Report on November Board Meeting

Nov. 29, 2016

Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff,

I am writing to report on the most recent Board of Trustees meeting, which was held during the first week of November.

This was the first meeting conducted under the board’s new governance structure.  There are now fewer standing committees, with greater time dedicated to each committee’s agenda and extensive plenary sessions at which trustees engage with guest presenters and one another on issues of interest to Brandeis, higher education, or both.

The first day of the meetings opened with a follow-up discussion of university finances, which focused on an update of consultant Kermit Daniel’s September presentation to the board and later to the campus community.  Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Stew Uretsky outlined the next steps we will take as we seek to better understand the financial underpinnings of the university, including the relationships between and among our schools, centers, and institutes.  He also explained how such an analysis will relate to our annual year budgeting process.  The purpose of the session was to make sure board members understood why an analysis of financial flows throughout the university was critical to both local (e.g., school, center/institute, program) and university planning.  Stew emphasized that it could not solely be finances that drove the assessment of a school’s, center’s, institute’s, or program’s value to the university; its relationship to our mission, reputation, and aspirations as a leading research university committed to excellence in its undergraduate liberal arts program would be considered as well.  For those in our community who could not attend one of the campus meetings to discuss Kermit Daniel’s report, a summary of the presentation can be found here.

Following Stew’s presentation and subsequent discussion, the full board, faculty and student representatives, and administrators heard a presentation from Mark Neustadt, who shared the results of his five-month study on “perceptions of Brandeis” among multiple constituents.  Mark’s work with focus groups, surveys, and individual interviews identified the challenges the university has had in providing a singular narrative about itself that is clear, consistent, and reflects a depth of confidence one would expect from an institution of Brandeis’ quality and its record of academic accomplishments.  Mark’s presentation was much appreciated and well-received, though, to few people’s surprise, there remains a range of opinions as to how best to describe and explain Brandeis to our multiple constituencies: our recent alumni, our early alumni, friends and donors of the university, current students, faculty and staff, prospective students, parents, and others.  Mark will present the results of his work in open meetings on campus on Wednesday, November 30, at 2 p.m. in Levin Ballroom; Thursday, December 1, at noon in Sherman Function Hall; and at an evening meeting in January (date to be determined).  We will use a format similar to the one used for Kermit Daniel’s open meetings on finance held in September.

Faculty guests joined student and faculty representatives to the board at a trustee working dinner, where each table of eight participants discussed the question and status of freedom of expression on university campuses.  Following the discussions, each table had a representative report out on their conversation.  The discussions were open, spirited, and fairly consistent, with no group appearing to be an extreme outlier.  This dinner discussion was a precursor to a campus-wide Presidential Task Force on Free Expression announced last week.

The second day of meetings began with a gathering of the Coordination Committee, the successor to the board’s erstwhile Executive Committee.  The Coordination Committee reviewed and assessed the previous day’s plenary and dinner discussions.  It heard the views of committee members on how the new governance structure was working, and how the new emphasis on pre-board preparation for each session (the “flipping” of committee meetings by having readings done beforehand, saving committee time for longer discussion and exchange) was working.  The sense of committee members was that the previous day’s discussions were well-informed and consistently focused, and though the amount of reading was heavier than in the past, the goals of the board and committee restructuring were being met.

The remainder of the day was devoted to an extended executive session and the first set of committee meetings.  In the executive session, the board and I reviewed my first four months as president and discussed major issues as I saw them in the early stage of my time at Brandeis.  We had in-depth discussions about the financial state of the institution, the need for major strategic investments in the university, governance issues, campus morale, freedom of expression, and the pursuit of an inclusive teaching, learning, and research environment.

The three committees that met on Day 2—the Academy Committee, the Risk Management and Audit Committee, and the Nominating and Governance Committee—reviewed and discussed their new mandates as a result of the new structure of the board and consolidation of several standing committees.  They discussed their anticipated agendas for the coming years, heard updates from their committee chairs and senior administrators, and discussed how their committees would function within the board’s new structure.

The next morning, the final session of the meeting, was devoted to the second block of committee meetings.  The Committee on Institutional Advancement and the Resources Committee, like the other committees a day earlier, reviewed their new mandates, discussed their year’s agendas, and heard reports on the current academic year from various administrators and staff members.

Over the course of the meetings, there was one resolution that came out of the committees’ deliberations.  That resolution came from the Academy Committee, and it involved the recommendations of three faculty promotions from associate to full professor.  Though this was the only resolution that required the consideration and vote of the full board, the November meetings achieved quite a lot—the most important being the successful transformation of the board’s new governance structure, which allowed for sustained and focused discussion on important issues for Brandeis.

The next trustee meeting will be in mid-January.