Last weekend, the Vassar College Board of Trustees convened for its annual winter gathering, the second of the 2019-2020 academic year. Of the 29 sitting board members, 25 were in attendance for the busy weekend of workshops and meetings.
The Board is the College’s official governing body, whose fiduciary duties and responsibilities are determined by the College’s bylaws and other legal documents. Trustees, who are elected by the Board and serve four-year terms, are often re-appointed for a total of eight years of service to the College. Members also serve on smaller sub-committees, which share specific tasks within the jurisdiction of the full Board.
While the collective Board only meets three times a year, serving as a Trustee requires a considerable amount of time and personal commitment. The position is unpaid and requires a dedication to advocating for Vassar on local, national and international levels. During the school year, Trustees are heavily involved with campus life, though much of their work happens behind the scenes. The current Board represents a diverse group of alumni and parents, with current trustees hailing anywhere from the class of 2014 to the class of 1965.
“Trustees stay very engaged in between meetings,” said Vassar’s Vice President of Communications Amanita Duga-Carroll. By way of illustration, Duga-Carroll referenced Sophomore Career Connections, a weekend-long event where sophomores network with alumnae/i and parent mentors from a range of professional fields. “Of the volunteer mentors, many are Trustees. [The Board doesn’t] always come to campus in a group of 29, but they’re here a lot.”
Off campus, Trustees frequently finance and host Vassar-branded recruiting events with the goal of matriculating admitted students. “[Trustees] have committed their own resources to hosting these events in their cities. We want to be welcoming to all admitted students,” noted Secretary to the Board of Trustees and Special Assistant to the President Wesley Dixon. “Our Trustees…are very thoughtful about how these parties reflect Vassar’s values and the principles of our community on campus.”
To remain aware of the state of affairs at Vassar, it is crucial that Trustees keep up with campus happenings. All trustees receive Vassar’s frequent campus-wide emails, and are often the first to know about urgent issues. To ensure a clear line of communication, President Elizabeth Bradley holds biweekly meetings with Board Chairman Anthony Friscia ’78, and remains in frequent contact with committee chairs.
This year’s winter meeting had a particularly substantial docket, a large portion of which was dedicated to reviewing the annual budget and debt refinancing plan. As per Bradley’s strategy, Vassar expects to run a balanced budget for the third consecutive academic year. Moreover, the Trustees will completely refinance the College’s debt, an action motivated by Vassar’s initiative to become completely carbon neutral by 2030. The money saved by the College will go towards creating many eco-friendly changes across campus.
In line with these sustainability goals, Bradley announced to the Board that Vassar will enforce green building guidelines, which ensure that all new constructions on campus will not run on fossil fuels. Moreover, beginning next July, Vassar will exclusively purchase sustainably generated electricity. Per Bradley, her administration sees this progress as “a huge step forward.”
While undoubtedly expensive, Bradley is confident that the aforementioned changes should have no negative effects on Vassar students. She also noted that prospective students have already caught wind of this development. As Bradley mentioned,“These changes have already been drawing students to Vassar. Applicants have highlighted in their admissions essays how excited they are by our commitment to sustainability,” further adding that this is “great news for the institution.”
Regarding admissions, Bradley and the Trustees were excited by the prospective class of 2024, 45 percent of which has already been accepted through the two Early Decision rounds. Vassar is also developing a prospective partnership with College Horizons, an organization dedicated to increasing the number of Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students enrolled and succeeding in college and graduate programs (College Horizons, “About”). Bradley has emphasized the importance of Vassar’s Native student population, and believes that this partnership may be an early step in working toward greater inclusivity. “Our goal is to create a really diverse community,” she said. “Working with College Horizons will allow us to directly contact Native students so it’s more likely that they apply.” Vassar is also evaluating the entirety of the College’s collections to verify NAGPRA compliance and looking to hire tenured Native Studies faculty members.
In the opinion of many, there was one glaring omittance from the weekend’s proceedings: students. Per Vassar’s governing documents, only the Vassar Student Association (VSA) president is allowed to attend Board of Trustee meetings. This year, Carlos Espina ’20 represented the student body.
Though Espina bridges the barrier between the Trustees and the student body, concerns regarding the secretive nature of the Board remain. Bradley acknowledges this, and ensures that progress has been made to further engage the student body with the Trustees. “Every individual meeting has some social event that students are invited to with trustees,” she said. “This is meant to broaden student engagement with the Board and give both parties the opportunity to meet and talk.” This weekend in particular contained a workshop with the Engaged Pluralism Initiative as well as several other social events.
Duga-Carroll echoed Bradley’s sentiments, emphasizing the importance of Trustee-student involvement: “The Trustees are fabulous. They really want the organization to do well. The students, on the other hand, know what they need. Allowing them to interact in a social way and get to know each other is really valuable.” To promote social interaction, the majority of meetings were moved from the Alumnae House to on-campus locations, increasing foot-traffic and casual interaction between Trustees and students. “The Trustees walk across campus, maybe grab a cup of coffee and talk to students,” mentioned Duga-Carroll. “All of these promote a more serendipitous experience.”
Despite some progress, the Board is still not satisfied with student involvement, and is currently looking for ways to publicize information from their meetings. According to Dixon, “[the Board] wants to figure out how to share information with the broader Vassar community.” Though they have not yet decided how to bridge this divide, they are actively looking to do so. Dixon concluded, “We’re working towards new things.”