Seeking Direct Trustee Elections

A Better Colgate is the evolution of an independent alumni organization founded in 2004. Over the past several years, our grassroots organization has become the independent voice for alumni, students and parents who are pushing for greater alumni involvement in the governance of Colgate. Specifically, A Better Colgate seeks the direct election of alumni trustees, a practice adopted by many of our peer institutions.

We want Colgate to excel in comparison to its peers and to be a leader in higher education going forward. As an example of what could be better, let’s examine tuition escalation at Colgate since I graduated in 1988. Then, the total student charges were $16,610 and Colgate ranked 13 out of 14 of the least expensive schools in our peer group. 20 years later in 2008, total student charges had accelerated almost three-fold to $46,830 with Colgate ranking as the 3rd most expensive school out of a 20-school peer group. Now, in the 2009-2010 school year, Colgate’s lowest total student charges are $50,940.

Colgate officials have been quick to point out that this is a symptom of higher education and that the relative dollar differential between the most expensive and least expensive schools in the peer group is minimal. As the father of four young children, every relative dollar matters. Moreover, when I calculate my children’s potential tuition bill at Colgate to be more than $1.4 million, I know that Colgate must do better.

These economic issues forced me to begin thinking about ways to become more involved. I joined the Board of Directors of A Better Colgate in 2007 with a simple mission: to foster more alumni involvement, greater accountability and better transparency in the governance of our alma mater.

Now, after years of research, talking with alumni, faculty, students, parents, administrators and trustees, and collaborating with national groups concerned about the integrity of higher education in America, I, and my fellow board members have come to the conclusion that the governance of the school would benefit from more active alumni involvement—like many of our peer schools have.

On October 3, 2009, A Better Colgate, on behalf of our supporters, submitted petitions to the Colgate Board of Trustees during its fall meeting, asking for a bylaws change to allow alumni to directly elect a meaningful number of Trustees. As part of that petition, we proposed the idea of a Trustee Election Work Group—with representatives from A Better Colgate and the administration working together to see how direct alumni elections could benefit the ‘Gate.

The trustees promised to respond to our petition in November. However, they extended their response time by four months. We understood that the trustees wanted the additional time to investigate how elections are held at other schools and to discuss the implications of this potential change in governance. The trustees specifically looked at the Dartmouth Governance Study.

On February 23, 2010, the Chairman of the Board of Trustees advised us that it did not believe it was in the best interests of Colgate to change the bylaws. While we were disappointed in the trustees’ decision to continue the status quo, we appreciated their feedback. Ironically, we feel the Dartmouth Governance Study supports our position. In fact, we believe this study validates the importance of directly electing alumni trustees and hope you will take time to read it.

Our strategy has been to collaborate and work together with the policy-makers at Colgate. We are making a reasonable request of direct alumni engagement to examine this idea of open elections. But, as yet, the trustees are not open to even having a working group to explore the options.

We believe a more robust election process will strengthen the Board and improve alumni engagement. We think the folks who earned a degree and those who fund the institution should have as much of a legitimate say in her future as the employees and selected trustees. Elections would get more people involved and create a sense of fairness.

A Better Colgate has 2,179 self-subscribed alumni on our list of supporters, plus some current students. By way of comparison, about 2,000 alumni attended Reunion 2009.

One recent comment by an alumnus and supporter of our effort captured the sentiment of many: “The Board is a closed corporation beholden to no one and is totally ignorant of market forces expecting better performance with much more reasonable tuition.”

We want a better Colgate and believe the direct election of a meaningful number of alumni trustees will strengthen Colgate’s future. True to Colgate’s DNA, we want to be constructive leaders in helping Colgate to be stronger and more effective.