Report on Jan. 30-31 Board of Trustees Meeting

Feb. 8, 2018

Dear Faculty, Staff, and Students,

Here is a summary of the Board of Trustees meeting, which took place on campus last week from January 30-31.

To open the meeting, the Coordination Committee hosted a faculty group to discuss lingering faculty and staff concerns related to the suspension of employer-matched retirement benefits in 2009-10. (The Coordination Committee consists of the chair of the board, the president of the university, the three vice chairs of the board, the chairs of each of the major committees, and one faculty representative.)

The presentation, along with the ensuing questions and discussion, was respectful and direct. The trustees appreciated hearing the range and depth of the feelings that have left a chasm between some faculty and staff members and the Board of Trustees. As a result of the discussion, I will convene a small group of faculty, staff, and administrators to establish a process to propose ways to redress what happened nearly a decade ago. I recognize there will be many viewpoints on how best to redress what happened. Yet, whatever we do, I recognize that the most important thing will be to find ways to build or rebuild trust between faculty and staff on the one hand, and administration and board on the other.

Following the Coordination Committee meeting, undergraduate and graduate students from across the university met with trustees for a working lunch. Students were asked to convey to the trustees their major concerns — issues they believe the board should be aware of and take up at future meetings. After small-group discussions during lunch, the students formed a panel and spoke to the full board, highlighting, in particular, the financial, housing, counseling, transportation, and communications challenges many students face. The panel offered some solutions, and the presentation will inform the upcoming process to assess student life on campus — one of the four major strategic priorities that came out of the self-reflective exercise, and multiple meetings and conversations over the past year.

After the student panel, the committees held their regular two-hour meetings in two time blocks. The Nominating and Governance Committee — whose responsibility it is to oversee and uphold the bylaws of the institution, and to recommend to the full board the names of new trustees — met and proposed two resolutions for the full board. The first had to do with allowing the treasurer of the university to become a staff position (as opposed to a board member), and the second would grant the president the authority to delegate his or her signatory authority to others without prior board approval. In addition, the committee reviewed and revised its own mandate, proposed an annual review of all committee mandates, reviewed a proposal for a comprehensive trustee orientation program, discussed the need for a comprehensive review of the university’s bylaws, and spent a good deal of its time on new trustee recruitment. The committee expects to bring candidates to the board for consideration at its next meeting, in April.

The Resources Committee discussed the mission, vision, and strategic goals of the university’s Division of Administration and Finance (which were shared with the community in open meetings during the fall semester and will be posted on the EVP website); heard a presentation from CFO Sam Solomon on the potential ramifications for the university of the new tax legislation; received an update on our current-year budget (operating results, capital budget, and cash position); discussed future debt restructuring plans; was briefed on the FY19 (next year’s) budget process; heard from Vice President Robin Nelson-Bailey on the status of the Human Resources strategic plan implementation as well as the launching of the Brandeis University Staff Advisory Committee; and took a tour of the new residence hall under construction, as well as one of the older first-year dorms (Scheffres, in North Quad), to highlight the improvements in residence hall construction and architectural design.

The Academy Committee heard a report from Provost Lisa Lynch that included a summary of her office’s key goals for the academic year; an update on the university’s self-study in preparation for its decennial reaccreditation next fall; a progress report on integrating student life with academic life under the purview of the Office of the Provost; updates on the two searches underway for the deans of IBS and Arts and Sciences; and updates on teaching and research innovation awards, the new “pathways to retirement” plan for faculty, and our Center for Teaching and Learning.

The committee then considered three promotion cases (from associate professor with tenure to full professor); discussed the renaming of two degree programs, from Master of Arts in Computer Science and Computational Linguistics to Master of Science; and heard presentations and engaged in a long discussion about the new general education requirements. The committee forwarded three resolutions to the full board for its consideration in the plenary session (the details of which are included below).

The Risk Management and Audit Committee heard a report on the ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning)/Workday implementation now underway. This is a multiyear project, with the first software module (Finance and Human Resources) scheduled to be in use in January 2019. The implementation of the Student Module will follow. The committee heard two internal audit reports, the status of a safety and security review of the campus, and a review of the Brandeis Business Conduct Statement. It discussed the need to learn best practices for the potential rescinding of honorary degrees, as current bylaws are silent on the topic. Finally, the committee met in executive session with KPMG (the university’s auditors), the internal auditor, and senior management.

The Institutional Advancement Committee heard an update about fundraising for the current year. Donations by alumni and parents have increased compared to last year; gifts from friends and corporations/foundations have decreased slightly. Our trustees continue to be generous supporters of the university. The committee received reports from our Corporations and Foundations office and our Alumni Relations office, both of which reported increased activity in proposals in the pipeline (to corporations and foundations) and alumni engagement (trips, club events, presidential meetings).

Following the committee meetings, the trustees had dinner with 15 faculty, all relatively new to Brandeis, divided evenly among the dinner tables. The discussions focused on their lives at Brandeis, the details of which were discussed in an open session of the board the next morning. Trustees were uniformly impressed with both the impressive credentials of the faculty, and the enthusiasm and energy they bring to their teaching, research, and creative endeavors.

Much of Wednesday morning was devoted to a full two-hour discussion of the new general education requirements. Dean of Arts and Sciences Susan Birren gave the trustees a review of the 18-month process that led to the proposal, including surveys of students, faculty, and alumni/ae; several open meetings; and discussions with division heads, administrators, and, midway through the process, the Board of Trustees. She highlighted the goals and framework of the new general education requirements, how they differ from current requirements, and how the implementation and assessment would unfold.

The discussion was thorough. The major concern raised was whether the new “diversity, equity, and inclusion” requirement would meet the goals it intends to achieve. No one questioned the value of having such a requirement; the issues under discussion were the categorization of the set of courses that would fulfill the requirement and the process to be used to approve the courses that would meet the requirement. Since November, trustees on the Academy Committee have engaged the issue with great passion and thoughtfulness, and, after the two-hour discussion, the board voted unanimously to support the new curricular proposal. Provost Lynch and Dean Birren will share with the faculty the concerns some of the trustees expressed and their suggestions for addressing them.

Nick Warren, our chief investment officer, gave an hour-long presentation (“Endowment 101”) on how his office, with the assistance of the board’s Investment Committee, manages the university’s endowment. The main takeaways from his presentation were: 1) our investment portfolio is “low risk” compared to our peers; 2) despite its low risk — which means our “highs,” or gains, will not be as impressive as other portfolios, and our “lows,” or losses, will not be as great — our returns have been in the top 30 percent of endowments of our size over the past decade; and 3) about 95 percent of our investments are through fund managers, meaning we directly invest only 5 percent of our assets. We plan to offer a similar presentation for the campus this semester.

The final session before the plenary meeting was a presentation by students and faculty (from Brandeis Climate Justice and Faculty Against the Climate Threat) regarding divestment of fossil fuels from the university’s endowment. A Q&A session and discussion followed the presentation. As a follow-up, I will appoint a committee of faculty, staff, students, and trustees — eight individuals in all — to respond to two trustee requests: 1) to review and summarize the range of issues and tradeoffs considered and acted upon by peer institutions; and 2) to consider a range of short-term and longer-term actions we might take (e.g., short-term: divesting our direct energy investment; longer-term: removing fossil fuels from all our holdings; or doing nothing in both the short and the longer term). My hope is that this committee will be up and running by February 15 and will have a report ready for the April trustee meeting.

The plenary session of the board meeting followed the fossil-fuel divestment discussion. Each committee provided a summary of its Tuesday meeting, followed by the consideration of five resolutions. The Nominations and Governance Committee forwarded two resolutions. First, the committee proposed a change in the bylaws converting the position of treasurer of the university from a board position to a staff position. And second, the committee proposed a bylaw change that would allow the president of the university to delegate his signatory authority without prior board approval. The full board passed both resolutions unanimously.

The Academy Committee brought forward three resolutions. The first was to approve the promotion from associate professor with tenure to full professor for Aida Wong (Fine Arts), Janet McIntosh (Anthropology), and Yu-Hui Chang (Music). The second resolution was to change the MA degrees in Computer Science and Computational Linguistics to MS degrees. And the third resolution, and the one that generated the most discussion, was the general education proposal. All three resolutions were approved unanimously. Please join me in congratulating Professors Wong, McIntosh, and Chang on their promotions.

The final session of the board meeting was an executive session with only trustees present. I provided updates to the board on a number of issues, including the status of planning for Brandeis’ future; the framing of an upcoming “gaps analysis,” which will include estimates of both physical and human resource deficits; the status of honorary degree invitations; and a number of confidential personnel matters.

The highlights of the trustee meeting, from my perspective, were the robust discussion and passage of the new general education requirements; the mutually respectful airing of faculty and staff perspectives on lingering issues of trust and transparency; the valuable conversations the trustees had with 15 faculty over dinner; the presentation on and proposal for fossil fuel divestment; and the student lunch and panel, from which the board learned about the financial, social, infrastructural, and mental health challenges many students face. I want to thank the many administrators, staff, faculty, and students who contributed in many ways to make the meeting a success.


Ron Liebowitz