Duke University governance works best when trustees provide an independent oversight role while staying out of the way of administrators and faculty making daily decisions, the chair of the Duke Board of Trustees told faculty in a historic meeting Thursday.
Richard Wagoner's address to the Academic Council marked the first time a standing trustee chair has met with the full faculty council. Wagoner suggested the address to the council, saying he hoped the meeting would help build faculty-trustee relations on the occasion of the council celebrating its 50th anniversary.
The event attracted a filled council meeting room in Divinity's Westbrook Building. Saying that "it's an exciting time for higher education, but also one that feels like a portal to significant change," Wagoner spoke for about 25 minutes on how the trustee board works. He then took another half-hour of questions from the faculty on topics that ranged from the future of a liberal arts education to how board members stay informed on the university's current activities and challenges.
"There are three headline items trustees focus on," Wagoner said. "Does Duke have a good strategic plan? Is Duke well managed? And does the university have adequate resources to implement that strategic plan?"
Wagoner said trustees' role is not to run the university, "but to oversee the university and focus on where we as trustees can add value."
"I suspect you already know this, but the Board of Trustee embraces the critical role faculty plays in Duke's success. Our business is education and research, and you are the people who do it."
Academic Council chair Susan Lozier told faculty that the meeting should advance trustee-faculty relations and communications. Wagoner and other trustees are in regular communication with the council's executive committee, she added, and faculty continue to work with faculty in a variety of ways, including search committees that select new trustee members.
Wagoner praised the faculty who work with the Board of Trustees on strategic issues and on trustee committees. He cited the role of Duke leadership and University Secretary Richard Riddell in keeping the board effective and in a climate of collegiality where everyone still feels "they have a chance to state their views."
"Board governance issues take up a lot of time, and Richard helps us stay on top of them," Wagoner said. "We see cases at other university where governance fails and bad things happen. We watch these and try to learn to include best practices."
He noted the board of 37 people is a diverse group but nearly everyone shares a previous connection to the university; mostly as alumni but also as parents, former employees or colleagues of current Duke faculty.
"What we all share is a passion for Duke and a commitment to Duke's future success," Wagoner said.
At the same time, he said, one challenge is that trustees come to the board with their own history and memory of what Duke is like.
"That's why regular interaction with today's players -- today's faculty, staff and students -- is really important," he said. "We try to provide board members many opportunities to get up to speed as much as possible. We look at issues through a contemporary framework, but with the perspective of our memories. We want to build on the great parts of the university, but our direction is always what's next."
What's next has him cautiously excited, he said. On global issues, Wagoner said Duke's ventures in China were "at the beginning of the journey." "I'm bullish on the opportunity, but I recognize not every step is smooth. I think the potential for the university is great if we are smart. The effort is cost-efficient with exciting prospects."
With an off-hand list of topics being watched by the board, Wagoner also cited Duke Forward, the $3.25 billion capital campaign, which is essential to providing resources for Duke to take on strategic initiatives.
He also said trustees are watching closely Duke's venture into online education, noting that the goal of doing education more effectively, reaching more people and enhancing research is worthy, but "we don't know the answers yet."
"We also have questions about the financial model for higher education. We're concerned about the affordability of tuition, and we see that research funding is under pressure," he said. "We are going to be prepared to respond robustly if our traditional assumptions about higher education finances significantly change."
Health care, "which is under as much change as higher education," is also a board concern, he said. Although the Duke University Health System has its own board, university trustees also play a governance role because "it's a big part of Duke and a big part of the Duke brand."
The combination of changes to higher education and health care, pressures on the financial model and needs for strategic ventures both international and domestic make for increasing risk, he said. But the wrong approach would be to avoid new challenges.
"I'm reminded that in a similar type of environment, James B. Duke took the risk to launch a new university," he said. "Our success is built upon that boldness, and if he were alive today, I think he would say this is exactly the kind of environment where Duke can shine."
Below: Academic Council members listen to trustee chair Richard Wagoner Thursday. Photo by Jon Gardiner/Duke University Photography