Northwestern’s Board of Trustees has been described with a slew of labels over the last decade: “Elusive” in a 2016 North by Northwestern piece; “inaccessible” in quotes from a 2015 The Daily Northwestern article; “morally bankrupt” in a 2018 The Daily Northwestern letter to the editor. The trustees’ controversial reputation is complex— though the Board makes decisions that impact students daily, it remains an ostensibly mysterious entity.
The Board’s 67 appointed trustees, organized into 13 subcommittees, each serve four-year terms. Its 85 “life trustees” are considered distinguished members of the Northwestern community and serve never-ending terms. As the legal “owner” of the University and its assets, the Board is responsible for Northwestern’s endowment, budget and policy approval. Among students and faculty, though, trustees are known for their contentious decisions.
Most recently, the Board rejected Fossil Free NU (FFNU)’s proposal to cut ties with any top 100 coal, oil or gas companies and reinvest in renewable energy. The five-year divestment saga began with an Associated Student Government proposal to divest from coal companies and is emblematic of the Board’s relationship with students. FFNU was able to secure an April 2020 meeting with trustees only after their proposal was rejected and they blocked Sheridan Road in protest, according to Bienen second-year and FFNU executive board member Lucy London.
“It’s definitely not an easy process,” London says. “They’re big figures, and there’s no contact information.”
London and other FFNU members contacted the Board through the Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility (ACIR). Established in 2016, ACIR advises the Board’s Investment Committee on ethically managing holdings, alongside Northwestern’s Chief Investment Officer. When former CIO William McClean resigned last year, ACIR organized a meeting between Fossil Free members and trustees where students lobbied for inclusion on the CIO search committee. The Board declined their input.
“Their hesitation about it was that there isn’t precedence for it, but there is precedence at other schools, and I think we should have that here,” London says.
Northwestern’s Office of Administration and Planning, which includes the Board of Trustees, was not available for a comment prior to publication.
In a 2010 report, the Association of Governing Boards — a membership organization for higher education boards — found that 20.1% of private universities and over 70% of public universities had some form of student representation on their boards. Many of Northwestern’s peer institutions, such as Duke University and Vanderbilt University, allow student representatives. Because Northwestern’s Board does not, trustees only directly interact with students during an annually scheduled event when the Student Affairs committee speaks with an undergraduate panel.
“It would be helpful if there were more public meetings. I think the Board agrees with this,” Weinberg professor and ACIR chair David Uttal says. “I certainly will do my very best to get in these issues about... the general lack of communication with all of the constituencies and the lack even of knowing who the [trustees] are.”
In their second meeting with the CIO search committee, FFNU collaborated with another student group communicating with the Board: Northwestern Community Not Cops (NUCNC). After sending their petition to abolish the Northwestern University Police Department to Northwestern business and finance administrators on June 3, 2020, NUCNC members hoped it would be passed on to trustees and discussed at the meeting.
“One member said the majority of the Black members on the Board of Trusteeshad read it... but everyone else on the panel had not,” says Weinberg third-year Karina Karbo-Wright, who represented NUCNC in the joint meeting. “I doubt the petition is going to get to their desks because it came out right as George Floyd was murdered... and even then, the Board couldn’t be bothered besides the few that did read it.”
A biennial undergraduate survey updates trustees on campus happenings, and according to Uttal, they receive frequent reports from President Morton Schapiro throughout the year. With pandemic-related information developing daily, though, recent reports may have overlooked key details regarding student activism.
“There certainly is an attempt to keep the Board of Trustees informed, but I don’t think there’s sufficient student input to that. I actually get to read some of [the reports], and during the pandemic there were pages and pages about how to respond,” Uttal says. “There wasn’t much about, for example, the protests about the police.”
Despite recent disagreements, the Board has sided with students in the past. In 2018, students and faculty demanded the University evaluate harassment allegations against former Medill Justice Project director Alec Klein; the University acquiesced, and trustees supported the investigation. When Klein resigned after accusations of predatory behavior from over 19 women, Northwestern closed the investigation with no appeal process.
Klein’s case could set an important precedent — the Board has yet to address a 2021 lawsuit filed against the University for allegedly concealing claims of sexual harassment within Northwestern’s cheerleading team. Northwestern’s Faculty Senate, the elected faculty representative body, passed legislation this March calling on the University to include their input when investigating the claims. The Senate expressed concern over the investigative roles of University administration and the Board of Trustees, especially given allegations that cheerleaders were forced to interact with influential donors to better the University’s finances.
“Northwestern has been in the news so much these past couple of months,” Karbo-Wright says. “I don’t want to trivialize the things that are happening, but I think it’s building up a sort of momentum... If we can find something that’s going to cause the right amount of national outrage, we could force the Board’s hand.”
The Board’s most anticipated upcoming decision — the selection of a new president to replace outgoing President Schapiro — is as critical as it will be contentious.
“It’s so difficult because no matter what, they should not be the ones picking the President,” Karbo-Wright says. “At the end of the day, it should be the entire school—staff, faculty, students, and administrators, and the Board; it should be a group effort.”
"There certainly is an attempt to keep the Board of Trustees informed, but I don’t think there’s sufficient student input to that."
ACIR Chair and Weinberg Professor
The Board is ubiquitous in campus conversations because of its high-profile decisions. Its primary focus, though, is managing the school’s budget and endowment. According to Uttal, Northwestern’s finances have undergone two “dramatic negative swings in the last four years.” The first in 2018 forced Northwestern to draw $100 million from the endowment to settle a $94 million budget deficit. The COVID-19 pandemic also continues to alter the University’s financial standing.
“They weathered it pretty well,” Uttal says. “There have been some layoffs but not nearly as many as other universities… departments have not been eliminated, and Northwestern is not in under threat of closing. I’m not excusing them, but it is probably a little harder to get attention when those things are going on, when there’s a potentially existential threat. They had to be focused on that.”
While the Board monitors University spending, the Northwestern community monitors trustees’ spending. J. Landis Martin, current chairman and managing director of the Board, donated $30,000 over two years to Trump Victory, a political action committee that supported former President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. Martin’s history of supporting Republican campaigns was questioned by alumni in a The Daily Northwestern letter to the editor. His spending starkly contrasts with Northwestern’s political demographics—it was recently ranked the fifth most liberal university in the country by Niche, a data analytics website.
“I feel like they’re really conservative compared to other colleges and universities,” London says. “It might be half and half... but it’s the people who have the power in the board who are the most conservative.”
Trustees are elected every four years by the Board’s Committee on Governance and Nominations, and their terms are staggered. When new trustees are appointed and elected, students and faculty are informed, but do not have any input.
“[At some universities], the Board of Trustees or the equivalent is actually elected and more responsible to the public,” Uttal says. “But ours is totally appointed. So, we have very little say in who becomes a Board of Trustees member, and that is arguably a problem.”
NUCNC’s police abolition movement is likely the next student activism issue the Board will consider. Organizers specifically addressed trustees in a pre-written statement during a protest on March 13. Given that trustees took six months to release their decision on Fossil Free NU’s divestment proposal, a long process may be ahead of NUCNC members. While they would need the Board’s support to completely abolish NUPD, change on a smaller scale has been achieved without trustee approval in the past. “Students have made differences; they made differences during the Vietnam War…,” Uttal says. “It can happen. It hasn’t happened very often. I would suggest that the best [solution] is one of partnership with the Board.”