Behind the Curtain: AU’s Board of Trustees, Part I

Part I: The Cost of Being a Trustee

Savanna Strott

This article is part one of a three-part series that aims to explain the significance of American University’s Board of Trustees. Read Part Two here.

By Savanna Strott

American University President Sylvia Burwell will present her “strategic plan” to the Board of Trustees during their meetings this Thursday, Nov. 15, and Friday, Nov.16. The plan, which Burwell has been developing for the past year, will roll out in Jan. 2019 and will guide AU for the next five years, she announced at an event in October.

The implementation and success of this plan, which would affect current and future AU students, is based on funding. This “rests directly upon Board initiative and leadership,” according to the Board’s policies.

There is a crucial financial aspect that comes with being a trustee. Part of a trustee’s responsibility to work towards the advancement of the university includes activities such as overseeing fundraising activities and investments. In addition, trustees — who volunteer for the role — are expected to financially contribute to AU.

Board members are “encouraged, if their means permit, to give $10,000 or higher amounts annually,” according to the Board’s Statement of Commitment.

The annual $10,000 goes toward the AU Fund of Excellence, AU’s general endowment, but trustees always give above the suggested amount, according to Courtney Surls, Vice President of Development and Alumni Relations. Historically, most top donors have been people engaged with AU as a trustee or another leadership position.

Each trustee meets with Surls to create an individual giving plan where they can direct funds outside their annual gift to specific projects or areas.

The closer someone gets to understanding the university, people, students, and aspirations, the more they want to be a part of advancing it forwards,” Surls said. “That’s why board is so important. The more people are vested in our success, the more they will want to invest in that place.”

Ideally, trustees should be so passionate about AU, that they feel compelled to financially contribute to the university’s needs, Surls said. She added that she was moved by Jeffery and Samira Sine’s comments when announcing their $10 million gift to the Sine Institute of Policy and Politics.

“Through this gift we wanted to empower American University to make an immediate and lasting impact at the intersection of politics and policy, increasing AU’s national and international visibility,” they said at an event where they announced their donation.

Jeff Sine is part of the two-thirds of voting trustees that are AU alumni. Most of the recent large, publicized donations have come from alumni trustees, and their respective projects hold their names.

Alum Gary Abramson’s name is attached to Founder’s room in the School of International Service, a plaza outside of the McKinley building, the recital hall in Katzen Arts Center, and most recently the auditorium in the new Hall of Science, which is currently under construction.

“The Abramson family has played a critical role in the advancement of American University,” Burwell said of the $5 million donation to the Hall of Science building. “Their vision and generosity have ensured our success at many pivotal moments over the last decades.”

Jack Cassell, another alum, and his family donated $3 million to their namesake residence hall and the AU Department of Athletics and Recreation.

Jeff Sine and Abramson have previously been chairs of the Board. Abramson is chairman emeritus, and Cassell is the current chair.

Different trustees have different reasons for giving, with naming rights being one possible incentive, according to trustee Pamela Deese.

“Part of our goal is finding what will motivate [donors] to give at the highest level possible,” Deese said. “Every gift is warmly received.”

The donation amount required for a project to take the donor’s name is worked out with Surls, Deese said. The policy for naming rights is being reviewed and updated, Surls said, and she hopes they will be completed by the end of this academic year.

The annual $10,000 suggestion was last updated in November 2010, according to the Statement of Commitment. With Burwell’s strategic plan, the comprehensive campaign, and the new budget, the annual giving suggestion could also change, Surls said.

Although the annual amount is a suggestion, the financial commitment of trusteeship can be an impediment for diversifying the board, as some groups aren’t always able to give, according to Deese.

Board members — 45 percent of whom live outside the DMV — pay for their own transportation and lodging for meetings and other trustee-related expenses. AU will reimburse trustees if the expenses put an “undue burden on their personal finances and possibly discourage them from accepting certain assignments or even to leave the Board,” according to the Board Policies.

55 percent of trustees are CEOs, chairmen, or presidents of their respective companies. This excludes faculty and student trustees, as well as ex-officio trustees: individuals who hold the position as part of their job, such as the university president.

But a “capacity and willingness to make significant contributions” is only one of the nine selection criteria listed in the policies for trusteeship.

“We are recruiting people for more than just financial capacity,” Deese said.

Outside of philanthropic capability, boards usually look for people with strategic, educational, business, and legal experience, according to Caron Martinez, the director of the Kogod Center for Business Communication and a former trustee at her alma mater, Williams College in Massachusetts. There are non-fiscal ways for trustees to contribute.

“With my salary as a professor, I can show leadership in other ways than a head of a New York Investment company who gets their name on the track or buildings because they see this project with $5 million,” Martinez said.

Still, the “selfless” giving aspect is an important component of trusteeship, Surls said.

“If someone sat on the board and didn’t feel compelled give, what is that telling the world about the university?”

Savanna Strott is a sophomore and a Staff Editor for AWOL.