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BPR Interviews: Thomas Tisch

Thomas Tisch ’76 is the Chancellor of the Corporation of Brown University and a partner at Four Partners, a private investment firm in New York City. He has served on the boards of numerous philanthropic and educational institutions.

Brown Political Review: What is the Corporation’s role, practically or philosophically speaking, for the University?

Thomas Tisch: The role of the Corporation is to take the long view and to be sure that we are on a right and steady course. What the Corporation does not do is manage or entirely set the course for the University. Those responsibilities are really left, in large part, to the president and the senior administration, to assemble the combination of planning and resources that are necessary to help chart that course. There’s a deep sense that the University is governed best by a very effective president, and ensuring a shared sense of governance has been institutional tradition. Whether it’s the formulation of strategic plans, budgets or policies on sexual assault, a broad base of community participation is usually inherent in decisions.

BPR: There’s no direct public access to the content of the Corporation’s meetings. Is that a problem?

TT: There is a community letter that the president generally sends out after each Corporation meeting that often details the items discussed…When we did a review of governance in 2009, we decided to reduce the period over which Corporation minutes are locked from 50 to 25 years.

BPR: Why is that period so long?

TT: There is a sense that there are items that might come up which, to certain people, require a sense of confidentiality, and it is important to allow people in the room to have the power to speak freely. I will tell you, having reviewed the minutes of the Corporation meetings and being in the Corporation meetings myself, that having them locked up for that long probably doesn’t make sense. But it is, in many ways, the tradition of university governing bodies to have some degree of confidentiality. Harvard, for example, still maintains a 50-year lockup on their Corporation records.

BPR: There’s no democracy in the governing of Brown. Do you think that democratic functions have a place here?

TT: The Corporation was never set up as a democratic structure. It’s among the least democratic structures in the world.

BPR: Is that just? Is that right?

TT: I don’t know exactly how I would define “democratic structure,” but we are not a democratic or representative structure.

BPR: Do you think student representation should be part of the Corporation?

TT: I think it’s very important for the Corporation to receive input and voices that represent the breadth and character of the Brown community in making decisions. I don’t think that necessarily equates to the Corporation being a formally representative body, and I think it’s very important that we not become one.

BPR: So you think that it is important that the Corporation stay nonrepresentative.

 TT: No, I believe that it’s important for the Corporation to be structured in such a way that we have deep input, respect and openness in the processes that affect the breadth of the Brown community. It’s also important that we conduct ourselves in a way in which we have a sense of trust, transparency and engagement. And it’s interesting that there are times when the Corporation will step back and look at our work in a variety of ways to be sure that we are conducting ourselves appropriately and that our processes are such that those ideas are recognized and affirmed. We’re also capable, I believe, and we’ve shown this at various times, of making adjustments and assessments of the way we conduct our business to be sure that those ideas are present and appreciated by the community…I think if we recreated the Corporation as something that appeared to be a more representative body, with faculty, students and staff, then there is a great risk of people feeling that they have to behave as representatives of a certain perspective of the moment in a very political sense. And I think that is a great risk to the governance of the University. We have a broad range of perspectives in the room: I’m very proud of that as the Chair of the Trustee Vacancy Committee.

BPR: Are you obliged to include members of the Brown community in presidential searches?

TT: Absolutely not, but we chose to, absolutely. And as a matter of fact, in the search that yielded Gordon Gee and beforehand, candidates were selected and then presented for review of the campus. [Community members] were brought in at the last moment. In the latest search, from the first day our committee convened as a total group [with student and faculty members] — from the setting of the lens, to the criteria, to the interviewing of the candidates towards the review. There was one moment in the life of the committee, at a very critical point of narrowing the field and selecting the candidate, when I didn’t want to favor one group or the other, so in that moment, I just opened the floor to everyone.

BPR: Who do you think Brown belongs to? What are the controlling interests?

TT: In terms of whom the University belongs to, the University has a mission statement: research, teaching, and service to the world. In the broadest sense, we’re technically structured as a nonprofit corporation, so at some level it may belong to the members. But what it really belongs to is the pursuit of an ideal. And the ideal is truly a glorious ideal. I think there’s no greater statement in any university charter than the Brown statement to educate students to live lives of usefulness and reputation. There’s no more glorious ideal than the openness that is inherent in the charter, one that’s not perfect at this time. But we should work over time to make it perfect, and it’s a community that’s very much committed to those values. It’s one of the things that engages me and the entirety of the senior administration in a very deep way. There are conversations that are difficult, where people might be disappointed in certain rules or judgments of the Corporation. We saw it in the last two years with respect to the issue of divestment from coal, and we’ve seen it in relation to issues of openness and speech, which were framed by the critical point around a discussion on the disruptions to former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly speaking on campus. We see elements of [Brown’s openness] in the way we define the community in terms of behavior around sexual assault. I think one of the real blessings of Brown is that we [have these conversations] in a very broad, open and serious way, with a great deal of integrity. It’s one of the pieces of Brown that makes me feel that the work that we’re doing is just incredibly important — because there are very few institutions in American life that represent this ideal.

BPR: Some students feel that recent spending projects have been wasteful — specifically, the renovation of Andrews Commons and, to a lesser extent, the renovation of the John Hay Library. How are student needs assessed in planning projects like these?

TT: Each one of those major projects came about in a process that incorporated a tremendous amount of community input. In the case of Andrews, it’s hard for a student today to imagine what Andrews looked like five years ago. For any project, I know anybody might say: “It could have been spent differently.” I’ve never seen a project built of any kind, a sculpture presented, a renovation project done where somebody doesn’t say they might have done it differently. I actually think that’s what’s happened in terms of housing, which is an area where for many years there were deep concerns about the deterioration of our housing stock, specifically for freshman. The space that’s now Andrews Commons was a large, unused space that was not a place of any life or vitality in the community, and [this coincided with] a discussion of the lack of study spaces in the dormitories. In the case of the Hay Library, one of the most glorious spaces on campus, the building was in a complete state of disrepair. So to see the reading room naturally filled up indicates that, although there may be students who don’t value it, there are students who value it very deeply. And it’s really the work of, in the case of Andrews and in the case of the John Hay Library, the Library Advisory Council and the Campus Life Committee…which have a great deal of student input in the selection and the crafting of those plans.

BPR: How is financial aid weighed in the budget? How does Brown’s aid process compare to peer institutions?

TT: Brown’s commitment to access and financial aid is something that’s glorious and is supported, I think, by the entirety of the Corporation. One of the great challenges for the University is that we find ourselves, blessedly, in a competitive cohort, where the resources that other institutions enjoy are materially greater than the financial resources that Brown enjoys; our endowment is a fraction of the endowment of other institutions in our cohort. And there are many institutions, such as Wellesley, Williams and Amherst, where their endowment on a per student basis is measurably higher than ours. And yet, they don’t have the same aspirations in terms of research and graduate students. That’s one of the reasons we have a University Resources Committee: to be able to work through those tradeoffs and the consequences of emphasizing various aspects of the budget in relation to other aspects. The tradeoffs are made especially difficult by the fact that we live in a moment when the major revenue lines of all universities have become much flatter. Thankfully, we have structures that allow for lots of community input into the buildup of the recommendations that come before the budget and finance committee.

BPR: Do you think the University and the Corporation have any responsibility to make investments that reflect ethical and political concerns of students?

TT: I think the University has a responsibility to manage the endowment in a financially, morally and ethically responsible manner, yes.

BPR: Is that management in specific relation to student concerns?

TT: We have a process through the Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility (ACRIP) to listen to and consider deeply the views and recommendations that come forth from the community. That doesn’t mean that we will necessarily [listen]. In the case of the ACRIP recommendation on coal divestment, we did not accept that recommendation. That was a decision that was arrived at after much discussion with a Corporation-based committee. I think that there are elements of the letter that President Paxson wrote to the community where her basis of the rationale for the judgment made a lot of sense and was actually beautifully articulated. And on that issue, like on so many issues, there were a great number of perspectives present in the Corporation. I know many students and many members of the community were disappointed at the conclusion. I can tell you as well that there were members of the Corporation who were disappointed in the decision…I do believe very sincerely that it is important for the Corporation to maintain a sense of trust, appropriate transparency and a deeply meaningful engagement with all parts of the Brown community. This was one of the reasons that led to the governance review of our work in 2009, where we created the position of Young Alumni Trustee, a position that has been very effective in the work of the Corporation and that has brought a closeness with student experience to our work. It’s incumbent on us to work to have the right conversations with student and community leadership over the period ahead to be sure that we’re engaging in a meaningful way, to be sure that there’s the right transparency and that we’re working to build the right trust. We’re doing as good a job as we can.