While the University’s Board of Trustees is often mentioned around campus, few students fully understand what this important group does.
For some, the Board conjures images of well-to-do businesspeople whose success and influence are rewarded with a position on the University’s ultimate decision-making body. But this is not the whole picture.
Because the Board of Trustees is entrusted with promoting the University’s interests in the broader realms of business, academia, and government, members reflect the highest levels of success in those 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 vaunted 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 and long-time investment banker Andrew Alper (A.B. ’80, M.B.A .’81) stayed involved with the University after graduation and became a trustee in 1999. Most chairmen don’t trace their history with the U of C back that far, however. Alper is the first College alumnus to serve as chairman since 1948.
As chairman, Alper says he has the dual task of being a “sounding board for the administration as they think through day-to-day management [while also] strategically thinking 20, 30, 40 years ahead.”
In 2005, Alper became chairman of the Chicago Initiative, the University’s largest capital campaign ever. The campaign, which was completed in 2008, raised $2.38 billion in gifts from 117,700 individuals and organizations.
The University as a corporation is governed by the 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. 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, or the final word on controversial proposals, such as the 2007 decision not to divest from Darfur.
Aside from selecting the University’s president, provost, and vice presidents, the Board also reviews and approves the University budget. It determines how University funds should be invested and ensures that investments and gains are handled according to established policies.
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 construction of the South Campus Residence Hall and the Logan Arts Center stemmed from the University’s inability to attract donors willing to shell out the money.
The success of major fundraising campaigns like Chicago Initiative may turn on Board members’ abilities to court potential donors and present the University as an investment that is both vital and rewarding. Recent major donations for financial aid initiatives, the Logan Center, and the Booth School have been major successes in this respect.
The Board’s corporate nature and behind-the-scenes operations often creates the sense among students, faculty, and perhaps even the administration that a disconnect exists between the Board and the University’s academic sphere. Zimmer’s 2007 creation of a new position, Secretary of the Board of Trustees—who serves 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 voting role for students on the Board, those interested in expressing their opinions can work through the two elected student liaisons to the Board.