Structure of Board raises some concerns that it is out of touch

10 mins read
The Champions notice a wand on the floor and decide to use it to fight the Death Eaters
The Champions notice a wand on the floor and decide to use it to fight the Death Eaters

On December 2 of 1862, the Board of Managers of what was to become Swarthmore College met in Philadelphia for the first time. The Friends’ Educational Association, a conglomeration of Quakers from the New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia’s Yearly Meetings — the organizing bodies for Quaker communities in these respective areas — had recently elected 16 men and 16 women to create and run the college. Equal Board representation (a requirement set forth by the Friends’ Association) was unprecedented and somewhat illegal. Married women — who could only be represented by their husbands — began to serve in defiance of Pennsylvania law, which Swarthmore lobbied against and finally changed in 1870.

Since then, the Board has evolved in more ways than one. Consequently, there have at times been concerns about the Board’s capacity to represent the college at large. In recent months, there have been accusations of the Board’s inability to represent the best interest of current students by refusing to divest. Students who have worked alongside Board members on committees have expressed some discontent too.

The Board’s transformation since that first meeting in 1862 may account for some of the discontent, though many of the original traditions live on. Though there continues to be an almost even split between men and women, few of its members are still affiliated and involved with the Quaker community. For almost 50 years, the Board could not elect non-Quaker members. Though this rule was changed in 1910 in order to receive a grant for non-sectarian schools, most managers continued to be affiliated with the Religious Society of Friends until the 1930s.

It was also in 1910 that the Board assumed fiduciary responsibilities. Until then, the members of the Friends’ Educational Association — who had contributed to amass the initial necessary capital — were stockholders, and therefore oversaw the finances of the college. Today, the Board of Managers stands as the most powerful decision-making entity at Swarthmore, controlling everything from large-scale finances, to presidential appointments, to admissions and financial aid policies.

Though it has been more than one hundred years since the college dropped its official religious affiliation, influences remain. According to Board Chair Gil Kemp ’72, the body prides itself on preserving the Quaker values and traditions of its founding. In particular, the Board honors the traditions of Friends in their decision-making processes.

“Decisions are made on the basis of consensus,” he said. “We don’t have formal votes.”

Still, there are very few remaining Friends on the Board. Though since its inception, new managers have been elected by the Board itself, Swarthmore’s expansion as a non-sectarian institution increased the number and diversity of choices.

“Now that we have 20,000 alums, it certainly is a bigger pool, and one that requires a lot of time and attention,” Kemp said.

Haverford College, also founded by Friends, has undergone a similar process of separation from the Quaker community on official matters. However, though Swarthmore’s Board of Managers is the highest governing body, Haverford’s Board is not. The Corporation, a body of 200 people with affiliations to the Religious Society of Friends or that “exemplify what it means to be grounded in the faith and practice of Friends,” holds legal title to the college’s assets and, importantly, elects members to the Board of Managers. The priority of the Corporation “is to assist the College in strengthening and enriching Haverford’s Quaker character” — exercising control over the Board is one way they assert this influence.

According to Kemp, Swarthmore’s Nominating and Governance committee, which is responsible for selecting new managers and developing the criteria for this selection, has worked hard to create a diverse pool of applicants and managers that represent Swarthmore’s values, whether they are affiliated with Societies of Friends or not.

The same committee also works alongside the Alumni Council to select two Alumni Managers each year. These members, who typically serve on the Board for four years, are different from the Term Managers, who are picked by the Committee and are expected to serve three terms of four years.

“The fundamental interest is to create a diverse board,” Kemp said. “And there are many different criteria.”

Among these, Kemp noted gender, age, geographic diversity, and occupational variance in particular. Though gender and age varies, of the 39 current managers, 14 are or have been involved in finance, and six in private law. Other industries, like education, medicine, journalism and consulting are each represented by three or four managers.

Though achieving a balance of backgrounds is important, Kemp also noted that a person’s giving history is significant — not in absolute dollars but in ways that show a commitment to the college.

“It would be my hope and expectation that you make Swarthmore your number one philanthropic priority and that you’re making a gift that is meaningful to you,” he said. “Everybody is going to define meaningful in terms of their own resources, income, and wealth. I’m on other boards where they will talk about amounts, but I’m not a huge fan of that.”

Once managers have been picked and approved, they are sorted into different committees, which do the bulk of the Board’s work.

“Substantive work is done in these smaller groups and it’s either reported to the Board, or brought to the Board in an endorsement,” Kemp said. “The key is that committees work very closely with the members of the administration that are responsible for a given area. For instance, Dean [of Students Liz] Braun forms an integral part of that [Student Affairs] committee and developing its agenda.”

All committees work alongside administrative staff in some capacity, though the staff are not official members. The only committee with student or faculty representation is the Social Responsibility Committee.

Laura Rigell ’16, who served for two years and ended her term in December, became involved through her role in Mountain Justice. Though she felt good about her work on the sub-committees that addressed issues of climate change, overall, her presence on the committee did not always feel valued.

“Student representatives could have more of a voice than they do on this committee,” she said.

She thinks that having agenda-setting power for students would be especially valuable, as there was never much room for negotiation and meetings were under big time constraints. The fact that all of the committee work was confidential also made it hard for Rigell to feel that she was actively representing the student body.

“[Confidentiality] wasn’t helpful at all when we were trying to build student support for our ideas,” Rigell said. “It was counterintuitive to me. I don’t understand the rationale for that confidentiality. I would rather that the SRC is a transparent, accountable committee.”

Though she knows that there is work to be done in the Social Responsibility Committee, Rigell is also concerned that there is only one committee with student representatives. At Haverford, for instance, student council and class representatives are a constant presence on the Board.

Like Rigell, committee member Benjamin Roebuck ’17 feels that there is a lot of room for improvement within the SRC.

“My experience so far is that the Board is mostly happy with its efforts and is not as eager to move forward with more challenging but rewarding work that we could be doing as a committee,” he said.

Moreover, Roebuck thinks the role of students on these committees could be expanded.

“Students have something of a voice, a minimal one,” he said. “I think that all of the students who are on the committee have done a very good job at representing the student body as best as they can in the capacity that this role allows them to. I think the role ideally would allow us to do it more.”

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