The 2021 John Nason Award Winners

Six Boards that Met the Moment

By Christopher Connell    //    Volume 29,  Number 2   //    March/April 2021

One board grew bigger, from 5 trustees to 11. A second got dramatically smaller, from 27 to 12. One stood up to a parent entity to exercise its fiduciary responsibilities. Another acted decisively to help an American college in the Middle East pull through calamity on top of calamity. One helped the nation’s first tribal college through a leadership crisis. And, in an instance of building a plane while it rolled down the runway, a new foundation was born even as a half-billion-dollar capital campaign got underway.

Together these are the six winners of the 2020–2021 AGB John W. Nason Awards for Board Leadership, sponsored by and presented in partnership with TIAA to honor higher education governing boards that demonstrate exceptional leadership and initiative. This year’s honorees were chosen from among more than 35 nominations illustrating the crucial work of boards from both public and private institutions, statewide systems, and institutionally related foundations.

The honorees are:

  • The American University of Beirut Board of Trustees
  • Colorado State University Foundation Board of Directors
  • Diné College Board of Regents
  • Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady University Board of Trustees
  • The University of Tennessee Board of Trustees
  • The University of Vermont Foundation

Like every college and university, these institutions had to face new challenges posed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in addition to more foreseeable problems and necessary shifts in strategy. “We hope that recognizing boards that are strategic partners of their institutions will give others the courage to lead their institutions or foundations in a similar fashion,” said Henry Stoever, AGB’s president and CEO. The Nason Award selection committee also gave special recognition to the Florida Memorial University Board of Trustees, Frontier Nursing University Board of Directors, and Kent State University Board of Trustees for their commitment to supporting their communities during challenging times.

The Nason Award, first presented in 1992, is named for the late Swarthmore College President John W. Nason, revered for helping relocate to 600 college campuses more than 4,000 Japanese-American students who’d been interned with their families during World War II.

Here are their stories.

American University of Beirut Board of Trustees

No university has experienced more adversity in the past 24 months than the American University of Beirut (AUB). Even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the research university founded by American missionaries in 1866 had to weather the 2019 collapse of Lebanon’s economy and destruction wrought by the massive August 2020 explosion at the Port of Beirut that killed 200, left 300,000 people homeless and caused massive property damage, including parts of its hospital and campus. The university in downtown Beirut with a breathtaking view of the Mediterranean Sea had survived Lebanon’s civil war (1975–1990) to remain a beacon of liberal arts education in the Middle East and across the Arab world. It was entering a new period of growth under President Fadlo R. Khuri, an American cancer researcher who took the helm in 2015 and immediately restored tenure, a casualty of the civil war, and presided over the launch of a $650-million capital campaign.

“Why would we restore tenure in an age when everyone wants to shut it down? It may not be right for everyone, but it is for (one) that aspires to be a world-class research university,” said Board of Trustees Chair Philip S. Khoury, a social and political historian of the Middle East and associate provost of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

AUB has long benefited from the devotion and generosity of its 40 board members, including many prominent Arab Americans from the business, academic, and medical worlds. Many have served long terms, including Khoury, who joined in 1999 and has been the chair for 12 years. Khoury has family ties to AUB that stretch back generations, as does President Khuri.

The president, whose mother once taught at AUB and was Lebanon’s first woman diplomat, was a newcomer to the board when he was selected as president. He stepped down as deputy director of Emory University’s Winship Cancer Institute and a research dean at its School of Medicine to answer the call. “It’s hard to say no to AUB. I, like many people, owe the university a debt that is difficult to repay,” said Khuri, who was born in Boston but grew up in Beirut.

Khoury shares that sentiment. As an undergraduate at Trinity College in Connecticut, he spent a junior year abroad at AUB that was “the most miraculous year of my life and it changed me. I became a specialist in the Arab world.” (Khoury also chaired the Trinity College board for nearly two decades.)

The financial collapse precipitated by years of overspending and corruption by inept governments—played havoc with the university’s finances. Massive devaluation of the lira drove more than half the population into poverty and fed unrest.

Even before the collapse, the board was working with Khuri and his team and faculty to redefine AUB’s strategic priorities on what would be called The VITAL 2030 plan. The board simultaneously was undergoing its own restructuring.

The financial crisis and the pandemic sped up the timetable for action. Meeting across time zones as much as 10 hours apart, the board mobilized to help the university through its perils. Each trustee was matched to one of six small advisory groups at work on designing and implementing the new strategic plan.

“We made an unpopular tuition adjustment with full support of the board so we can leverage more financial aid for those whose parents’ income has collapsed,” said Khuri. Going into the financial crisis, the university had 8,000 undergraduates and 1,700 graduate students, most Lebanese but a quarter from other countries.

The board stood behind Khuri as the university laid off a quarter of its staff—almost 600 but down from 1,800 initially feared— and did not renew contracts for others. No faculty were laid off, but some left Lebanon. The board, including physicians and scientists from top U.S. academic medical centers, helped AUB redesign the business model for its hard-pressed hospital and clinics, including a new one for COVID-19 patients.

“We wanted to make sure that the board and the leadership of the university were as tightly aligned and in as perfect sync as possible,” said Khoury. Even while anchoring the ongoing capital campaign—already closing in on its $650-million goal—the board took the lead on establishing Solidarity Funds to raise millions to help needy students and employees struggling to pay their bills.

The board brought in a former university president as a consultant “to figure out how to make us less interventionist and more strategic,” said Khoury. “We felt that some members were slipping into trying to manage our university, and that is usually the kiss of death when a board thinks it can manage a university.”

The restructuring also afforded the board an opportunity to bring in fresh blood. “What we want is a board that listens and acts, but listens first before it acts and comes into an understanding of where we want the place to go,” said Khoury.

The president calls it “incredible” that the board was able to restructure itself while the bottom fell out in Lebanon. “It’s resulted in a more nimble, effective, and reflective board. They work hard, ask tough questions—I never feel that I’m going to a board meeting where I’m going to get a sleigh ride—but it’s a very collegial, smart, strategic board.”

Beyond generosity, the trustees are “truly invested” in AUB’s mission of imparting “the best of American values: the right to self-determination, free speech, and the hope for health and happiness in a fair society,” said the president.

AUB and Lebanon are both still “going through hell, just the worst we’ve ever seen—and we’ve seen a lot in that part of the world—but we are determined to not just survive, but come out of this thriving,” said Chairman Khoury.

Colorado State University Foundation Board of Directors

It all happened very quickly.

The Colorado State University Foundation Board of Directors, which for almost three decades had had only five members of long standing with no term limits, in 2019 overnight expanded to 11, created a committee structure, and greatly diversified itself. The board, which manages the Fort Collins, Colorado, land grant university’s endowment, also changed the way it handles those investments and increased its payout. The original board had discharged its duties well, was held in high esteem, and was under no external pressure to change. But the longtime chair, Jim Martell, and his colleagues—all older white males—recognized a need to bring new talents to the table and simultaneously become more representative of the institution they served by adding female and minority members. As Colorado State University President Joyce McConnell and Foundation President Cherí O’Neill wrote in their Nason Award application, “They did the rare thing: They ceded some of their own power.” Moreover, the board “set out to achieve that diversity not via the slow-motion evolution that depends on attrition among existing board positions but rather with a fast-track process that requires changing bylaws … and actively seeking out and meeting with potential candidates,” not just selecting them from their own circles.

“It was absolutely smooth as silk,” said Martell, an alumnus and Fort Collins attorney. “There was not some break point where we said, ‘We have to make all these changes.’ We just did it.”

Four decades ago, early in his career, the Colorado State University Alumni Foundation engaged Martell as its attorney. When it merged with the other foundation in 1987, he was elected to the board, became chairman in 1991, “and has been the chairman ever since,” he said. The university president back then decided to slenderize the foundation board and do all the fundraising internally.(The university, not the foundation, does the fundraising.)

Martell credits the arrival of O’Neill in 2018 as providing an impetus for changing the shape of the board and the way it did business, including new term limits. “Cherí was the person who went out and found those new directors. It’s been an outstanding opportunity for us,” he said.

A veteran foundation and advancement leader, O’Neill came to Colorado State from Ball State University, her alma mater, where she was also the foundation president and CEO. “This board really leaned in to make the change. Not every board wants to give up power and bring other people to the table,” she said. “But even when they hired me there was talk about the need for diversity.”

Now 3 of the 11 directors are women and 2 are persons of color. Moreover, the board added expertise on both higher education and board governance as well as another attorney. It also has three ex officio members from the university (including President McConnell) and two independent audit committee members. It did all of its own volition before the entire nation faced a groundswell of calls for equity and social justice that welled up in 2020.

O’Neill said participating in the Association of Governing Board’s Council of Presidents and its Council of Foundation Leaders had provided valuable insights on how to make these changes.

The board took a methodical approach to its transformation. In year one, it accomplished the following:

  • Designed and conducted a diversity gap analysis;
  • Identified and vetted potential new members to match needs;
  • Revised the bylaws to accommodate more directors;
  • Added committees, created their charters, developed new member orientation, and created a first-ever board evaluation tool. Then it implemented the changes in year two by:
  • Adding four new directors and one committee member;
  • Creating two new committees (governance and compensation);
  • Establishing the term limits; and
  • Employing a new orientation program and using a self-evaluation tool.

Not only were more diverse directors welcomed to the board, “but we elected them to positions of importance,” including the governance committee, said Martell, who becomes past chair this spring. “We have incorporated them in a very meaningful way.”

Simultaneously the board took a new direction in how it discharged its fiduciary responsibilities. For decades it had directed the investment practices via its investment committee and an investment consultant. But it perceived a need to provide more timely oversight of the endowment, act more nimbly, and take advantage of different kinds of investment opportunities. As McConnell and O’Neill phrased it, “The board wanted to transform its role from tactical, in-the-weeds manager selection and oversight to one that was more about setting investment strategy and policy.” It outsourced the role of chief investment officer and took a hard look at how much risk it could prudently accept to improve returns. It created separate pools for the endowment and for current use with distinct and different investment policies, asset allocations, and return objectives.

“It was Jim who pushed through the outsourced chief investment officer model. We brought it up at one meeting. Jim said, ‘Shouldn’t we just do that?’ and the board said yes,” said O’Neill. “I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ This group really is ready for change.”

That served the foundation well when the pandemic struck and the university faced uncertainty over whether enrollment would hold up. Within weeks the foundation recalculated the annual payout to CSU, switching from a year-by-year payout to one based on a three-year rolling average. At a time of extreme market volatility, the foundation transferred to the university the second largest amount in its history.

“When other people think it has to take massive amounts of time to do a transformation like this, it doesn’t. If there’s a sense of urgency and a real will and desire to do it, you can actually make that change rapidly,” said O’Neill. “That’s what we’re a case study for.”

Diné College Board of Regents

Diné College was the first American Indian tribal college, chartered by the Navajo Nation in 1968. Now among 37 tribal colleges and universities, the institution that began as Navajo Community College offers two- and four-year degrees and stretches from a main campus in Tsaile, Arizona, across the Navajo Nation’s 27,000 square miles with five branches throughout Arizona and New Mexico. Diné (pronounced Denneh, which means “the children of the holy people”) in the past decade weathered leadership difficulties and discontent among faculty and staff that eased only after five of the eight members of the board of regents were replaced in 2015 and business consultant Greg H. Bigman was selected as the board’s president. After the subsequent removal of a president, the regents chose Charles “Monty” Roessel, a former director of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Education and a son of a founder of the college, as Diné’s 17th president.

Bigman earned a biochemistry degree at the University of New Mexico and pursued a career in the petrochemical and investment industries before returning to the reservation and putting his business acumen to use in helping solve endemic problems faced by the Navajo. “I was attracted to Diné,” he said, “because I wanted to turn around the college and felt that (higher) education could dramatically transform the Navajo Nation.” At the time, the college offered three bachelor’s degrees; today it has a dozen and was reaccredited and accorded four-year status in 2019.

The board’s own transformation played a pivotal role in ending internal discord and offering students greater opportunities and degrees with more worth in the job market. Beforehand, Bigman said, “some faculty felt they were being micromanaged and didn’t like the direction the college was going.” Attitudes now have changed.

Under tribal law, the board is composed of representatives from each of the five Navajo agencies or areas: the Navajo Nation superintendent of schools; the chair of its Health, Education, and Human Services Committee; and the student body president. Bigman, with the help of Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges guides, schooled himself on good governance, underwent training, and imparted what he learned to fellow regents. The root problem he diagnosed was a failure of leadership. “There was no trust throughout the college. People weren’t working together. They were afraid for their own jobs, afraid the college was not going to continue to grow,” he said. Even if only a handful of disgruntled employees felt that way, “the college is so small it’s magnified.”

The board held a retreat in 2016 to undertake a self-evaluation, aired members’ concerns, and reset priorities. “The retreat resulted in the formulation of goals that laid the foundation for a common voice and direction for the college,” Bigman said. Where once new regents were left “to Googling things left and right on the web” to figure out their role and responsibilities, now they were introduced to them in an organized way, he added.

Out of this came a board determined to chart a new strategic direction for Diné in collaboration with the college president that included improving student success, bolstering the college’s financial health, transforming its culture, expanding its technological capability “and engaging in nation building for the Navajo Nation,” Bigman said.

Turnover in the president’s office was a problem of long standing, with an average tenure of less than three years. This time the board established a search committee including a community representative and an array of staff as well as two regents to screen candidates and make recommendations to the full board. Roessel, a photographer and journalist before becoming an educator, emerged at the top of the list.

Bigman was looking for “somebody you can have a dialogue and honest conversation with. Leadership qualities were No. 1 on my list.” During the job interview, Roessel recalled, the regents “didn’t ask me how I would manage. … but what are your values.”

By Navajo custom, the board held a traditional ceremony welcoming Roessel on his first day and one of the prayers offered was that he would be a courageous leader. Roessel told them his mother “taught me that one of the definitions of leadership was you run toward the arrows. You don’t run into the arrows, but you run toward them. In other words, you face the challenges that are before you; you don’t turn away.”

To further transform itself and the institution, the regents revised the board charter to improve transparency and communication, professionalize board membership and create standing committees that aligned with core functions of the college. It worked with the president to see that the Faculty Association and Staff Association had clearly defined authorities and administrative support for their own leadership development.

With the college marking its 50th anniversary in 2018, the board created a foundation to drive fundraising, including $400,000 for scholarships; arranged for more training about ethics and stewardship; and finalized a code of conduct policy for itself.

Unlike some institutions, particularly community colleges, Diné did not experience a big enrollment drop when COVID-19 struck and it switched to online learning. Enrollment for spring 2021 was down only two percent from before the pandemic struck. And the CARES Act and other sources gave Diné funds to make long needed infrastructure repairs and improved technology for students, including loaner laptops and Wi-Fi improvements in the vast area it serves, where some students had to hike to the top of mesas to get a signal to complete assignments.

The work of moving Diné forward in its second half-century is far from finished. “There are so many things out there on the table for us to do,” said Bigman. “But the most important thing is always maintaining that close relationship with our partners, whether it’s government, business, or industry, and looking at how we start to move the needle of change within our society as the Navajo Nation and our surrounding communities.”

Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady University Board of Trustees

When Tina Holland was named president of Our Lady of the Lake College in Baton Rouge, Lousiana, in 2014, she found an institution in robust financial shape. Within two years the one-time nursing school achieved university status and renamed itself Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady University. But she quickly diagnosed a dire problem that could jeopardize its accreditation: It did not have a true governing board. The Roman Catholic institution, which specializes in degrees in health professions, was a subsidiary of Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center and its parent Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System, which operates 10 hospitals in Louisiana and Mississippi. It was the health system’s board, not the university’s own board of trustees, that called the shots.

Holland, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and former executive vice president and provost of Holy Cross College in South Bend, Indiana, knew that would not pass muster when an accreditation team from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools next came to visit. “To be accredited, a president must report to a fiduciary board, a true governing board …not reporting to the CEO of a hospital or health system,” she said.

She found in the late Alden Andre, a prominent Baton Rouge businessman and civic leader who chaired the board, an ally who quickly schooled himself on higher education governance, recruited new trustees and led the transformation of the board from a group of advisors to a true governing board.

But not without resistance.

“The parent entity had been doing it so long, it took time to convince them they had to do it,” said Leo Hamilton, an attorney whom Andre recruited to join the board and who would succeed him as chairman. “But once they realized the value of having an independent board that actually ran the university, they acquiesced.”

The board of trustees did not stop there. It restructured committees to better align with the college’s strategic plan and key functional areas. The board implemented a trustee orientation program and adopted new bylaws drafted by Hamilton, no stranger to the realm of higher education. He’d been counsel to the Louisiana Community and Technical College System since 1999.

It took “two years of countless and contentious meetings” to over- come resistance from the parent entity, Holland said. Major adjustments were made to the list of duties and responsibilities of the board, and the restrictions on its authority—the so-called reserved powers—were significantly reduced. The revisions were “vigorously contested,” but the board persisted and prevailed, she added.

One measure of the trustees’ new commitment was in their philanthropic commitment, achieving 100 percent participation in annual giving for the first time and maintaining it ever since. But another more significant measure was the board’s response when Holland proposed a controversial step: cutting enrollment in half in the college’s clinical licensure program for nurses, a lucrative source of revenue, because too many students were failing and having to pay to retake courses they failed.

Andre, the chairman, “just put his fist on the table and said, ‘This is not right. Go ahead, cut the program in half and get the pass rates up. You’ve got three years.’ We did it in one year and got off probation with a 100 percent pass rate,” said Holland.

Not all the points of difference with the parent health care organization have vanished. It was difficult securing acquiescence to the university board’s new, more assertive bylaws and even now, “they are acknowledged but not necessarily consistently followed” in dealings between the university and the hospital and health system, Holland said.

While the university receives a $1.5-million subsidy from the health system, it pays back double that for shared services and rent for the dozen converted medical office buildings in which classes are held and labs conducted.

“There is a lot yet to be done to educate the health system as to what the appropriate relationship is between the university and the health system,” she said.

But the university is hoping to secure the health system’s support for a $28-million project to construct its first academic building. Hamilton sees the lack of a definable campus as the university’s biggest challenge. A campus would make the 1,500 students, all commuters, “begin to feel like they are part of college life,” he said.

The idea of such a building has been talked about for years, but only picked up steam when Holland arrived, Hamilton said. “We truly have been an orphan of the health system and the hospital, but we’re so much closer now than we’ve ever been. Our finances are in great shape, and we think the time is now.”

Holland said the changes at FranU, as the students call it and as signified by its web address, have not gone unnoticed. “The board has earned a reputation for strong leadership among nonprofit organizations throughout the region,” said Holland.

The changes aren’t complete yet. The board recently created and instituted a new process for setting goals linked to the strategic plan, evaluating outcomes and making necessary adjustments.

In the meantime, the president and the trustees take pride in what they believe they have already pulled off: the rebirth of a true governing board.

University of Tennessee Board of Trustees

By law the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees went overnight on July 1, 2018, from 27 members to 12, all brand new. Actually, at first only five of the dozen seats were filled and confirmed by the legislature, including that of John Compton, former president of PepsiCo, the global beverage and snack food giant, whom then-Governor Bill Haslam made the chair. The dramatic change was a result of the Focus on College and University Success (FOCUS) Act, which gave each of Tennessee’s six state universities their own local governing boards instead of being run by the state board, which still oversees the statewide system. At the time, then University of Tennessee President Joe DiPietro had just fired the chancellor of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, the flagship campus, some legislators were upset with the university, and there were concerns among some in the academic community that the principles of academic freedom, shared governance, and freedom of speech were under attack.

To Compton, coming from the world of business, a smaller board made sense. “You can hear the voice of 12 people a lot easier than you can hear the voice of 27,” said Compton, a 1983 alumnus who’d stayed actively involved with his alma mater, including 15 years on the business school’s board of advisors. Some of the headlines about UT “looked problematic, but we saw it as an opportunity.”

One of the challenges on the board’s plate was finding a successor to the highly regarded DiPietro, who’d announced plans to retire. “I was probably a little naïve about how much time (chairing the board) would take,” said Compton. “There was some heavy lifting that first year.” DiPietro broached to businessman Randy Boyd, a former state economic development commissioner, the idea of serving as interim president while the board searched for a permanent one.

Boyd was a self-made entrepreneur—founder of a company that made the Invisible Fence for dogs— who’d spent six years in government working without a salary advising Haslam on education, including initiatives to boost the state’s college graduation rate to 55 percent and make community colleges free. He’d also chaired the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and run in 2018 to succeed Governor Haslam, but lost in the Republican primary.

DiPietro’s overture came as a shock. “My first reaction was to ask if he thought I’d be qualified. He said I would,” Boyd recalled. He agreed to take the job “only if it allowed me to be transformative. If I was just there to be a caretaker, have my feet up on the desk until somebody else came in, I didn’t want it.”

Sixteen months after Boyd moved into the office, the board of trustees, now grown from 5 to its full complement of 12, dispensed with a national search and named Boyd the 26th president of the University of Tennessee.

The board, which included several CEOs like Compton but also civic leaders and former Lady Vols basketball great Kara Lawson (now coach of the Duke University women’s team), had the confidence to make such a move not just based on its evaluation of Boyd’s performance but also the extensive efforts it made to ascertain what Tennesseans, including faculty, state lawmakers, and the general public, wanted from their universities. It held town halls and provided additional time for the public to address board meetings. Compton became a regular attendee at meetings of the statewide University Faculty Council.

Four town halls were hosted by the chancellors on those campuses, with a faculty member and a student moderating the question-and-answer session.

“People wanted more transparency and greater access to the board. They wanted their voice to be heard,” said Compton. “Just going out and listening helped us build some credibility coming out of the gate. It helped me on understanding this term ‘shared governance.’”

“We didn’t do it just to check the box. Trust me. We did it to learn,” said Compton. “Education, like business, is in a state of transformation. There’s constantly something new and different that needs to be addressed. Sitting with those who are closest to the front line is important.”

With the number of high school graduates projected to drop, “we set out from day one to focus on enrollment, improving our freshmen retention and graduation rates … and building our research,” said the chair.

Compton calls Boyd, whom he knew from the UT business school advisory board, “a truly remarkable leader …. His outside-in thinking into a university was what UT really needed right now. “

Boyd, who still does not draw a paycheck, said, “If you want to make an impact and serve Tennesseans, there is not a better way to serve more people more effectively than as president of the university.” Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, enrollment across the system rose almost two percent in 2020.

In making its case for a Nason Award, Cynthia Moore, the board secretary and special counsel, wrote that this “young” board “has fostered a climate of respect, transparency, and refreshing candor …. It has not shied away from difficult issues.”

They “placed their trust in each other and, by demonstrating their passion, commitment and willingness to admit that they are still learning on the job, others are beginning to trust this board,” she wrote.

University of Vermont Foundation

It was an audacious undertaking: creating an independent philanthropic foundation for the University of Vermont (UVM) and undertaking a half-billion-dollar capital campaign at the same time. But in 2019, eight years later, when the “Move Mountains” campaign wrapped up, the university and the University of Vermont Foundation Board had raised $581 million, nearly a quarter from members of the board and a feeder group of alumni it created called the Foundation Leadership Council. In a small state (population 620,000) with meager state appropriations for public higher education—the university is heavily dependent on tuition, at $16,390 some 70 percent higher than the national in-state average—it was a remarkable outcome.

The success was based in part on the affection of alumni, even if scattered around the country, for their years on the Burlington campus and in those Green Mountains. “There’s such a strong connection,” said Diane Lynn Seder ‘74, chair of the Foundation Board of Trustees. “That sense of place never leaves.” But the success was also an outgrowth of a textbook effort to construct and empower a strong board capable not only of raising large resources but also contributing to the direction and growth of the university and its Medical Center.

“Prior to the establishment of the UVM Foundation, there was a relative dearth of high-level volunteer and engagement opportunities at the university,” said Shane Jacobson, the foundation’s first employee and later its second president and CEO. Most university trustees were selected by the governor and legislature.

The newly established foundation board, including its first chair, Eugene Kalkin ’50, and future chair Jim Keller ’72, set out at its first meeting in April 2011 to construct the board from the ground up. “We invited into the room experts from the outside to talk about best practices, foundation management and operations, good board governance, and made early decisions to operate in a very public and transparent way,” said Jacobson. It resulted in a board “very much connected at the hip,” as Jacobson put it, with the university president and his priorities.

Keller, Seder, and other successful and grateful alumni had been out there all along, but never previously presented with an opportunity to help shape UVM’s future. Keller had recently retired from a career as a senior Weyerhaeuser Company executive, which he joined straight out of Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business after earning a UVM engineering degree “I actually focused my philanthropy on Tuck,” said Keller. Still he sent a son to UVM and “our affinity to Vermont is very tight.”

Seder counts 15 relatives as UVM grads, but “had very little connection to UVM for many years.” She returned home to Wisconsin after college and went into the family’s valve manufacturing business. “UVM didn’t have the infrastructure to reach out to those of us in different areas to bring us back in until the foundation was formed.” She ramped up her involvement after “Shane showed up in my living room” and invited her to join the foundation board.

Jacobson said that “the human capital—energy, creativity, expertise, thoughtfulness (and) care—that the founding board invested” in making the board a success “cannot be overstated.”

The now 29-member board—six ex officio and the rest self-perpetuating—also established a Foundation Leadership Council of more than 100 people who each have donated $100,000 or more to the university over his or her lifetime. Those council members are invited to board meetings in the spring and fall—at peak foliage season—to participate in board activities, including serving on committees and hearing from the provost, deans, and other university officials. The council also serves as a feeder for selecting new board members. “You really start broadening your base and they take ownership,” Seder said.

Some 75,000 alumni, parents, and friends contributed to the “Move Mountains” drive. A campaign that raises more than a half billion dollars obviously relies on some very big donations, but Keller said, “The engagement of the alums was very broad based. The $100 gifts were just as important as the $5-million gifts.”

Some seven-figure gifts came “from alumni who had never given anything before,” said Seder. However, the largest gift of $66 million came from UVM’s greatest benefactor, Robert Larner ’39, MD ’42, for whom the College of Medicine is now named. A roofer’s son, Larner and his wife, Helen, have donated $100 million over their lifetimes, starting from a $50,000 gift for scholarships 35 years back.

Affordability remains a paramount concern for the foundation board and UVM President Suresh Garimella, who has frozen tuition since taking office in 2019 and launched a new Student Opportunity, Access, and Recruitment (SOAR) initiative to raise money for more scholarships.

Normally “you have to take a breather after a campaign like we had,” said Keller, who recently became the foundation’s interim president after Jacobson left to become CEO of the V Foundation for Cancer Research. “But I’m a business person. I want to make things happen. Put a bold goal out there and let’s go for it.”

Honorable Mentions

Three higher education institutions earned honorable mentions in the consideration of the 2021 John W. Nason Award for Board Leadership for their significant contributions to their larger communities.

Florida Memorial University 

The Challenge: Hurricane Dorian’s devastation of the Bahamas in 2019 (40 percent of their student base is from the Bahamas or descendants of that area)

The Solutions: 

  • Created campuswide Relief Task Force
  • Provided housing support, religious programming, and directed monetary support to impacted students
  • Leveraged alumni and community stakeholders to raise funds, acquire donations, coordinate volunteers
Frontier Nursing University 

The Challenge: The learning model was in need of adjustment to attract students.

The Solutions: 

  • Changed model of learning to be less campus-based and more distance-learning oriented
  • Moved entire campus two hours away for ease of access, financial improvement, and lasting sustainability
  • Donated existing campus to the county as a gesture of goodwill and thanks to the community for their long-time partnership
Kent State University

The Challenge: The 50th anniversary of the shootings at Kent State University needed public acknowledgment of the tragedy.

The Solutions: 

  • Created the landmark resolution in 2019 in which the university formally assumed responsibility for the commemoration and ongoing education efforts
  • Engaged in extensive community conversations, town halls, listening tours, etc.
  • Established, the May 4 Visitors’ Center, which educates the public on the societal trends that led to the 1970 shooting, and the aftermath

Christopher Connell is an independent journalist and former education writer for the Associated Press. He is the author of AGB’s Top Strategic Issues for Boards 2020–2021.

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