard and Brown universities, still operate that way. At Bates, whatever distinctions once existed between the two chambers had been erased as joint committees grew in power. “As a practical matter, there was no difference between what fellows and overseers did,” says Burton Harris, who is a lawyer and furniture maker from Swampscott, Mass. “They were always acting together, and there was no distinction other than this artificial one.”

Some trustees felt that bestowing the privilege of tenure upon a select group of fellows was “un-Batesie-like,” Harris adds. “We pride ourselves in being equal for everyone and having no special rights.”

Indeed, that the fellows possessed a kind of senatorial mystique was “eye-opening” to the fellows themselves, Wicks says. The director of public policy for the global pharmaceutical firm sanofi-aventis, Wicks served as an overseer before being elected to the Board of Fellows in 1996. In fact, when she joined the board in 1989, the average age of the fellows was over 60. Now the full board’s average age is about 54, and dropping. Though a culture of mentorship existed thanks to trustees like Roger Schmutz ’54, young overseers also felt they had to earn their stripes and that “fellows were privy to information that the overseers didn’t have. It seemed inappropriate given Bates’ tradition of egalitarianism,” she says.

The structure “just didn’t fit,” agrees Bruce Stangle ’70, chairman and co-founder of the Boston-based consulting firm Analysis Group, who sat on the Board of Overseers for seven years and was named a fellow just before the Committee on Board Governance recommended the shift to a unicameral system. “Bates has a commitment to a collegial environment, where there are no special frills. There are no fraternities, no special status. Men or women, rich or poor, every race — we’re all Batesies.”

The bicameral system had pluses, of course, among them those 15 seasoned fellows. In the 1990s, as Bates experienced explosive expansion in reputation, facilities, and programs, it did so with a remarkably unchanging board: Every fellow but one who was serving in 2002 was also a fellow or overseer back in 1992.

“Bates benefited from hard work from people who had a long relationship with the College,” including household Bates names like Papaioanou and Moody, says Wicks. “They formed a bond that delivered real value to the College and to themselves. I’d seen them support the College in powerful ways and felt we risked losing those benefits.” Both viewpoints were debated in Bates fashion — passionately yet respectfully — and when it became clear that a significant majority of trustees favored change, the traditionalists readily got behind it. “We knew it was the will of the board,” Wicks says.

The fellows and overseers officially merged into a 40-member unicameral Board of Trustees on July 1, 2004. All trustees now serve up to two consecutive five-year terms. “We had a pretty diverse board before,” Stangle observes, “but there was less turnover. We will now have more mobility on the board. Over time it will enable more alumni engagement. It’s brought people together so that no one feels excluded from any conversation, whereas there may have been that perception before — ‘I’m not a fellow yet; I’m just a junior member.’”

The latest changes culminate years of self-critical board posture that may have begun with Bob Kinney ’39, who became an overseer in the early 1960s, when the average age of the Board of Fellows was around 73. Board chair William B. Skelton, Class of 1892, was age 92 when he ultimately left the board — –by passing away — in 1964.

Kinney, who advanced to board chair in 1979, pushed the trustees to institute a retirement age of 70. As he said in an interview for the Bates Oral History Project, referencing the need for age limits, “Youth [keeps] the organization healthy.” The quest for improved board performance continued under chair Jim Moody ’53 in the 1990s with growth in the scope and depth of committee work. Also under Moody, the College gained the right to modify its charter (a right previously held by the Maine Legislature), a change that would make far easier the major governance changes in 2004.

President Hansen, who arrived at Bates in 2002, has witnessed the board’s self-critical style in action. “It’s a joy to work with a board that is so open to change and one that features such a dynamic tradition of leadership,” Hansen says. She points to what management guru David Nadler, CEO of Mercer Delta Consulting, has written about effective boards: They must “think aspirationally and act practically.” Says Hansen, “We have, in the best sense, an activist board. They aspire to the highest educational and ethical ideas, and they unfailingly act to support the College’s pursuit of these lofty goals.”

As part of the governance changes in 2004, the trustees teamed with the Alumni Council to eliminate what had become a troublesome alumni trustee election. Traditionally, two overseers annually were elected from a ballot of four candidates, thus the process inflicted a disappointing experience on those who ran unsuccessfully. “In effect, you had two losers every year, which was not good,” Harris says. “Most alumni didn’t vote — less than 10 percent at any given time. And the process didn’t pay attention to the needs of the College at the time.”

Now, an expanded Alumni Council, the governing body of the Alumni Association, evaluates potential trustee candidates and directly nominates two for board approval.

“We work more closely with the Alumni Council so we’re able to find the right people at a given time,” Harris says. “We can better address the geographical and professional diversity of the board and reach out to alumni who are already making significant contributions to the College.”

Such as Marjorie “Kitty” Friedman ’95 of Dallas, Texas. A lawyer and at-home mother of three, she arrived on campus for her first board meeting last October with 6-week-old Molly in her arms. When mom was in meetings, Molly was “the recipient of fabulous Batesie babysitting,” laughs Friedman. Naturally, education is very much on her mind. “I’m interested in what the Bates experience is like for young alumni and students,” she said, “whether they feel engaged and connected, and whether they understand the importance of giving to Bates. I want to see the College thrive academically and financially.”

Noting that Bates’ endowment is considerably less than those of peers like Bowdoin, Amherst, and Williams colleges, Friedman believes fund raising demands a candid approach. “We’re educating alumni to the needs of the College. It’s okay to ask alumni to help and to express our needs as they really are. It’s an exciting step. The education component is as important as raising the money.”

At that first trustee meeting, Friedman and Quoc Tran together heard President Hansen encourage new trustees to participate as early in their terms as possible.

“I felt as comfortable in my first two trustee meetings as I have at any Bates event,” Friedman says. “It was deeply rewarding to be in a room with 40 other people who are so engaged with Bates and who bring to the table many different perspectives and talents.”
“I don’t feel as though Quoc and I are the youngest because everyone encourages us to share our experiences and perspectives,” she adds. “Each trustee has treated me as I would treat any other Batesie. It’s a true extension of the Bates community.”

Freelance writer Virginia Wright lives in Cumberland, Maine.