Wealth, giving and the Board of Trustees

By Eliot Brown

The Trustees tend to remain largely anonymous to Macalester students. They are political players, successful business people, heirs, and educators. They come from many backgrounds, but one thing above all makes most of them qualified to sit on the Board of Trustees: they are wealthy.

Wealth is a deciding factor at colleges in determining who is on the board, as schools expect their trustees to be the backbone of financial support, especially as education costs continue to rise.

The Board is composed of 28 members, 27 of whom are alumni of the college. Members include Joan Mondale, the wife of former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale ’52, Lois Quam ’83, a CEO of a UnitedHealth Group company, and chairman Mark Vander Ploeg ’74, a banking executive at Merrill Lynch.

The members typically hold leadership roles in their respective occupations, most of which are in business, though there are also a number of trustees from the nonprofit and education sectors.

The Board serves as a guide to the college, leaving much of the micromanagement and vision to the President it hires. Large decisions, such as the move to need-aware admissions, tenure and the approval of new buildings come before the board at its meetings, which occur three to four times each year.

With revenue from tuition not enough to cover the total cost of running the college, donations and interest from the endowment make up for the shortfall. As costs continually rise beyond inflation each year, Macalester is increasingly relying on financial gifts to help run the college. The trustees, as the governors of the college, are viewed as the lead donors and fundraisers who donate and solicit gifts from other potential supporters.

“We expect the trustees to lead by example,” said Tommy Bonner, Vice President for Advancement. “It’s hard to expect them to go out and get others to give,” if they aren’t donating themselves.

Bonner said in the capital campaign, a plan to raise around $150 million in donations over the next few years, he expects to look to members of the Board to give about $65 million.

Sitting on the Board helps to create a stronger connection with the college, Bonner said, often leading to a greater desire to give.

“As you think about someone that can give $5 million to the institution, what better way to bring them on board…then to have them on the Board of Trustees?” Bonner said.

When the Board looks for new trustees, wealth and giving potential frequently play a large role in the decision. As a self-selecting body, new trustees are selected by the Committee on Trustees, a committee composed of Board members. The guidelines for the committee said the Board should have “a substantial number of Board members with the capacity to contribute at least $1,000,000 over a lifetime.”

It emphasizes, as did Bonner, a need for balance on the Board—trustees should represent a variety of different careers and skills, the guidelines said.

In meeting these guidelines, there are no rigid formulas, such as a minimum donation, and candidates are looked at individually, Bonner said.

Timothy Hart-Anderson, a trustee who works as a pastor in Minneapolis, said he thinks viewing the Board as a primary source of fundraising, and thus having trustees capable of giving significant donations, is necessary for the college. Without a philanthropic board, he said, “we’d be much more dependent on affluent students; we’d be much more dependent on affluent families. I prefer to have the diverse student body—in order to do that, we have to have a strong financial base, in order to have a strong financial base, we need to have people with means [on the Board],” he said.

On the current Macalester Board, there are a variety of fields represented, from theater to healthcare to finance. However, the emphasis seems to be on business, as there are four CEOs of private companies, six trustees who work in finance, and a number of business consultants.

Having a heavy business presence is something of an inevitability, said Phyliss Palmiero, Director of the Institute for Effective Governance, an organization that works with college trustees. “People who are prominent in communities are typically leaders of business,” she said. “They typically want to give back.”

Selecting board members with potential giving in mind is inevitable, she said. “Ideally I would say it should have little bearing, but it’s a reality,” she said. “It is a large part of how [private colleges] get their financial aid and how they get their bills paid.”

With money as a strong factor in the selection of trustees, some wonder whether the Board fully represents the mindset and diversity of Macalester community members and alumni. In addition to the emphasis on backgrounds of business, only eight of the 28 Board members are women—in contrast to a nearly 60 percent female student body.

With respect to politics, four of the 14 trustees who were listed as giving money in national elections in 2004 gave to Republicans, according to federal records. Among them was the Chairman Vander Ploeg, who gave the maximum $2,000 to President George W. Bush, and the Treasurer, John Robinson ’71, who gave $25,000 to the Republican National Committee. The 10 trustees who gave to Democrats gave comparable donations to the Democratic National Committee and Sen. John Kerry including Vice Chair Ruth Stricker Dayton ’57 who gave $25,000 to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.

Robinson, in an interview, said that he thinks the balance of the Board reflects many different constituencies and is generally appropriate. “There are a wide range of views represented on the Board,” he said. “I see Macalester from A to Z—I don’t see a red state majority in any constituency and I would believe the Board follows that.”

Hart Andersen agreed that he believes members of the Board are committed to the college and its values, though he said ideally, the Board would be a more diverse group. However, the need to raise money from the trustees in order to provide for the college is a higher priority.

“Colleges throughout the country are facing the reality that demands resources in order to keep pace with expectations,” he said. “Ideally, we could have a Board that reflected all the diversity we wish to see in the college…everyone on the Board would agree with that.”