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September 27, 1999

Report of Board of Trustees Retreat, 7/7/99

The Board of Trustees met at Allerton House on the first day of its two-day July 1999 meeting. It convened in Executive Session, which was scheduled to run from 8:30 until 10:15, with a "Retreat" to begin at 10:30. However, the Executive Session lasted the entire morning; and so those who had gathered to attend (including the three Chancellors, the Vice Presidents, the observers and several reporters) spent the morning cooling their heels.

Finally, at 1:30, after lunch, the "Retreat" began. It was organized in three sessions: (1) Contemporary Governance Issues for University Boards, (2) Strategic Areas of Interest for BOT for 1999-2000, and (3) Structure of the Board and Division of Work of the Board. As things developed, however, topic (1) led naturally into (3), which therefore was taken up before (2).

The first session focused primarily upon the role of the Board Chair. Trustees Gindorf (the new Board Chair) and Gravenhorst and Lamont (former Chairs) made opening comments. Lamont talked about the Chair's leading role in agenda-setting, and in guiding Board discussions, making sure that the things needing to be talked about got talked about. Gravenhorst talked about the importance of facilitating communication among Board members and preparing and orienting new Board members. She also raised the question of whether some sort of regular procedure for selecting Board Chairs might be needed. President Stukel emphasized the importance of the Chair being someone the President could turn to when problems with Board members arise and when leadership on the Board is needed (a take-charge person).

Gindorf raised the question of whether it might be worth considering to move to a "zero-based" Board committee structure, in which the Board considered each year what committees it needed to have that year, rather than having certain committees that were more or less permanent features of the Board. There also was much talk about doing things as a committee of the whole rather than through small committees, and of having Board committee chairs function as "point people" for particular sets of issues rather than as chairs of actual committees, with all such committees being committees of the whole. At the end of the afternoon the Board returned to this idea, at the urging of Gravenhorst, and a motion to adopt this new mode of organization and operation was made, seconded, and passed unanimously.

In the course of this discussion, Lamont urged the Board to act more strongly and decisively on what he called "the three R's": Revenue, Resources, and Relationships. Reese urged the Board to "get its act together" and take a more active role in university affairs, "to avoid being marginalized."

When the Board next turned to the topic initially scheduled to be third (Structure of Board), Engelbrecht began by talking about the role of the Chair making sure that the committees and committee Chairs were doing what they were supposed to be doing. Lamont stressed the importance of communication among Board members; and the radical suggestion was made that they might begin using the fancy computers with which they have been provided to communicate by email (which they are not now doing, because most of them are not accustomed to and comfortable with computers!). Reese complained that they had only been given one hour of instruction in the use of the computers, and therefore could hardly be expected to know how to use them.

The topic of a procedure to select Board Chairs in a more orderly and rational manner again was raised, with Engelbrecht stressing the need to find some way of either acknowledging or getting past the party politics that have long played such a major role in the matter. Gravenhorst suggested that a committee might be needed to study the matter; but nothing came of this idea, and discussion then turned to other matters. Considerable time was spent talking about the roles of Trustees in non-Board groups, such as our Athletic Board and various state bodies like the Merit Board, and the need to orient Board members better for such assignments. Shea and a few others were interested in whether the Board might and perhaps even should have a role in setting priorities for the uses of funds raised by the Foundation. The President and others attempted to explain the ways in which the uses of such funds are constrained, e.g. by the wishes of donors, and the relationship between the Foundation and the University.

After a break the third (originally second) topic of "Strategic Areas of Interest for the Board" for the coming year was addressed. The President took the lead, listing a number of areas in which he suggested that the expertise of the Board or of various of its members might be used to good advantage, possibly through small ad hoc committees:

  1. Hospital and clinics
  2. Urban south campus: agricultural and land acquisition issues
  3. The impending UIS Chancellor search
  4. Improving relations with the legislature and legislators in Springfield
  5. Public affairs (and the new public affairs "game plan" soon to be announced)
  6. Urbana technology park development
  7. Trusteeship issues
  8. Budget issues

Shea, Schmitt and Plumer spoke, all stressing the need for the Board to have a better understanding of budgetary and policy matters; and, while no one challenged anything on this list, a number of the Board members (Plumer and Reese among them) expressed the view that they ought to be more significantly involved in setting policy and strategic planning. The President argued that they already have a voice in these matters, and that their role should be to "tweak" rather than change plans and priorities that have already been set.

One of the Trustees asked the student Trustees for their thoughts on priorities, with specific reference to their own campuses. The UIC student trustee expressed the view that efforts needed to be made to improve the quality of UIC programs to give students "more bang for the buck," and complaining that may students feel at present that they are not getting their money's worth. The UIUC student Trustee talked about the need to maintain affordability of attendance at our campus, and about the renewal of campustown. The Springfield student Trustee had no specific suggestions.

Schmitt urged that UIC's incubator and technology part needs be addressed as well as Urbana's, pointing out they they already have an incubator that is no longer adequate to the demand for it. This led to considerable talk of the need to do things that would have significant economic development payoff both for the state and for the university. Biotechnology was talked about in this connection (as much at UIC as at UIUC). Lamont returned to the topic of novel uses of funds raised in our development campaign, suggesting that we might consider using some of the funds as venture capital.

Just as the Board seemed about to be ready to adjourn, Gravenhorst reminded the group that they had not yet resolved the question of whether or not to modify the Board's practices with respect to its committees. After a brief discussion of how to frame the proposal, the proposal described above was adopted, and the Board concluded its "Retreat," and adjourned to a social hour at the Allerton Visitor's Center. (It resumed its meeting the next day in Urbana, with Geneva Belford observing.)

Richard Schacht
Observer for the UIUC Senate Council