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The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

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The GW Hatchet

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Board of Trustees downsizes by about half in effort to boost productivity

Nelson Carbonell, the chairman of the Board of Trustees, said the smaller board makes quicker governance decisions and ensures that members are informed about the board’s activities.

After shrinking in size by about half over the past six years, the Board of Trustees is now the smallest of all 12 of its peer institutions.

Over the past five years, the Board has downsized from 43 members to 21 – a move officials said will increase productivity and improve communication between members. Higher education experts said that while a smaller board could boost engagement, cutting members could mean sacrificing diversity and donations.

“We’ve continued to reduce the size of the Board of Trustees to make it more agile and responsive,” Nelson Carbonell, the chairman of the Board of Trustees, said at a Faculty Senate meeting earlier this month.

Carbonell said the smaller group makes quicker governance decisions and ensures that members are informed about the board’s activities. He added that downsizing allows officials to “enlist high-caliber trustees,” but he did not say how.

He said he will evaluate the size of the board depending on the University’s needs and may cut or add more members. He said the board’s focus on leadership – rather than philanthropy – enables it to have fewer members than other schools who rely on their large membership to bring in donations.

Carbonell declined to say how he has asked members to leave over the years or how he has picked members to remain on the board, but he said trustees are elected to one four-year term that can be renewed for a second. He said the Committee on Governance and Nominations “has set the expectation among Trustees for this to be the standard term of service.”

“Our trustees are among the University’s greatest ambassadors, and their commitment and involvement in GW doesn’t end with their term of service,” he said.

Carbonell declined to say how each board member’s workload has been impacted by having fewer members and what challenges officials have encountered since shrinking the board. He declined to say how officials encourage board members to be involved with GW after they have left.

The board – which has 21 members – is roughly half the size of the 46-member average among the University’s peer schools. New York University has the largest board with 61 members, while the University of Pittsburgh has the smallest, with 36 voting trustees.

Experts in higher education leadership said fewer trustees means that each person takes on more responsibilities, which could promote accountability and increase involvement in the board’s projects and committees.

Richard Chait, a professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, said that when boards have too many members, it becomes difficult to carry out the group’s basic governing functions – like policy deliberation and strategy formulation – because there are too many people in the room.

Harvard has 32 members on its board of trustees, according to the school’s website.

“When you have a large board, it tends to feel much more like a lecture room,” Chait said. “It’s one-way communication. There are twice as many people that are in pursuit of a fixed amount of airtime.”

Chait called the board shrinkage a “commendable step” by the University.

“Frankly, I think there are a number of boards that would like to emulate George Washington but have not yet discovered circumstances favorable to do so,” Chait said. “There’s more accountability, more opportunities to deliberate and more engagement.”

Rebekah Burch Basinger, a fundraising and board education consultant at Basinger Consulting, said many schools retain a large board membership because trustees are generally expected to contribute between 40 and 60 percent of a university’s fundraising goals.

“If you have a big board, and you can have quite a few people who have significant wealth or have friends who are wealthy that they might be able to introduce to the school, that can be a really good thing,” she said.

In years past, members of the Board of Trustees have donated millions to the University. Former trustee Mark Shenkman donated $5 million in 2014 to support career services, and the same year, trustee Avram Tucker gave $1 million to the athletic department. In 2015, trustee George Wellde donated $1 million for a young alumni fellowship.

Basinger said larger boards also have an easier time cultivating diversity among trustees across various categories, including race, gender and socioeconomic status, simply because there are more positions to fill.

She added that smaller boards generally produce more effective discussions because fewer people in the room means everyone has an opportunity to speak up and contribute ideas.

Cyndy English, the recording secretary for the board of trustees at Tulane University, said that when the school’s board size increased to 42 five years ago, the number of members was “unmanageable” because officials could not adequately keep trustees on task and divide work efficiently. Tulane officials are currently looking to cut the board’s size from 39 to 35 within the next two years, English said.

English said the chairman of Tulane’s board of trustees has been working to reduce the size of the board since his election in July 2017 to give fewer members larger roles in the group’s initiatives.

“The general conversation is, ‘We don’t need to be bigger, we have to work harder,’” she said.

English added that a smaller board keeps members engaged because they feel like they are contributing more to the board’s projects and decisions.

“When you have a highly functioning board, it doesn’t take as many individuals to do their due diligence and perform their function as governors of the institution,” English said.

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