Politically Thinking: Nature of UVM board a problem

Gov. Shumlin was correct to say that Vermonters had a right to be angry at the “inexcusable” severance packages granted to former administrators Daniel Fogel and Michael Schultz by the University of Vermont’s board of trustees. The governor noted that at a time when many Vermont families with students at UVM struggle to pay the university’s fees, to see the trustees grant six-figure severance packages to administrators leaving under “difficult circumstances” sends the wrong message to parents and taxpayers.

The UVM board, and its chair, Robert Cioffi (a St. Albans native and UVM graduate who is a partner in a Connecticut-based private equity fund) have shown a tin ear in this matter. One of the challenges that Fogel’s successor as president will now face is restoring UVM’s standing in the eyes of Vermonters in general, and the leaders of state government in particular.

The new president should also encourage the board to undertake a fundamental review of its composition. UVM’s board currently consists of 25 members: nine self-perpetuating trustees, nine legislators, three gubernatorial appointees, two students, and the president of the university and the governor of Vermont as ex-officio members. I see three serious problems with this structure.

First, very few public organizations have self-perpetuating trustees. While such trustees are common in private universities, and in arts organizations, hospitals and other nonprofits, they are rarely found in public universities. For a university that receives extensive support from Vermont taxpayers to have nearly 40 percent of its board seats held by a self-perpetuating group is anomalous. From the information on UVM’s Web site, apparently only one of the self-perpetuating trustees has a principal residence in Vermont. The others are based primarily in the New York and Boston metropolitan areas. To me, the lack of year-round Vermonters among the core group of trustees explains much of the fiasco surrounding the Fogel and Schultz compensation packages.

Second, to have nearly 40 percent of the board seats held by legislators is also problematic. No other state university in New England has legislative trustees. As Gov. Shumlin has pointed out, it may very well be a conflict of interest for legislators who appropriate state funds for UVM simultaneously to serve as members of the university’s governing board.

Third, at many universities, both public and private, a significant percentage of board members is elected by the alumni. For example, in New Hampshire, six out of 27 state university trustees are elected by the alumni. Elected alumni trustees provide a way for the voices of university graduates to be heard in the institution’s governing council. While many of UVM’s self-perpetuating trustees are alumni, elected alumni trustees would likely be a more diverse group — geographically and professionally as well as demographically — than the self-perpetuating trustees.

As the current UVM board members’ terms expire, the legislative trustees should be eliminated and the number of self-perpetuating trustees reduced to no more than one-quarter of the board. A group of elected alumni positions should be established, with the remaining positions filled by gubernatorial appointment.

In order to ensure that a broad range of individuals are considered for the gubernatorial appointments, a nominating committee such as those used for judicial vacancies and the new health care board should be established to review applicants for the board and send lists of qualified nominees to the governor. To ensure continuity on the board at a time of transition, Shumlin might also consider appointing former legislative trustees who no longer hold elected office, or some of his predecessors as governor, to the UVM board.

Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.


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