The view from the top at the U of C

By Seth Mayer

Have you ever wanted to lower tuition? Elect the president? Build some new buildings on campus? Invest University money in something? Divest it from something? Just allocate some funds?

In the bureaucratic structure of the University administration, there is a high council able to make these decisions: the Board of Trustees. Its role, as set forth in the Articles of Incorporation of the University, is expressed in the statement, “The acts of the Board of Trustees shall be the acts of the corporation for all purposes.”

But how would one go about joining this elite group?

One way of answering this question is to look at how the current board of 48 trustees breaks down.

If you’re trying to figure out what job to take in order to end up on the board, the private sector is your best bet. Thirty-seven of the trustees come from the business, corporate, and development worlds. Six are involved in non-profit organizations, government, or think tanks, while three are lawyers, and two work in education.

The way that trustees are chosen varies, said trustee King Harris. “Alumni suggest people; sometimes board members have ideas,” he said. “My uncle, Irving Harris, who was a trustee and a great supporter of the University, urged me to consider getting involved in the U of C.”

Being rich would not hurt your odds. The number of trustees coming from the world of for-profit enterprise can be partly explained by the financial giving associated with being on the board. For example, as of last November, trustees have given more than $11 million toward undergraduate scholarships as part of the Chicago Initiative.

“Nobody said to me when I joined that there was a specific financial requirement,” Harris said. However, “all of us understand that if there’s any way we can support the University, we should,” he added.

Graduating from the U of C isn’t a prerequisite. A majority of trustees have either a, A.B., S.B., or M.B.A. from the University, but 13 of them never went to school here.

If you’re much older than 70 you can count yourself out, too; the Articles of Incorporation don’t allow trustees to serve after the annual board meeting following their 70th birthday.

Seven members have names ending in “Jr.” or “III,” but the pictures on the trustee website show only two trustees have facial hair. (One of them is governor of New Jersey.)

The board has only eight female members.

Trustee demographics vary from school to school. At Columbia University, for example, where many trustees also come from the fields of business and law, one third of the 21-trustee board is female.

If none of these suggestions work out, you can always shoot for the less powerful position of Honorary Trustee. It might be a little difficult too, though; the only current ones are former University presidents Don Randel and Hugo Sonnenschein.