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What’s the role of an emeritus trustee?

Independent colleges and universities, especially those with trustee term limits, often face the dilemma of retaining the enthusiastic engagement of their best former board members. Frequently the concern relates to a former board member’s personal giving and overall philanthropic support (institutions do all they can to retain the financial support of generous trustees); specific professional expertise needed by the board; or access to corporate and government research opportunities. These assets are essential to most institutions; a trustee leaving the board room permanently after a successful and extended period of service causes appropriate concern.

To address the issue, most institutions have various categories or titles that keep productive board members part of the institution beyond their period of active service on the governing board. “Honorary,” “life,” and “emeritus trustee” designations are intended to facilitate interest and some level of engagement (and support) beyond a board member’s formal tenure. It makes good sense to keep volunteers engaged at a certain level and to honor their past service to the board and the institution.

AGB’s 2010 study, Policies, Practices, and Composition of Independent Colleges and Universities, shows that a total of 26 percent of private institutions invite most or all board members finishing their formal service to one of these honorific categories of service; 66 percent of independent institutions limit such recognition to only a few or none of their former board members. Doctoral and research institutions invite the highest percentage of all former board members to serve in an extended and honorific manner (30 percent); yet 45 percent of these same institutions invite few or none of their former board members to such service on the board. The pattern by type of institution is a bit unclear. The average number of trustees emeriti on the board of an independent institution is 10 and ranges up to 21.

Surprisingly, about one-third of all public institutions have some opportunity for honorific categories of board service following a board member’s official term(s).

Some Considerations

Perhaps the biggest challenge related to these honorific appointments is related to the designation as a “trustee emeritus.” The term emeritus comes from the Latin, “emereri,”meaning to earn one’s discharge by service. Webster’s defines “emeritus” as retired but retaining an honorary title corresponding to that held immediately before retirement.

What is evident is that appointment to “trustee emeritus” status should be based on the quality of service demonstrated as a board member rather than time served; that is, it should be a clear recognition of distinguished service. Recognizing those former board members whose service was less than distinguished serves neither the interests of the institution nor the responsibilities of those who currently serve as board volunteers. It is also important to know that such a designation includes a presumption of “retirement” from active service on the governing board, a standard that defines a far more limited scope of authority.

So, how might that play out in the selection of trustees emeriti and the expectations and responsibilities of those appointed to these honorary roles? Some suggested practices and recommendations might be helpful:

  • Governing boards should develop a policy for all honorary board designations, including specific criteria for selection as a trustee emeritus. Distinguished service should be defined by: a former trustee’s active participation and engagement when serving as a full member of the board for a period that extended for more than one complete term; consistent philanthropic support; and demonstrated interest in the institution;
  • Board by-laws should reflect specific criteria for selection as a trustee emeritus, honorary, or life board member as well as responsibilities and expectations;
  • Trustees emeriti (who should not have voting privileges) should limit their participation at board meetings to the governing board’s official “annual” meeting. When they do attend board meetings, trustees emeriti should be appropriately deferential to current board members and board leadership;
  • Trustees emeriti should be kept informed about the issues being addressed by the board and the institution through regular communications from institution leadership;
  • Trustees emeriti should be engaged at occasional board gatherings and special meetings with institution leadership; as participants on ad hoc committees that might benefit from their expertise; and as special guests at institution functions; and
  • Trustees emeriti should be part of fund-raising activities of the institution and the governing board and willingly serve as advocates on behalf of the institution and its priorities.

Institutions are wise to keep former leaders involved in the life of the institution. It takes additional focus and effort, mostly by the institution’s president, to retain the commitment of past board members who have served with distinction. This cultivation of ongoing engagement among past board members is an essential part of institutional success.

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