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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University June 12, 2006 | Vol. 35 No. 37
Thinking Out Loud

William R. Brody

By William R. Brody

On Being a Good Trustee

Being asked to join the board of trustees of a prestigious university is a great honor. Many people don't realize it's an even larger obligation. The trustees are charged with ensuring that, in fulfilling its mission, the university not only survives but that it thrives. Their role is extremely important for the long-term success of the university. And Johns Hopkins is blessed to have one of the finest groups of trustees any university could desire.

Trustees are usually elected based upon their notable success in some field, and, most often, it is not that of higher education. Few new trustees have had much experience with academia, save the time they spent in college and graduate or professional school.

So it is not surprising that many newly elected trustees find it difficult both to understand the operations of the university and to determine how to best execute their governance role. While many arrive thinking they know Johns Hopkins from their exposure to one of our divisions, they soon find that even the operations of a single division are far more complex than they imagined, let alone the entire amalgamation of the multidivisional global player that is Johns Hopkins. You might envision Johns Hopkins as an extremely busy nine-tentacled octopus (should that be a "nonopus"?).

Many of our trustees are highly regarded for their success in business, and for their extraordinary generosity to the university. But I bet few in the Hopkins community have any understanding of the time and energy that our trustees devote through their board service to helping the university carry out its mission. Their work on behalf of the university is best understood by looking at the scope of trustee committees — finance, academic affairs, audits and insurance, buildings and grounds, investments and so forth. Serve on any of these committees and you immediately begin to see how complex are the operations of Johns Hopkins and, at the same time, how much time a trustee must devote to understanding the issues in order to best help the university in a governance role.

The recent untimely death of one of Johns Hopkins' finest trustees, Andrew J. Bozzelli, calls to mind what an exemplary trustee can mean to us all. Andy was an alumnus of the Whiting School of Engineering, class of 1953, a successful businessman and, like many trustees, a generous benefactor of the university. His expertise in the private sector and his great love of Johns Hopkins were two ample, though not at all unusual, qualifications for election to the university's board of trustees.

What distinguished Andy, in my mind, was his dedicated service to the affairs of the board. In my 10 years as president, Andy never missed a meeting. This would qualify him for Michael Bloomberg's No. 1 criterion for success in any endeavor: Show up early and leave late. Andy attended every meeting of the full board, plus that of any committee to which he was assigned.

Many other trustees are faithful attendees as well, of course, some coming several thousand miles for each and every board meeting. Andy, however, perhaps unlike any other trustee during my tenure, chose to understand in great depth the operations and activities of the university. He chaired the finance committee and knew where every penny of the university's resources was being spent. When a university borrows money (as most do), it must have an external review by outside bond-rating agencies, such as Moody's, Standard & Poor's and Fitch. One of the many things these rating agencies do is delve into details, and I do mean details. Not only do they interview management — the term "grill" comes to mind — they also pore over financial statements, look at how well fund raising is going and even assess the strength of student applicants. (Recently, while in New York for an event where Johns Hopkins invites alumni and friends to a program of faculty presentations, I was surprised to shake hands with one of the auditors working for Standard & Poor's, there to observe firsthand how our fund raising was managed!)

The rating agencies also interview trustees. After one such interview with Andy Bozzelli, who at that time was chairing our finance committee, the agency interviewers told me that in their years of experience working with many, many universities, they had never interviewed a trustee who was so knowledgeable about his university's finances. Even after Andy became emeritus trustee and passed the reins of the finance committee to Pam Flaherty, he continued to attend all the committee meetings. This past winter, we were making a presentation to the committee on the university's five-year plan, outlining the projected financial forecasts for each division and listing a base of assumptions. Andy quickly pointed out that given the tuition revenue forecast, one of the divisions would have to be planning a significant expansion in the number of undergraduate students, even though this had not been outlined in the base assumptions. None of us had picked up this important discrepancy, even though we had pored over the document. Red-faced, we had to agree to explore this issue and get back to the finance committee with an explanation!

While Andy delved deeply into the details of whatever committee to which he was assigned, he knew the difference between minor issues and the really important ones. He was never shy about asking questions, and I can't recall a single one that was off the mark. Such diligence and insight are important, but Andy was always cognizant of the line between governance, a board of trustees function, and operations, which falls to the president and university administration. This balancing act requires considerable sensitivity in knowing when to speak up or intervene and when to remain silent.

Earlier this spring, two unusual events occurred. Andy failed to appear for a Hopkins lacrosse game at Homewood Field, and he canceled his plans to attend the board of trustees meeting the next day. I knew things must be seriously wrong, and, unfortunately, I was more prescient than I would have wished. A week later, he received an unfavorable diagnosis of a condition that quickly led to his death.

Andy's funeral was held in Ardmore, Pa. Someone there commented to board of trustees Chairman Chip Mason that it was impressive that he had taken time from his busy schedule to travel from Baltimore for the funeral service. Chip responded, "Andy was one of the finest people I have ever known."

Well said, and highly appropriate. To which I can only add, "and one of the best trustees a university could ever wish for."


William R. Brody is president of The Johns Hopkins University.


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