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On the Corporation, ‘dead white males,’ or diverse perspectives?

Breaking down the U.'s highest governing body

Friday, October 17, 2008

The 53 people who make up the Corporation, Brown’s highest governing body, arrived on College Hill yesterday, as they do three times a year, to review the University’s priorities and meet with top administrators behind closed doors. But its makeup is largely unfamiliar to most on campus.

The governing body, comprised mostly of alums, is roughly two-thirds male and its youngest member is 37. Among its membership are accomplished professionals from a range of fields, University benefactors and parents of current or recent students. Some, including Students for a Democratic Society, a student group that is planning to demonstrate at the Corporation’s meeting tomorrow, consider the body irresponsible, unrepresentative of and unresponsive to the students its decisions affect. But its top official and others associated with the Corporation defend it as a diverse body that is well-equipped with the range of perspectives it needs to guide Brown.

The Corporation consists of a 12-member Board of Fellows, led by President Ruth Simmons and a 42-member Board of Trustees led by Chancellor Thomas Tisch ’76, the Corporation’s top official. One third of the trustees are nominated and elected by the general alumni population, but the rest of the members are selected by the Corporation itself.

Of the Corporation’s 53 members, 46 are alums.

Tisch said he knows many students do not consider the Corporation’s membership very representative of the Brown community. “We have often been accused of being DWMs,” he said – “dead white males.”

But Tisch said he does not think this is an accurate depiction of the current membership. “We’re a very diverse corporation,” he said, though he added, “Some people might say that on certain standards we are not diverse enough.”

Of the 53 members of the corporation, 18 are women. The youngest member is Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal ‘91.5, who is 37.

Jindal is also the most recent undergraduate alum. Trustee Galen Henderson MD’93 graduated from the Medical School but did not attend Brown as an undergraduate.

Tisch did not address the Corporation’s racial diversity.

A range of perspectivesBut diversity comes in many forms, said Russell Carey ’91 MA’06, vice president for corporation affairs and university governance.

“There is a really broad range of people on the Corporation, from sort of the stereotype of investment bankers, to parents, to practicing physicians,” he said. “Throughout those nominating processes, they’re constantly looking at diversity in the broadest sense,” he added, noting the different skill sets and experiences of the members.

For Tisch, a diversity of opinions is one of the most valuable aspects of the Corporation. When looking for new members to fill vacancies, he said, “We take many considerations into account. We think about how we should be sure we have sufficient voices so that we can make good decisions, so that we have varieties of perspectives, varieties of skills and capabilities that fit the needs of the University to move forward.”

One area in which Corporation members have different experiences is the New Curriculum. Of the 45 members of the board who are alums of the College, 36 graduated after the New Curriculum was instated in 1968, and a sizable minority of them were students when it was being proposed and implemented. While Tisch went to Brown in the age of the New Curriculum, his predecessor, Stephen Robert ’62 P’91, predated the student-led overhaul that eliminated many of Brown’s curricular requirements. Robert stepped down last year after nine years as chancellor.

“Basically, the biggest actual divide in the University is between pre-New Curriculum (members) and others,” Tisch said. But this split does not usually factor in Corporation decisions, he added. “I think virtually every member of the Corporation embraces (the New Curriculum) in both its distinctiveness and pedagogical value,” he said.

Bridging the age gapFor all the different perspectives on the Corporation, Tisch said it was “absurd” that there is no member who graduated more recently than the early 1990s. The Undergraduate Council of Students has been in discussions with the Corporation to have a young alum position on the Corporation. The Task Force on Governance, which hopes to make the Corporation’s membership better represent the University, is considering that proposal.

The Corporation is unlikely to reach a decision on adding a young alum this weekend, Carey said.

But Tisch said he hopes that there can be a younger member soon. “Fifteen years out, people think of communicating and interacting in fundamentally different ways,” he said. “To me, it’s not right. It’s not right, and the question is, when we’re thinking about the Task Force, how we go about making ourselves more right.”

Tisch said he feels the Corporation is currently accountable and open to students’ concerns and needs. Some student-led initiatives have become policy recently, he said, including divestment from Darfur and efforts to reduce the University’s carbon footprint.

But Tisch is opposed to adding a current student to the Corporation’s membership because he said he is concerned that no one student can accurately represent the diversity of perspectives. Tisch said meetings between Corporation members and various campus constituencies provide sufficient campus voice in Corporation decisions.

The work of a Corporation memberFor many Corporation members, their involvement is concentrated in the governing body’s three annual meetings in February, May and October.

“There’s a lot of stuff to keep up with, and you try to keep up with the issues,” said Cornelia Dean ’69, a trustee who serves on the Corporation’s Advancement Committee. “Other than that, it’s a lot of what goes on at the meetings.”

But some committees meet more often, especially when an event like the recent financial crisis demands response. Corporation Treasurer Allison Ressler ’80 said the Investment Committee has had several meetings recently to discuss events on Wall Street.

Ressler is also the chair of the Advancement Committee, and she said in preparation for this weekend she has been very busy making an agenda and getting things together. For Ressler, a partner at the law firm Sullivan and Cromwell, her work for the Corporation is “a labor of love.”

For Dean, the best part of the Corporation is dealing with issues she would not otherwise confront in her life as a science reporter for the New York Times. “It’s gratifying to be with people who are devoted to a positive outcome for an institution for which you have affection,” she said.

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