Sunday, 26 February 2017
September / October 2009
From David Skorton
Alumni and University Governance
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Thursday, 27 August 2009

The question alumni ask me most frequently is, "What can we do to help?" My answer is, "Engage me, critique our actions, and help us guide the ship." Although thoughtful and appropriately directed financial support is a hugely important part of alumni engagement at Cornell, resulting in one of the most successful philanthropic programs in the country, I genuinely believe that alumni participation in determining the direction of the University is equally important. It's the reason alumni serve on the advisory councils for all of our colleges and schools and many of our programs and academic departments. It is also why I write this column and include my e-mail address at the bottom, and the reason we have initiated monthly online conversations with alumni throughout the U.S.

The most visible and powerful form of alumni participation in guiding the course of the University is membership on the Board of Trustees. In these difficult times, when colleges and universities are striving to balance budgets yet maintain excellence—and when there is intense concern about integrity in for-profit and nonprofit enterprises alike—the fiduciary oversight and programmatic guidance provided by trustees is more critical than ever.

ImageCornell is fortunate to have remarkably talented and committed individuals, largely alumni, on our Board of Trustees, led by our chair, Peter Meinig '61, BME '62. In all, we have sixty-four voting members, including those elected by key stakeholders: alumni, faculty, students, and staff. This participation in governance by the main stakeholders is remarkable, if not unique, in my experience.

The Board of Trustees is ultimately responsible for the oversight of all policies and actions of the University, with day-to-day responsibility for leadership and management delegated to me and, in turn, to my senior colleagues in Ithaca, at Weill Cornell Medical College, and wherever Cornell has a presence around the world. The resulting partnership, in typical Cornell fashion, is serious, insightful, straight-from-the-shoulder, sometimes rough-and-tumble, and—most important—generally quite effective. I thank my colleagues on the board for exemplary guidance and partnership from the beginning of my presidency and particularly in the past year, as the magnitude of our financial dilemma unfolded.

How does Cornell stack up against other colleges and universities in its approach to institutional governance? A recent survey of nearly 700 university presidents, chancellors, and board professionals by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges ( found that governing boards were becoming more engaged and effective, but also highlighted areas that needed improvement. A little over half of the boards surveyed monitor finances through specialized audit committees. At Cornell, audit, investment, finance, and executive committees, in partnership with senior management, participate collectively and interactively in monitoring of financial planning, execution, and controls.

Cornell's board is among the nearly 90 percent nationally that have conflict-of-interest policies. With support from the chairs of the Board of Trustees and the Board of Overseers of Weill Cornell Medical College, I have appointed a joint Ithaca/New York City task force, co-chaired by David Hajjar, senior executive vice dean of WCMC and dean of the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences, and Robert Buhrman, senior vice provost for research in Ithaca, to review our conflict disclosure policies and procedures for employees and board members to ensure that they are optimally effective.

Nationally, the recruitment and orientation of board members were seen as areas for improvement. Thanks to our Committee on Board Membership, Committee for Alumni Trustee Nominations, and college councils, Cornell is fortunate to have a steady stream of superb trustees. We also conduct a comprehensive orientation program for new trustees, including a dayand-a-half of formal orientation as well as assignment of a mentor (a current board member) for each "rookie."

Where do we go from here?

Although I am very comfortable with our board and gain enormously from our partnership, even at Cornell we need to pay continuing attention to the efficiency and effectiveness of board processes and the interactions between the board and our senior leadership team. Pete Meinig, the senior staff, and I are working to improve these processes and interactions through the strategic planning process. I have full confidence that our superb governance model will only improve. We will keep you informed and will count on your continuing engagement through the University Council, various advisory councils and other alumni bodies, discussions at alumni events, and our online conversations.

As always, please let me hear from you—and thanks.

— President David Skorton
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Comments (3)Add Comment
written by bill cox, September 09, 2009
Are there term limits for trustees? If not, why not?
PhD 87
written by Bibi Singh, September 10, 2009
Dear David,

Your sincerity shines through.

Thanks for all that you do - we will be one of the truly great global universities.

PhD '87
written by Harry R. Albers, September 10, 2009
I would like to be considered for a trustee position. I have held senior management positions at San Diego State University, Barnard College, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), and the Smithsonian Institution. Expertise in research management and financial administration are among my areas of expertise. Cornell gave much to me, and in these troublesome times I would like to give something back. Thank you. Harry

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Last Updated ( Thursday, 27 August 2009 )