Trustees Share Inner Workings of Board

Strangely enough, Stanford’s Board of Trustees, described as the “ultimate authority” at Stanford, remains largely a mystery to the community it governs.  However, a recent event held at Annenberg auditorium featuring two board members explained in great detail the history, duties, organization, and current operations of the Board.  Current chair of the Board of Trustees Leslie Hume and former chair Burton “Burt” McMurtry spoke at the event sponsored by the Stanford Historical Society.

Speaking first, McMurtry, a Stanford Ph.D. in electrical engineering and a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, gave a brief history of the Board and explained its purposes and duties.

“Stanford’s Board of Trustees is a self-perpetuating group of up to 35 members, who are custodians of the University’s endowment and properties,” explained McMurtry.  Stanford’s Board of Trustees is the highest authority of the University, and its many duties include appointing and evaluating the President, approving all faculty appointments, making decisions about new buildings and modifications to old ones, and making final decisions about University investments.  The Board, which includes the president of the university as an ex officio member, have identical “authority, responsibility, and, liability” according to McMurtry.

Though the process of appointing a president is a rare occurrence, McMurtry, having been part of the process once before, described the procedure as “remarkably effective.”  The appointment process involves a 17-person search committee, consisting of seven trustees, six faculty members, one staff member, one undergraduate, one graduate student, and one alumni association representative.  According to McMurtry, “That group meets, interviews candidates, and checks references for months.  The committee then sends a short list of candidates to the trustees, from which the trustees select the new president.”

Also of note, McMurtry mentioned the Board’s role in setting tuition and managing endowment payout.  “Tuition policy, which is a critically important task, where, I believe, we and many other private universities have not yet figured out a sustainable, long term program,” he said.  “Regarding endowment management, it seems that we really messed up recently given the unprecedented losses last year.  Even with that loss, we are ahead of where we would have been if, over a long time, we had had a more conservative investment policy.  And so, getting investment management right is a very hard problem,” said McMurtry.

Leslie Hume, a Stanford Ph.D. in History and the first woman chair of the Board of Trustees since Jane Stanford, spoke next.  Hume has been a community leader in San Francisco and has long been a volunteer at Stanford.  Hume detailed the current organization and structure of the Board and well as walking through the typical agenda put forth at board meetings.

Hume stressed that the defining characteristic of the Board is that every member has a “deep-seated and abiding commitment to Stanford.”  Eight of the 35 trustees come to the Board through the Alumni Selection Trustee process, and these members serve five-year terms.  The rest of the trustees usually serve two five-year terms, but all board members must leave after ten years.  The Board’s chairperson serves a two-year term and can serve for two terms.

The Board is organized into eight standing committees:  audit, academic affairs, alumni affairs, finance, development, land and buildings, medical center, and trusteeship.   There are also four additional special committees.  “All board members serve on three of the standing committees, and they can serve on as many as four of the special committees,” said Hume.

The Board meets for one and a half days, five times a year.  Half of the meeting time is spent in committees, and half of the time is spent as a full board.

Several agenda items are discussed at every single board meeting: a report from the dean of research, a report on the progress of large building projects, acceptance of gifts and pledges, and a report on nominations to various University boards.  Additionally, every meeting includes a report from the chairpersons of the various committees.  Finally, the Board receives a report from the president of the university informing the Board of issues about which the president thinks the Board should be aware.

Other agenda items come to the board annually.  These items include setting tuition, setting endowment payout rate, and approving the budget for the coming fiscal year.

Speaking about the future of the Board, Hume stated, “As I think about the next three to five years and where I think the board is going to be focusing its time, we’ve been, in the past few years, in the midst of a seismic upheaval in terms of the financing of the university, and I think our job as a board over the next few three to five years is to really support and help the management of the university in helping to reset the budget of the university and reshape the way we think about using much more scarce resources.”

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