Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Kristin Butler on Duke’s BOT

Duke senior Kristin Butler’s Tuesday Chronicle columns are “must reads” for many who also visit JinC.

Because of her work on a senior thesis, Kristin didn’t write a column this week. As a result, many of her readers are suffering “withdrawel symptoms.”

To help those folks, and perhaps introduce others to Kristin’s columns which are always carefully researched and thoughtful, I’m posting a “Butler Classic” that was first published Feb. 20, 2007.

At the time Mike Nifong was still Durham DA and three innocent young men who’d been Duke students remained under indictment for multiple felonies.

Just weeks before Butler’s column appeared, Duke President Richard Brodhead and BOT Chair Robert Stell, after eight months of going along with Nifong’s plan to put the man on trial, calculated it was in their interests to finally begin criticizing Nifong.

But neither then nor since has Brodhead or Steel explained Duke’s “throw the students under the bus” response to Crystal Mangum and Mike Nifong’s lies and the “faculty outrage” which did do much to give credence to the lies and enable the frame-up attempt.

Kristin Butler’s Feb. 20 column called attention to major University governance problems which contributed to Duke’s disgusting response to the Hoax.

Here’s Butler’s column, after which I make a brief comment and ask a question:

Now that 2007's hotly contested undergraduate Young Trustee race has concluded, it's worth asking: When was the last time you heard a "regular" member of the Board of Trustees publicly define his platform the way Ben Abram, Jimmy Soni, Chrissie Gorman and David Snider were required to?

The answer is probably never. Aside from annual Young Trustee elections, the process for selecting the Board's remaining 36 members is, according to a January 1996 Chronicle article, "entirely confidential" due to "potentially serious political and financial repercussions for the University."

That process is not especially representative, either; in fact, the Methodist Church elects 24 of the board's 36 seats, with 12 apportioned to the church's Eastern Conference and another 12 reserved for the West.

Duke's alumni are nominally responsible for electing 12 more trustees, although alumni leaders-and not alumni in general-are tasked with selecting these candidates.

This clandestine selection process may well respect the delicate political and financial considerations that go into selecting a trustee, but it also guarantees a board that is largely unknown-and unaccountable-to the Duke community.

By excluding the press from nearly all the Board's deliberations and shielding its records from the public, the Board completes a cycle of clandestine decision making that leaves it accountable to no one.

Considering that Duke's bylaws vest "all powers of the University... in a Board of Trustees," including responsibility for everything from overseeing the University's financial well-being to choosing a president, that level of secrecy separates community members from nearly every important decision this University must make.

If this seems remarkably anti-democratic to you, well, it is; the Board's closed-door policy-which was re-instituted in 1996-was blasted by The Chronicle in an October 2000 editorial as an "unbending... refusal to resume an appropriate level of communication, making scrutiny difficult and removing all accountability."

The editorial continued, saying this policy ensures the Board's "decisions will go essentially unscrutinized and its discussions will go virtually unquestioned and the distance between the board and the community it serves will grow disturbingly wider."

As the board's Feb. 23-24 retreat at the Washington Duke Inn approaches, it's worth asking when our trustees-as the University's top decision makers-plan to break their silence and publicly address the scandals embroiling our community.

A particularly appropriate place to start would be to address the major conflict of interest Chairman of the Board Robert Steel faces with his appointment as undersecretary of the treasury for domestic finance. This new role has forced the Board's prized "financial and economic genius" to "not be involved in anything connected to fundraising," a task that should otherwise define his job.

In fact, this prohibition is so restrictive that it's not even clear if Steel can function as ex-officio chair of the Board's executive committee, which oversees "operations and investment process" for billions of dollars of the University's endowment.

Indeed, if this board is really to make decisions that "cost people's jobs, refine their benefit packages, reshape their educations and change the dynamics of their city," the hypocrisy of overseeing University-wide priorities while the Board refuses to police itself deserves our input.

Equally important is that the board offer decisive leadership in the aftermath of the lacrosse scandal, which is increasingly pitting constituencies within the University-faculty, students, administrators and alumni-opposite each other.

Just this year, Professor Kim Curtis has been accused of tampering with students' grades, while many of her colleagues have reported receiving racist and abusive e-mails and phone calls.

Students and alumni are now openly signing online petitions that demand apologies from these same professors, with some of them going so far as to withhold financial support for the University.

Compare that to President Brodhead's defiance last month that he would handle the lacrosse scandal no differently knowing what he knows today-pressuring the coach to resign, suspending the team's season, sending not only the defendants but also Ryan McFadyen home.

This level of administrative denial, coupled with the rising intensity of our internal conflicts and the threat of more lawsuits to come puts the board's erstwhile silence to shame.

Although Duke's warring factions may be united in their fierce love for the University, the conflicts appear to be growing more acrimonious, not less, and a decisive, public response from the University's senior governing body is long past due.

After all, it was chairman Steel who defended the lacrosse season's suspension, saying, "We had to stop those pictures. It doesn't mean that it's fair, but we had to stop it."

Perhaps it's time that Steel took his own advice and publicly addressed these issues at our University. It won't be pleasant, but it is vitally important if the board wishes to be considered a representative and responsible steward for our community-wide priorities.

Here’s the link to Butler’s column: The Board We Trust

Comment and Question:

I’m not aware of any intention, much less plan, by the trustees, alumni association and the Methodist conferences to address the problems Butler describes so clearly.

Are any of you aware of intentions or plans by any of those groups to change things for the better?


just a thought said...

This is an interesting article indeed. I understand a desire for privacy for the candidates as a reason for the process to be confidential, but "potentially serious political and financial repercussions for the University"?

They think they will get sued because they pick who they want without regard for equal opportunity, etc? I always assumed they would pick their wealthiest donors, but I don't see why that would cause serious political/financial repercussions. Its an obvious perk to give someone considering a huge donation, the power to see it implemented.

I also didn't know the Methodist church retained a say. I'm surprised they don't have a more severe morality clause for students.