Breaking into Colgate’s Inner Circle

People who are familiar with higher education in America know that most college leaders are obsessed with raising money rather than spending it well (as a new Pope Center paper shows). They also know that college trustees are usually content to give them a free hand.

Weak oversight has had bad consequences. Many college alumni hardly recognize their schools these days. Sure, they look the same (or better) on the outside, but on the inside there’s a lot of decay. For that reason, alumni at a number of well-known schools have been trying to get more say in how they are run.

One of them is Colgate University, a private school in Hamilton, NY, with around 2,700 undergraduates. In 2004, a group named A Better Colgate was formed and has been battling ever since to improve the school, mainly through allowing the alumni to elect some of the trustees. (The group’s Web site is

The chairman of A Better Colgate, Charles H. “Tim” Sanford, is an alum, a trustee emeritus, and a significant donor. He maintains that if alumni could elect a “meaningful number” of the trustees, the school’s governance would be improved. If the alumni chose more of the trustees, Sanford says, “the Board would likely be more transparent and more accountable to the ‘shareholders’ of the university. The transparency would lead to greater buy-in on policies on curriculum, residential life, athletics, and social life.”

He also foresees greater accountability, both on the revenue and expense sides of the budget.

The pressure from A Better Colgate comes at a time when the school is experiencing increasing difficulties. Colgate is one of the most expensive universities in the country, costing students more than $52,000 in the 2009-10 academic year. Applications are down 17 percent for the next incoming class. Donor participation among alumni has also been falling, from 55 percent in 2003 to 46 percent in 2008.

A Better Colgate points to glaring inefficiencies. Christine Burtt, executive administrator,
reports that in the 2008 graduating class, 21 of the 53 majors had seven or fewer students and that recent library construction was nearly 50 percent over budget and two years behind schedule.

But the Board of Trustees seems to be asleep at the switch. In 54 board meetings from 1996 to 2008, there is only one recorded vote where a trustee cast a vote in opposition to administrative plans, says Burtt.

Currently, Colgate is in the midst of a $400 million capital campaign, but Sanford observes that the administration’s “send money and don’t ask any questions” message is not playing very well.

Despite the university’s mounting problems, the school’s administration isn’t interested in changing the way the trustees are chosen. It has dismissed the call for alumni election of some trustees with facile arguments such as that doing so would be too complicated and expensive and that including some alumni-chosen trustees might make the board “inefficient.”

A more persuasive explanation for the administration’s opposition, I believe, is that the powers-that-be prefer to have a board composed of trustees who merely nod in agreement.

Colgate alums aren’t the first to come up with the idea of having significant alumni input in university governance. Dartmouth, with a tradition of alumni elections, has succeeded in electing several petition candidates who have their own ideas about the school’s direction. Those campaigns aim to break the closed circle of insiders who control the decision-making and prefer not to be questioned.

As the Dartmouth experience indicates, however, administrations have both the motive and means to attack independent trustees—see my comments on the treatment of the alumni-chosen Dartmouth trustee Todd Zywicki.

Thus far, the search for better governance through alumni trustees hasn’t borne much fruit, but there are reasons to believe it can.

First, alumni who have a strong desire to serve the school’s long-run interests are most likely to seek election—people like the “outsider” Dartmouth trustees T.J. Rodgers, Peter Robinson, Steve Smith, and the recently dismissed Todd Zywicki.

Second, the reason why the Dartmouth establishment booted Zywicki is a reason to think that alumni-chosen trustees have an important role to play. They are apt to be independent-minded people, so having even a few of them on the board can be a counterweight to the power of the president.

Trustees like that can insist on transparency. If a college board consists solely of trustees selected because they’re friendly toward the president, board meetings will be somnolent affairs with no controversy and almost no one in the university community will know. However, even one free-thinking trustee can, in this day of email, let huge numbers of alumni, students, parents, and others who are interested in administrative decisions know what’s going on. Light can flood the dark meeting rooms.

Many alumni have a strong desire to see their school’s academic integrity upheld and its funds used wisely. Trustees they choose are more likely to be activists than potted plants.

I wish good fortune to A Better Colgate and hope that in the near future the Pope Center will be able to report on the success of its campaign.