While the University’s Board of Trustees is often mentioned around campus, few students actually understand what this important group does. For some, the Board conjures notions of well-to-do businesspeople whose successes and influence are rewarded with a position on the University’s ultimate decision-making body. In one press release after another, the University cites the board when announcing the appointment of a top University administrator, the selection of an architect for a major building project, and the final decision on controversial proposals such as the recent divestment decision.
Because the members of the Board of Trustees are entrusted with promoting the University’s public face in the broader realms of business, academia, and government, selected members reflect the highest levels of success in these fields. Current and recent members of the board include the governor of New Jersey, the former president of the New York Times Company, and the former CEO of Paramount Pictures. These sorts of titles are also helpful when it comes to fulfilling the expectation that members “provide financial support, as well as leadership in fundraising, to support the University’s progress.”
Current board chairman James Crown, the public name associated with the trustees’ decisions, illustrates the relationship with trustees that the University relishes. Despite having no direct academic affiliation or history with the U of C, Crown’s family, worth several billion, has been a longtime financial supporter of University efforts. The Henry Crown Field House was adorned with the name of the family patriarch after James Crown’s father, Lester Crown, donated $1.5 million for its renovation in 1975. Through the years, the family has continued to provide significant financial backing. Most recently, a personal donation by James Crown helped establish the $200,000 Darfur Action and Education Fund to support projects aimed at shedding light on the Darfur humanitarian crisis after the board decided not to divest University funds from companies doing business with the Sudanese government.
Under the University’s Provisions of Bylaws and Statutes, the University as a corporation is governed by a 50-trustee board whose members are elected internally for five-year terms. The Board collaborates with President Robert Zimmer to support long-term University plans and initiatives and to provide oversight and final approval for the University’s major projects, such as major construction or building projects, fundraising initiatives, or communication efforts.
Aside from selecting the University’s president, provost, and vice presidents, the Board also reviews annual expenditures and approves the University capital and operating budgets. It also determines how University funds should be invested and ensures that investments and gains are handled according to established policies. The Board’s role in this capacity explains why it was ultimately up to the Board of Trustees last year to decide whether or not to divest.
Arguably one of the Board’s most important functions is to lead efforts for University development. (Translation: raising money). Many of the delays and setbacks in the completion of the new dormitory, as well as the new arts center, stemmed from the University’s inability to attract donors willing to shell out the money. The success of former President Don Randel’s Chicago Initiative and of ambitious plans recently hinted at by Zimmer (a potential new hospital, the development of engineering programs, and a revitalization of arts programs) may turn on Board members’ abilities to court potential donors and represent the University as a viable investment. Recent major donations for financial aid, the arts center, and the Graduate School of Business have been major successes in this respect.
The Board’s corporate nature and behind-the-scenes operations may create the sense among students, faculty, and perhaps even the administration that a disconnect exists between the Board and the needs and voices of the University’s academic sphere. Zimmer’s creation last year of the position of the Secretary of the Board of Trustees—who will serve as liaison between the Board and the administration—indicates that there may have been significant communication issues between the two realms. And while there is no official role for students within the corporate governing body, those interested in expressing their opinions to Board trustees can work through Student Government liaisons to the board.