Forum Provides Duke Community a Look at the Work of Board of Trustees

As part of a new initiative, faculty, staff, alumni and students had an opportunity to hear about the discussions and decisions of the Duke University Board of Trustees and to ask questions of board members and administrators about the key issues raised in trustee meetings.

Led by Senior Vice President Richard Riddell, the Wednesday forum in Rubenstein Library was part of an effort to pull back some of the mystery around the board’s work and make it more accessible to the Duke community.

The plan is to hold public forums after each of the quarterly trustee meetings, Riddell said. The transparency initiative also includes the online posting of summaries of the board’s discussions, as well as those of its standing committees and task forces. (The summaries from the Nov. 30-Dec. 1 meeting are posted here.)

“The minutes of board meetings are kept confidential by policy for 50 years,” said Riddell, who also serves as secretary to the Board of Trustees. “But we want to make the substance of the meetings known, through the written summaries and through meetings like this forum.”

About 30 people attended, including local community members with ties to the university. They filled the hour-long session with questions on a wide range of questions. One consistent theme of the forum was to provide clarity on the role and responsibilities of the trustees. Riddell and others emphasized that trustees’ role is not to manage the daily decisions of the university.

“Trustees have a fiduciary responsibility for this university, but they don’t run the university,” Riddell said. “They hire the president to do that. They oversee the operations, but they don’t get involved in faculty matters, for example. They don’t tell [Academic Council chair] Don Taylor what to do. They don’t make decisions for Duke Student Government. They don’t go down to that level.

“But they stay up at an oversight level for two important reasons: To give oversight to ensure the university’s long-term health and to help us gain insight on strategic decisions that are going to be made down the road. That’s really what the board does.”

There was particular interest in some of the strategic themes being studied by the task forces (see sidebar). Both students and alumni asked about the global network initiative, which President Vincent Price has described as an effort to deepen university life by creating pathways for alumni to continue to learn through Duke and to connect them to students on campus to enrich their educational experience.

Edgar Virguez, a Ph.D. student who serves on the global network Task Force, said the group is surveying students and alumni to see what they most need out of the network.  There’s a recognition, he said, that “what a current Ph.D. student needs is going to be different from what someone who was here 20 years ago.”

“We’ve reached out to find why some students don’t feel represented in the alumni network, and why some alumni never connect.  For the most part the alumni network is doing fine, but we want to take it to the next level.  The next generation of the network must not just connect alumni, but must engage with them from the moment they step on campus so they think of the university as a lifelong experience.”

The work of the Central Campus Task Force also attracted interest, although Riddell noted the work is just in the early stages.  Previous plans to develop the property for campus life were put on hold following the 2008 recession, but the problem that it is “neither central nor a campus” that led to those plans still are in play.

Riddell said there were no particular plans as of yet to present.  The Task Force in its discussions noted development of Central Campus “does not necessarily have to create revenue, but it should also not be a cost drain.”

The Academic Council is also part of that discussion, and heard a presentation on the topic in executive session at its monthly meeting on Thursday.

The full forum can be seen on a Facebook Live recording made by the Duke Chronicle.