Dad’s not happy.
“Son, I just read that tuition is going up 5.3 percent this year. Uh, why?”
There’s a bit of pain in his voice. Understandable, considering a small 5.3 percent increase amounts to thousands of dollars more in payment. To the student and parent, someone on high seems to send down an order every year demanding more money from college-going kids. The question is, whose order is it, per se?
As it turns out, it’s on a lot of people’s orders – a lot of people that compose the UR Board of Trustees. Yet for all the decisions that the Board has its hand in, not a great deal is known about them. The Board of Trustees brings the image of shadowy figures talking in back rooms, smoking cigars and playing cards around a large oak table.
But there are no shadowy figures. There’s no deep mystery. In fact, perhaps sadly for those with more Draconian minds, there’s not even a table – most likely because there are not many tables on campus that can seat just over 100 members.
These 101 members can be broken down into three different groups. There are currently 42 voting members – the power players – a number that the Board hopes to increase to 50 very soon, pending the approval of the Regents of the State of New York (a group that will remain shrouded in mystery and which probably does have a giant table). Of the remaining 59 members, 11 are senior members, who no longer have voting privileges. If they stay on the Board for five years, they become life trustees, which make up the remaining 48 members.
And at the top of this chain is the man himself, Chairman of the board G. Robert Witmer Jr. As the top dog of the board, Witmer outranks anyone and everyone at the University. He’s been on the Board since 1979, was re-elected to the Board in 1985 and, by May 2002, he found himself in the seat of power.
Many other members are as illustrious as Witmer, who is a lawyer in the city of Rochester. There are accountants, attorneys and bigwigs of all kinds (Robert Goergen ring a bell? Or perhaps Daniel Wegman?). Together they comprise a board that is in charge of the University’s long-term plans.
Tuition? Board of Trustees.
Strategic planning? Board of Trustees.
Endowment investing? Board of Trustees.
Presidential selection? Board of Trustees.
Not all of these things, however, fall to the entire Board. The Board divides into several committees, combining trustees with administrative liaisons from the University. For instance, Trustee and Chairman of Facilities Roger Friedlander works closely with Associate Vice President of Facilities & Services Richard Pifer. There are approximately 11 different divisions, according to Secretary to the President Lynne Davidson. The full board meets only three times during the year: during Meliora Weekend, during a mid-winter retreat in February or March and at the end of the year around Commencement. This March’s meeting will be a big one – it’s the one wherein the Board is expected to pass judgment on the saga that is UR President Joel Seligman’s strategic planning initiative.
And then there’s that whole, messy endowment thing. UR’s endowment ranks up in the top 60 of the nation, yet is, by Witmer’s own admissions, very weak. In this vein, the Board has taken up accelerating resource development, through Board members pouring much of their own money into the University. President Seligman – the only administrative member to serve on the Board, by the way – gives $55,000 per year.
“I am very pleased and impressed with the support the Board has given to our development,” Witmer said.
And that $1.77 billion endowment is not being casually managed. The University, via the Board, has distributed its funds through dozens upon dozens of agencies and through many diverse investments and more portfolios than you can shake a stick at. There’s equities, domestic equity benchmarks and hedge funds – though there’s not, apparently, a need to worry about what became a hostile market topic over the summer.
“We’ve not been affected by sub-prime mortgage lending. In fact, we’ve made quite a bit of money,” Senior Vice President for Institutional Resources Doug Phillips said.
When that tuition bill comes around, then, it’s not exactly a proud moment for anyone. But it’s not for lack of trying – the Board members, if the amount of money they contribute to the school annually is any indication, care a lot for the University.
What’s so great about being on the Board, then?
“Being able to support an institution which I think is a part of higher education, which I think is the lifeblood of a culture and civilization and a very important component of our United States,” Witmer said.