Report on the January Board of Trustees Meeting

Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff,

I am writing to report on the Brandeis board meeting, which was held on January 17-18. This was the second meeting held under the new committee structure and orientation, which emphasizes in-depth pre-meeting readings and preparation, and more in-meeting discussion.

The board considered four resolutions in its plenary sessions, all of which came out of committee deliberations. Two resolutions came from the Academy Committee — one a recommendation on the promotion to full professor of a faculty colleague, the other on supporting a change in the Faculty Handbook regarding who presides at the faculty meeting. The third resolution came from the Resources Committee — to approve a $50M bond issue primarily to cover the cost of the new residence hall that will replace the Castle (not including Towers A and B), and the fourth came from the Nominating and Governance Committee, which proposed two by-law amendments.

The board meetings began, as is custom, with a meeting of the Coordination Committee — a committee comprised of the committee chairs and co-chairs; the chair and vice chairs of the board; the president, who is also a voting member of the board; and one of the faculty representatives to the board. This opening meeting of the Coordination Committee allows for a review of the agenda for the two days of meetings. Such a review allows committee chairs and co-chairs to hear and discuss the agendas of each committee and become aware of issues that might be germane to other committees’ deliberations. Following the Coordination Committee meeting, the board held a working lunch, during which Dean of Arts and Sciences Susan Birren gave a high-level summary of the work to date of the task force that is reviewing the undergraduate general education requirements. Dean Birren’s presentation provided a foundation and context for the board dinner, which took place later that evening, the details of which I summarize later in this report.

Following lunch, two committees met concurrently for two and a half hours. The Institutional Advancement Committee met and discussed the following topics: fund-raising activity for the first six months of the year; the importance of “planned giving” to the long-term fiscal health of the university; revisions to our gift acceptance policy; and ways to build stronger relationships between students and the university, with the goal of strengthening alumni philanthropic commitment to Brandeis. At the same time, the Resources Committee met and discussed the Finance and Administration division’s agenda for the year. This agenda will include: preparing for a $50M bond issuance; submitting a balanced budget for FY18 with a reduced reliance on endowment revenue; overseeing the construction of the new residence hall; developing strategic plans for Information Technology and Human Resources; and selecting a new Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system for the university.

After a brief break, the second set of committees met, again for two and a half hours. The Academy Committee heard a wide-ranging report from Provost Lisa Lynch, which gave the trustees a sense of the major issues and activities on campus since the November board meeting. The committee voted to support the promotion of a faculty colleague to full professor; approved changes in the Faculty Handbook (regarding who presides over the faculty meeting); discussed the reorganization of Library and Technology Services; and spent the remainder — and bulk — of the session discussing the ongoing general education review, led by Dean Birren.

Two other committees also met in the afternoon session. The Risk Management and Audit Committee reviewed the Uniform Guidance Audit, which looks at federally funded research and development grants, and received updates on, and had a discussion of, the university’s Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) processes, information security, and our comprehensive insurance program. The Nominating and Governance Committee met and reviewed draft documents on (1) the backgrounds, experiences, and areas of expertise the board needs to be effective, and (2) clarifying the roles and responsibilities of trustees. It also discussed our current trustee assessment process; held preliminary discussions about the renewal of trustees whose terms expire in May; reviewed our current trustee recruitment and vetting procedures; and continued its ongoing discussion of new trustees for consideration at the April meeting. It also approved two amendments to the board’s by-laws — adding a faculty representative to the Coordination Committee and revising the criteria for trustee emeritus/a status.

The trustees dinner that evening focused on the general education review highlighted earlier in the day at the opening lunch and in the Academy Committee. Members of the review committee attended the dinner, with each member leading discussions with trustees, administrators, and student and faculty representatives to the board on the topics the committee had been discussing since late spring. Each of the dinner tables reported out on their discussions, providing feedback to Dean Birren and the committee. Both the trustees and the review committee’s members said the conversations and reports were very helpful. The comments and suggestions remained at a high level and focused on how changes, both internal and external, to the academy since the university’s last major review of the curriculum (23 years ago) should relate to the university’s new general education requirements.

On the second day of the trustees meetings, we began the plenary session with the chairman’s and president’s reports, which typically involve sharing scheduling, and logistical issues and updates. These reports were followed by an open discussion of the previous evening’s dinner conversations. Trustees appreciated hearing and learning about the questions and issues that are shaping Dean Birren’s committee’s work, and noted how they looked forward to an update at the April board meeting.

Reports from each committee came next, with four resolutions (described earlier) proposed and passed. Following the committee reports and votes, I provided an update on Mark Neustadt’s work on internal and external constituent perspectives on Brandeis, including reports from Mark’s first two open campus meetings on his findings. I reported that Mark would continue his work with our Admissions, Advancement, and Communications offices, as well as with Heller, IBS, and Rabb, to help each division and school articulate its identity within the larger university message. I stressed that, within our goal of creating a single narrative about Brandeis, there will be secondary messaging that is specific to each school’s identity and mission.

Following my update on the Neustadt work, the board heard a report on the Task Force on Free Expression. Three trustees are on the task force, and they provided a brief overview of the first two meetings. They noted, to nobody’s surprise, the range of opinion as to how to define free expression today, and how that fits into our goal of being a diverse and inclusive academic community.

The board and senior administration then had lunch and conversation with the faculty and student representatives to the board. The final session, following lunch, was an executive session that included the board and me. During the lengthy executive session, we discussed a number of items. These included: the impact of the presidential election on campus morale (the meeting was held just prior to the Trump inauguration); the university’s reaccreditation self-study; the status of numerous searches on campus; potential candidates for honorary degrees at this year’s Commencement; an update on the financial analysis begun with Kermit Daniel last spring; and plans for “next steps” in the planning process to address the all-too-familiar challenge of wanting to do more than our resources will allow (I will be sharing thoughts on this with the campus in the near future).

And finally, I noted my desire to improve communications between our campus constituencies on the one hand, and the administration and the board on the other, on issues of interest and concern that transcend any particular board committee’s work. I proposed that we put on our agenda, for starters, a way to discuss two issues in particular that I know are of great interest to certain groups on campus: (1) reducing our carbon footprint/divesting from fossil fuels, and (2) reviewing our institutional relationship with Al-Quds University. I am committed to engaging with these two issues on campus in the coming months and then with the board, as necessary. According to my experience, the successful engagement of such topics needs to be well planned, not ad hoc, and needs to allow opinions from all sides to be heard, critiqued, and considered. I look forward to such campus-wide discussions.

As I look back on my first three board meetings, I believe the new board structure is meeting one of its major goals: allowing trustees to be much better informed about key aspects and activities of the university. A better-informed board results in lively, substantive, and informed discussion, and such discussion leads to better governance. The dinner with faculty representatives from the general education review committee was a great success and reflected the board’s strong desire to speak directly to faculty, student, and staff groups about key issues on campus. These kinds of interactions will continue.

As always, if you have any questions, please let me know.

Best regards,

Ron