A Better Colgate, Better Elections?

Kate Preziosi

At the Board of Trustees’ annual open meeting Saturday, the independent alumni group known as A Better Colgate presented two boxes of 1,538 signed petitions calling for the direct alumni election of a “meaningful number” of members to the Board of Trustees.

Dr. Peggy Ward ’88, Greg Narag ’89 and Curt Balch ’01 made the presentation on behalf of A Better Colgate. Their top priority was to explain that the only objective of this group is to change the corporate bylaws to allow for alumni to have a greater say in the election of Board members. Narag suggested that the “just send a check and trust us” message that he feels the Board sends to alumni has not been effective in positively engaging them as a group. Balch followed up by arguing that if the alumni were given this direct connection with the Trustees, they would be more likely to contribute financially.

A Better Colgate was founded as Students & Alumni for Colgate Inc.by Tim Sanford ’58, Colgate trustee emeritus, in opposition to the University buy-out of Greek houses. While the group continues to raise concerns about issues such as capital construction, faculty hiring and endowment management in its newsletters, its members maintain that they have no agenda beyond pushing for these alumni elections to take place.

Executive Administrator of A Better Colgate Christine Burtt, who did not attend Colgate, explained that she felt this change in procedure would improve communication between the Board and the alumni, and would improve transparency in Colgate’s administrative affairs including its operating budget.

“We believe that better accountability to those who fund the school will help drive alumni engagement,” she said. “This could mean higher donor participation.”

Sanford referenced Dartmouth College, which in recent years has allowed the direct alumni election of some of its trustees, as an example of how fundraising could be improved at Colgate through their proposal.

“I’d like to note that Dartmouth’s alumni giving is 60 percent,” Sanford said. “The alumni also now elect one third of Dartmouth’s Board of Trustees. At Colgate, depending on what numbers you look at, alumni giving is roughly 40 percent. While there isn’t necessarily a direct connection, this indicates that this could be an area to improve fundraising. The bottom line is that one of Colgate’s greatest weaknesses is its low endowment.”

Chairman of the Board of Trustees Christopher Clifford ’67 said that he had personally looked at some data behind this theory, but hadn’t found the evidence overwhelming.

“I can’t say that we have looked at it in any sort of methodical way, but I’d be very surprised if you had much correlation with the percentage of trustees selected by direct election and percentage giving. You may have a couple of schools that will prove that point but I think you will also find others that disprove it,” Clifford said.

“I would love it to be true because I want to see greater alumni engagement on all fronts, not just in terms of donations,” Clifford said. “Donations are not unimportant because they assist the school financially and in US News & World Report rankings. I think all alumni benefit from that at least psychologically.”

Clifford explained that in a review of Colgate’s governance conducted by the University Organization Committee of the Board in 2005, the Committee did consider alumni elections as a possible selection method.

“We spent a lot of time looking at the Dartmouth system, and spoke with a lot of people associated with it,” Clifford said. “It’s not as if the election system in general is viewed as an unmitigated success. One obvious problem is that the people who run are generally dedicated alums, and we could end up hurting ourselves by losing these alumni by virtue of their not being elected.”

The Colgate Alumni Council used to be an elected body, but according to Clifford, they amended the selection process after deciding that elections excluded interested alumni.

Interim President Lyle Roelofs said that he did not feel the current process of selecting Board members lacks transparency, and that it is perhaps more visible to the Colgate community than a direct election would be.

“These are highly responsible positions that we’re talking about,” Roelofs said. “We want to be absolutely sure that we know nominees through their active participation in Colgate governance, so that we can have a sense of what they could bring to the job. Direct elections offer no equivalent to that vetting process.”

He added that alumni might not know the nominees they were expected to vote on, a concern that was echoed by some students.

“I’m more interested in promoting certain issues rather than voting for specific Board members,” senior Kate Gundersen said. “As a young alumna, I probably wouldn’t have as much incentive to vote since I wouldn’t be very connected with the people running.”

Strained communications between members of A Better Colgate and the Board of Trustees might hinder the independent group’s goal to form a joint Trustee Election Workgroup that would consider the feasibility of their proposal. Burtt acknowledged that the reception the group received at Saturday’s meeting was not welcoming.

“I think the Board members were hostile and generally not very open to input. It was clear from some of the questions we received that many of the Trustees misinterpreted our message,” Burtt said.

Clifford acknowledged that there might be barriers to meaningful communication between the two groups, given A Better Colgate’s previous agenda as Students & Alumni for Colgate Inc.

“I can understand how there could be some perception of hostility and mistrust given the history over the last ten years with this group [that is] proposing this change. I have certainly tried to treat them with respect as I would any group of alumni or any other constituency,” Clifford said.

He added that he hopes to respond to A Better Colgate’s request to form the joint Trustee Election Workgroup by the end of November.

Sanford said that while he hopes the Board will respond positively, he is poised for a long debate. In the meantime, he feels confident that the alumni support base for A Better Colgate is only getting stronger. Based on varying Colgate statistics on the number of alumni, the group claims to represent six to eight percent of all graduates. Many have attended a reunion weekend and more than 500 have extended financial support to A Better Colgate.

“I think we have alumni support. If the Trustees don’t agree with our proposal, then we’ll keep trucking. We’re at the beginning of a game that could have any number of innings,” Sanford said.