WOODBRIDGE HALL MEMO | Small board size facilitates discussion

At various points today and tomorrow, 16 fellows of the Yale Corporation will join University President Richard Levin and other officers around a large walnut table in Woodbridge Hall’s Corporation Room.

They will all fit.

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“What is very, very attractive about Yale’s board,” said Gerhard Caspser LAW ’62, the former president of Stanford University who served as a fellow of the Corporation from 2000 to 2006, “is that everyone can sit around this one oval table. It makes the discussions easy and informal. If there’s a subject about which people have strong views, you don’t necessarily wait until you’re called on if you want to intervene.”

Other schools have boards of trustees that would be difficult to fit in one room. The University of Pennsylvania has 55 trustees. Princeton University’s Board of Trustees has 40 members, not counting its 36 emeritus trustees. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has 74 active members on its board, not counting its 33 “life members emeriti.”

The Yale Corporation has just 19 members — called fellows — but that number includes Levin and the governor and lieutenant governor of Connecticut.

Yale, then, has essentially 16 trustees. And, to hear University officials tell it, sometimes the best things really do come in small packages. The fellows, precisely because they are so few in number, are able to interact with administrators rather than reflexively listen to presentations.

“No one can really think that 60 or 70 people are going to deliberate,” Yale Secretary Linda Lorimer said in an interview. “It’s the difference between a seminar class and a lecture class.”

POLICY, NOT MANAGEMENT

The Corporation meets this weekend, but the record of its proceedings will remain sealed for 50 years. In a telephone interview, though, Levin described his relationship with the Corporation and the kind of issues he brings to the board’s attention.

“I try to bring ideas to the Corporation early in their life cycle,” Levin said in a telephone interview. “I use the Corporation as a sounding board for new strategies and new initiatives.”

That means the Corporation has been involved in discussions about the expansion of the sciences at Yale, the internationalization of Yale, and the addition of two new residential colleges. And, Betts said, they are now deeply involved in planning Yale’s response to the economic downturn.

The letter Levin sent in December about the state of Yale’s finances was fuller — and certainly, at 2,031 words, longer — than those sent by other university presidents. This is in part because Levin is an economist by training, but also because the fellows of the Corporation vetted his letter before it went to the entire Yale community.

Over the 15 years of his presidency, Levin said, the fellows have prodded him on other matters. It was at the Corporation’s urging, for instance, that the Committee on Yale College Education was formed in 2001.

Lorimer, who takes longhand minutes for the board, noted that the Corporation’s involvement is more about policy making than management.

One review that the Corporation does conduct itself is an annual look at Levin’s performance. The president presents his goals for each year to the Corporation in the fall. An outline of his achievements — and shortcomings — follows at the Corporation’s meeting around Commencement.

“In June,” Lorimer said, “it’s time to turn in your homework.”

A SEAT AT THE TABLE

Of the Corporation’s 16 seats, six are reserved for alumni who are elected by fellow graduates each spring. The other 10 are successor fellows, who elect their own successors. Alumni fellows can serve only one six-year term, though successor fellows can serve two terms up to the age of 70.

Roland Betts ’68 is the exception; he was elected an alumni fellow in 1999 and was made a successor fellow in 2005 when his term came up. Along the way, in 2003, Betts was made a senior fellow.

But, even in that capacity, Betts does not lead the Corporation’s meetings. Again, unlike many other schools, Yale has no board chair. Levin leads discussions of the Corporation, except when he is out of the room.

Betts added in an interview that the Corporation does not try to micro-manage Yale, but rather tries to question administrators and give guidance. To help those discussions, he said, the Corporation tries to avoid having “grandstanders” among its ranks.

While perhaps not grandstanders, the fellows are all distinguished men and women, ranging from Margaret Marshall LAW ’76, the chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, to Indra Nooyi SOM ’80, the CEO of Pepsico, and Fareed Zakaria ’86, a columnist for Newsweek.

‘STEWARDS OF YALE’

Members of the Corporation are drawn from all corners of the Yale community, Levin said, but they are not supposed to advocate only for one part of the University.

“You don’t have graduates of the Law School thinking they’re on the Corporation to champion the law school and make sure the Law School gets it due,” Lorimer said. “They are stewards of Yale as a whole.”

At other universities, trustees are meant to be financial stewards first and foremost. Betts, who chairs the Corporation’s trusteeship committee, said Yale’s board can stay small because it does not feel pressure to add a slew of generous donors each year.

Vice President for Development Inge Reichenbach said the University has various councils and committees that allow those without a seat in the Corporation Room to stay involved with Yale.

Another reason to keep the Corporation small, of course, is that it’s easier to keep the group’s discussions private that way. Levin said the secrecy surrounding the Corporation is necessary for honest discussion.

“Being able to deliberate in a confidential mode serves the University best,” he said, “because the fellows can think about things and talk about them as they’re being contemplated instead of waiting for them to be brought public.”

Thoughtful university leadership is a principle espoused in “Governance as Leadership,” a 2004 book by Harvard professor Richard Chait about university leadership. This is what Chait wrote about boards such as Yale’s that stay small and nimble:

“A smaller, stellar board might signal greater legitimacy and execute more effectively than a huge board of superstars that exists mostly on letterhead.”

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