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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 former board members. Frequently, a board member’s specific professional expertise or philanthropic commitment remains vital to the institution, even if his or her time on the board has ended. “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.

AGB’s 2010 study, Policies, Practices, and Composition of Independent Colleges and Universities, reports a variety of implementations of honorary designations.

  • 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).
  • 45 percent of these same doctoral and research institutions invite few or none of their former board members to such service on the board.

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).

Suggested practices and recommendations:

  • 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 over multiple terms, consistent philanthropic support, and demonstrated interest in the institution.
  • Trustees emeriti (who should not have voting privileges) should limit their participation at board meetings to the governing board’s official “annual” meeting.  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.
  • Trustees emeriti should be kept informed about the issues being addressed by the board and the institution through regular communications from institution leadership.

Lastly, remember that an emeritus or honorary title is a mark of distinction.  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.

Listen to Russell Ramsey, chairman emeritus of George Washington University, describe his own experience as an emeritus trustee.

AGB Reference Librarian

Need more help? AGB’s reference librarian (available to members only) is available to research specific governance questions, provide sample documents, or recommend resources. Contact her here.