by Micah Wilkins, Editor-in-Chief
The Board of Trustees is a powerful governing body that has the final say in determining important elements of the college, from the color palette to our next president. The entire Board meets three times a year, and last weekend marked their first meeting of 2013. Alice Buhl, Chair of the Board of Trustees, sat down with the Echo Feb. 9 to disclose the logistics of the Board, and the topics that were discussed in this month’s meeting.
How long have you been on the Board?
What is your profession?
I’ve had three or four different careers. Most recently, I was a consultant to family foundations. I do the family philanthropy consulting. I’m still doing that, but on a part-time basis. Not working full time has freed up time for me to Chair the board.
When did you become Chair of the board?
I became the Chair in April. Before I was the Vice Chair.
What have you done in your time on the board?
While I was Vice Chair I also chaired the Governance Task Force and the presidential search committee. We received the input from the community and listed to that input, but [the board] made the final decision as to who would be the next president of the college.
How demanding is it being the chair?
We’re in a time of transition, with a new leader and a lot of things changing. Right now it takes a lot more time than it usually does. On average, I work about 10 hours a week. Sometimes it’s more, sometimes it’s less. I put in a lot more time than most board members, because we’re in a time of transition. That will ease off as Steve, as a new president, and we as a board adjust to the transition.
Board members put in different amounts of time. Some are on a committee. The executive committee meets seven times a year while the board as a whole meets just three times a year.
As the Chair, what are your responsibilities?
My formal responsibilities are to run the board meetings, to plan them, to make sure the agenda is set for the meetings. I am the direct liaison between the board and the president. I have to make sure that we’re working, that we’re playing our appropriate role, questioning the president when necessary. And certainly, to make sure that the board is raising money. The biggest responsibility of any board has is fundraising.
Part of my job is also to look at the composition of the board itself. Board member terms are renewed regularly. We’re about to enter into a self-assessment process. In their final third year we ask people to return [to the board] if it is still a continued match on both sides. The trusteeship committee is responsible for identifying potential, future trustees. It’s kind of like fundraising, you go out and talk to them and see if they’re interested, see if they’re willing to make those commitments.
We’ve been looking a lot at alumni lately. We want to increase the number, though we have a fair number on the board already. We look at people who can understand the mission and believe in what we’re doing and who can contribute something back in one way or another in time and in dollars. People get selected for very different reasons to come on a board. We have more people from across the nation, because we’re a national college.
How long have you known about Warren Wilson? What made you decide to join the Board?
I’ve only know about Warren Wilson for nine years. I was introduced to it by a friend who was close to the school and actively involved in it. She felt the board needed more women on it, (and we still do).
I was really impressed with the kind of community that is intentionally built here. I was impressed with the service program and even more so now that it’s become more directed. I’m intrigued by the Work Program, which I have learned more and more about each year. There’s a lot about [the school] that’s quite wonderful. This made me willing to put a fair amount of time into it. We’ve got a great college.
During one of the meetings this weekend, the board members went around and commented on the meeting and where they thought they were. The ways people spoke about the school were quite amazing, and the support for the new leadership, Steve, was really wonderful. As a group of people, the values the college has, the board shares. And we work really hard. We don’t get paid, nor do we want to. In fact, it’s the other way around, we pay.
[I joined the board] because I supported the values of what the school is trying to accomplish. There’s another piece though. In my work, I do a lot of advising of boards, family foundation boards. So I know a fair amount about that, and I was intrigued at the notion of transferring what I know to be on the ground doing it myself. I think in life we play different roles at different times. I was intrigued at getting back to actually being on a board and being responsible rather than being the person who was suggesting what they should be doing.
What’s true for me is what’s true for a lot of board members—we’re excited and intrigued by [the mission of the school]. We’re looking for people who are at that point and who have something to offer and who feel like in return they’re getting some experience or connections that will give benefit to them too.
The experience of being on any board is something I hope everyone has in their life at some point. I see so many people and so many students here who are really committed to causes. At some point in each of your life, one of the ways you can complete those causes is by being on a board. It teaches you an enormous amount.
The board today was a community. It’s a piece of work but its a gratifying, community experience built within this larger community. We have an enormously talented group with people who come from far distances who contribute their time and talent and dollars. They really care about the school and the students here. It’s awesome that people will fly here from California for a two-day meeting.
What has been discussed during this weekend’s meetings?
We always start our meeting with an update from the president, who tells us what’s going on, just basic stuff. We had a consultant here from AGB [the Association of Governing Boards] who gave us a workshop of how boards raise funds, how we can identify [potential donors]. He gave us a report on what he sees as some of the new strategic directions of the college. It was an opportunity for us to see where he needs us to spend some resources. He’ll come back with a more specific budget in April.
Then the board meets with just the president for a while and the staff leaves. The board then had an executive session without the president, just a routine check-in.
We had a marvelous program Thursday night on Technology. The board has been very interested in technology. Some teachers put together a presentation on what was going on here, and what were some of the possibilities.
On Friday night it was a more social event. We were treated to some music from the college. Several board members talked about what they learned after being on the board. Today we had an initial discussion of who are our benchmark schools, what parts of our program do we do well. We think we’re doing service really well. We’re hoping other schools will look to us as leaders.
We see ourselves in the top percentages but we’re not going to be Yale or Harvard, nor do we want to be. We’re trying to be really good at who we are and in the niche we are. We’re a national liberal arts college with an integrative work and service program. So there’s no one like us, there’s no out else out there really. We’re wondering how we can become more well-known. We’re really good at a lot of things but we’re sort of a secret, so we’re hoping that will change.
We had committee reports for the rest of the day. Each of the committee chairs reported about what they talked about in their committee meeting, and some brought action items. There’s a new task force that’s been developed to look at the work program. We were told about the process on hiring a new Vice President for enrollment and marketing. We had some discussions around each of those issues.
Most board members will walk away remembering Steve’s piece about what changes we need to make on campus. These ideas will be rolled out later. That’s what we had hoped for in a new president, to see what we needed to do to support the program that’s here. It’s going to be tough financially, but we hope we can manage it.
Was there any discussion about the new academic building?
We were given several reports. The advancement committee updated us on how we are fundraising for it, because we can’t build it until we have the money. The board members have contributed to that campaign and we’ve raised a fair amount of dollars but we need some major donors. In any capital campaign you need the biggest part of the money in hand. You can’t start building until you have the money in hand. The plans for it are moving along, but it’s dependent on getting the money. Building it will probably take a year.
When can we start? When we have the money. That’s what we’re working really hard on. We have an immature fundraising effort now. We don’t have a large number of students who are graduates, maybe 5,000. We just don’t have a lot of people who are connected to us and in a position where they can give what we call transforming gifts, donations of $1 million or more. Soon some of our alums will be in that position. Not everyone will have that kind of money, but there will be some who want to give back to the school.
Was the issue of retention brought up in any meetings?
We had a brief report from Paula [Garrett, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College] about it in September. We’ll be getting a more comprehensive report later. This is the first time every student who didn’t come back this semester was interviewed. We’re collecting a lot better data, but we’re not in a position to analyze that yet.
Any updates about the new president’s house?
We got an update on it. We’re really excited about the new location. We saw preliminary drawings. We’ve been trying to get a really neat house at a low cost. We’re excited to have Steve and his family on campus.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
I think that as board members we’ve accepted stewardship for the college, stewardship of what aspects are here and what it can be for the future. I would hope that every student that’s here has that same sense of stewardship, helping make it possible for other students to be here.