Q&A with the Chair and Executive Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees
By Benjamin Pontz, Editor-in-Chief
On Friday afternoon, Editor-in-Chief of The Gettysburgian, Benjamin Pontz (BP) sat down with David Brennan ’75 (DB), Chair of the Board of Trustees, and Charlie Scott ’77 (CS), Executive Vice Chair of the Board and Chair of the Presidential Search Committee, for a wide-ranging interview on subjects facing the Board at its meeting this weekend and down the road. The transcript of the conversation is below and has been edited lightly for clarity.
BP: By way of starting, you’ve now been the chair of the board for nine months or so since May.
DB: Yes, since May.
BP: So what would you say has been — I don’t know — maybe the most surprising part of the job, and how would you assess kind of the progress that you’ve made thus far in that role?
DB: Well, I think they certainly the because of the timing of Janet’s announcement that she was–
CS: Do you want me to join?
DB: You’re more than welcome if you want.
BP: Nice to see you.
CS: Good to see you. Yeah.
DB: You know I think the biggest issue that we had to deal with — and I told Charlie I was meeting with you in case there were specific search questions I couldn’t answer — has been the search for the new president. I mean we have invested a lot of time trying to build a community of people from the different areas of responsibility — different constituencies — to make sure that they believe they’re being heard as to what they would like to see in our new president as well as to — again and from each of the groups we selected some people to be part of the committee — and then help us, you know, kind of find people who meet up with that so, in terms of chairmanship of the board, I think that’s probably been the most activity. I think one of the other areas that we’re going to cover at our meeting here today — tomorrow — will be the topic of shared governance. I think with the transition to a new president the idea and we have several new trustees in the last year or two having a discussion about shared governance with an outside facilitator — we’re having a woman come in who is the president of a liberal arts college, and we sent some pre-reading out to kind of level set a bit more for the entire blueprint of how shared governance should work.
BP: What sorts of things do you anticipate that, you know, talking about specifically like the distribution of whose job is what or what?
DB: Well, I would say that the idea that the faculty are responsible for the academic programs and therefore that neither the administration nor the board is in a position to tell them what they need to do with the academic programs is something that I think we need to just talk more about so that there’s a clearer understanding of that entire subject. You know, having worked in business, one of the things I was used to was doing things with speed when you make a decision to move on something you go forward, whereas with the you know the idea of creating potentially a new business major, as an example, you know it takes time the faculty just has to, you know, first kind of has the minute with department heads to figure out what they wanted to be then they need to decide which other areas of the college should be involved in it. So one of the things about shared governance is because you have to bring the board along as well as the academics and the administration it takes longer to move things along. As an example of you know something that I think at least a few of our trustees think things may go a little slower than you’d expect.
BP: Yeah. So I want to talk a little bit — kind of and this relates to the new president — but sort of the role of Greek life on campus. And I know that you were a member of a Greek organization when you were a student here. So before we get into that, could you just talk a little bit about your experience in Greek life and what sort of that meant to your college experience?
DB: Well, back in the mid-70s, I think probably 75 percent of men and women were you know women were in Greek life. I was in the S.A.E. house. And it was really central to my college experience here. I think one of the things that made it central was the idea that we had our meals in the house so we didn’t belong to the dining hall we had our own cook and at least twice a day for lunch and dinner we always all got together for meals, and it was an example of a different time. But it also brought about kind of a different sense of camaraderie and friendship with the people that you were with because that became your social circle. We didn’t go up to the dining hall every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner doesn’t meet other people. So you know it got a bit siloed. On the other hand, my best friends in the world are my college fraternity brothers … four of them just flew down for Super Bowl weekend at my house last weekend with their wives and I’ve known him for 48 years, you know. So it’s been, you know, kind of created lifelong friends. I’ve been a member of the board at the house. We continue to stay involved in the House as alumni working with the active student — you know the active brothers — on career opportunities, finding jobs, networking, making connections. I didn’t have that kind of experience when I was a student there, but I think the group of alumni that were on the board for the house since that time have really tried.
And you know the new standards that the Greek Life Council here brought into place around a year ago and what the college you know what the fraternities and sororities need to do to get points to kind of be graded every every year I think has brought a positive discipline to making sure the Greek organizations understand the contribution they should be making.
BP: And so you kind of alluded to this but you know now that there are fewer students as a percentage in Greek organizations than there were when you were here. Given that and what you just said what would you say is your posture — I don’t want to make you speak on behalf of the board — but your posture personally towards the future of Greek life on campus because that’s a subject that has come up. And the next question is about maybe what discussions you had with President-Elect Iuliano on that issue — but what would you say is your posture towards the future of Greek Life?
DB: I think the nature of Greek life on the campus has changed and will continue to change. I think it will continue to be a centerpiece of the college for many students. I mean half of the students participate in Greek life now. So it’s not 75 percent, but it’s 50 percent. I mean it’s still a really important part of the social fabric of the campus. And certainly when I look at the health of our fraternity and, you know, the gentlemen that are in there now as brothers and a year after year I meet a new group of people when you know you get to know them, you recognize that you know it’s still it’s still a very good place for people to have within the college. I mean, you know, you can be on the football team you can be involved in music or whatever, but, you know, there’s also an aspect of that that I believe is going to continue into the future. And I think it will continue to change. Our house is very actively trying to attract diverse students. So it’s not perceived as just, you know, Greek life was, you know, for white kids like you know it’s just. And it’s harder to do it because of some diverse students aren’t attracted to that kind of thing, but the House is doing what it can to see what else could it be doing. I think it’s reflective of this strategic plan that we finished a year or two ago in terms of trying to help — understanding where the college is going — and then trying to encourage the Greek organizations to know that, so that they can kind of align what they’re doing with what the college is doing as opposed to you know saying well we do our own thing here.
The Pennsylvania law on hazing, I think, is great. You know we’ve been working for years to modify the kinds of things that are done to bring, you know, sophomores in, and I think all this stuff has been you know a step forward.
BP: Yeah. And so cognizant of what happened at Harvard, I think that probably since the announcement has been made, the most chatter about it on campus has been with respect to what happened at Harvard with I guess not officially ending single sex organizations, but certainly writing them in and creating an incentive structure, I guess you could say, for students about that. What conversations did the search committee have with Mr. Iuliano about that issue, and is that a topic that was at all…Is it a topic the board plans to consider in the coming year with the new president, or was it not a central…Talk about what that conversation looked like.
CS: Yeah, and let’s parse that because I think that, David, maybe I’ll throw back to you that second part.
But when we got to the point where we had about half a dozen candidates and so we were past the sort of general questions that we were asking to the number before that, we did then start to dig in a little bit — we had some pretty preliminary reference checking with these candidates — and we started to dig into what was going on with them at their current campus. And for Bob, the two big issues were number one the lawsuit around admissions.
CS: And the other one was around the 2016 decisions on the single gender clubs. And so we did ask him about that because, in each case, we wanted to understand it better, understand what his role in that was and whether to any extent they reflected a perspective that that would sort of be vestigial coming into Gettysburg. And the admissions was pretty easy to cover off. But when it did when it came to the other, we did dig in deep and we asked the question, you know, talk to us about this 2016 decision, and so he did and basically his response — this is probably the response we’ll get later on today — is Harvard had a specific set of facts and circumstances that they needed to address. There were diversity and inclusion issues that were pretty strong. And then there was also this very special issue they had which we don’t have and most schools don’t have, which are these final clubs, which are sort of mysterious, strange, ritual kind of clubs that existed at Yale too, you know, these kind of secret societies, and that was clearly like at the top of their list. I mean that that was the main target. But they had to broaden it to any single gender clubs, and so it did create you know these kind of I guess you could call it almost disincentives to belong single gender clubs. I think the sanctions were you, couldn’t you couldn’t be a single gender club and be like a captain on a sports team–.
BP: –holding leadership roles on the campus.
DB: That’s what I was going to say, holding leadership roles.
CS: And then you couldn’t be endorsed by the college for Rhodes or Fulbright scholarships where you can’t be. And so his perspective was that Harvard had a specific set of circumstances, and he had input into the decision process that was then announced by the president, and then he said I presume that Gettysburg has a different set of facts and circumstances. Talk to me about that. And fortunately a couple of us were on this — and Dave was as well — on the Greek life review committee a couple of years ago, and we were able to tell him you know what we kind of felt the state of Greek life was at Gettysburg, and how, through this review process, we are continuing to work to align Greek life with the strategic plan of the college as well as contemporary American society.
CS: And he said, you know, that’s very helpful. I appreciate knowing that. And then the other part I think what you asked is, does the board have any plans to ask Bob to dig into the issue of Greek life at this time and I’ll turn that over to you.
DB: Well, there’s nothing specific about that. I think the board satisfied its questions about Greek life through the Greek life group — the subgroup of the Board of Trustees — and presented to the board a year and a half ago, whatever it was. And I think you know what came out of that was a better understanding amongst the trustees about the role of Greek life on the campus. And, you know, I think Jon — who’s the Jon that works for Julie?
BP: Jon Allen?
DB: Jon Allen and, before him, Joe (Gurreri) … you know, have been very, very involved in making sure that, you know, that there’s an alignment between what the college is doing and what the fraternity council you know the sorority councils are doing, so I think was a good outcome. It was very — we did a deep dive — we met with Greek students, we met with non Greek students. We had dinners with them. You know, we kind of tried to really get perspective. We met with faculty, met with the athletic department to really try to understand the perceptions. So it was… It was a very worthwhile activity.
CS: I had a daughter graduate in 2009 who was in a sorority, and I had a son graduate 2012 who was in a fraternity, and, back then, they thought that Gettysburg was trying to get rid of the Greek system. And now I know that I think it will always be on the mind whenever you try to continue to reshape the Greek system to reflect the current realities of society in general, people think well you’re doing that with an end which is a little nefarious and that’s not the case. If anything I think that the call this committee was trying to — how can we continue to have it succeed in a contemporary environment?
DB: Yeah, sure. And I think one of the other things that came out of it was the recognition that the college probably wasn’t doing as much from a social perspective for people who were not in Greek life to have other things to do. I think, you know, I think Julie kind of took from that — Julie Ramsey — you know we probably need to get more stuff going on that isn’t necessarily Greek life. And I believe that’s happened as best I can tell, and I think, certainly, you know, looking at the additions to the CUB here and the kind of the chemistry around that space and how people are using it to get together and stuff I think is a great example of it.
BP: And so last question on Greek life…There is kind of this sentiment, and I’m just going to state it kind of as bluntly as it’s stated on campus so that you know I’m conveying what it is, but that the Board’s perspective on Greek life is colored by the fact that many of the people on the board were in Greek organizations 30, 40 years ago, and, you know, have emerged from those organizations and succeeded in professionally and everything else, and that that perspective colors the perception of particularly diverse students. And it’s not — let me rephrase that — is not the same as the perspective of people who have graduated from this college and were not in Greek organizations or who currently are on campus and are put off by what they see as kind of an elitism in the in the Greek system. I guess fundamentally their argument is that that composition of the board is preventing needed changes in the Greek system from taking root. And I’ll just put it out there to see what, if any, response you would have to that kind of line of argument that happens.
DB: Well, I think in the last few years, our board has become more diverse both in terms of gender as well as ethnicity and race. And I think the output of the group — the subgroup of trustees that met which were both had members like me who were part of Greek life and Charlie, who weren’t part of Greek life when they were here — kind of brought forward what I thought was a balanced view of the role of Greek life at Gettysburg College and more of the role of the social life at Gettysburg College as well as what else to Greek organizations bring to the party. I think the trustees — I mean it wasn’t a contentious issue for the trustees when we presented the findings. I would say that you know the diverse group of trustees that are now on the board accepted the recommendation. I understand why that perception could exist and why you ask the question, but that’s not how the board is operating on this.
CS: And even on the Greek life issue. It was it was the administration who came to the board and said there’s a lot going on in Greek life not just in Gettysburg but more broadly. Given things that are happening in other fraternities and on other college campuses, we could really use some perspective and guidance on discrete policies could help us make make the Greek life system more contemporary and help us manage it going forward. So you know it really started there. It was not a board generated issue for what it’s worth.
BP: Yeah. So moving on from from Greek life talking more about the big picture of Gettysburg College, and you mentioned earlier some of the things that you’re working on this weekend. But, you know, I think that there certainly is this notion that liberal arts colleges in particular are going to have to adapt to survive to some extent and that thinking about the longer range planning and the longer range trajectory of the college, what do you see as some of the challenges that Gettysburg faces in the big picture — longer term things and where overall would you see the college headed institutionally?
DB: Well, I think the role of the liberal arts colleges are sometimes misunderstood in groups of people. That being said, I think it’s an extremely important element of an education. One of the things that the college needs to be able to do is to adapt to changing environment and circumstances so students who come here and are leaving here need to be prepared to do something, and the world that they’re entering to go do something in is a changing world, and I think we need to have a college that recognizes the changes are taking place in the environment that students enter into and make sure that they get that kind of experience while they are on campus here. And I think in the future that will be even more important. I think you know if we just take a look at the technology revolution. The evolution of robotics jobs that used to be available when you left college are no longer going to be available, they’re being handled by technology, and therefore what is it at Gettysburg College you know gives a student who was here that they can take out into the world. And it’s a changing world. So, to me, that’s probably one of the biggest things. Charlie?
CS: I agree. As we were in the search process, we were looking for people who had a vision for the direction the liberal arts needed to go, and fortunately, we met several people that we felt really had their finger on the pulse of that. And at four o’clock — at three o’clock for you — I think you’re going to understand that Bob has a really strong perspective on the importance of the words to our globe and people who have a liberal arts orientation toward the way they think about problem solving. A click down from that though, is exactly what they’ve said: that all of these candidates talk about the need to equip people with the same interdisciplinary thinking and communication skills that liberal arts provide, but also helping them go out into the world of technology change so they can continually adapt. And so we’re having discussions in the boardroom around “Big Data,” courses and majors, and things like that — tackling computer programming technology minors or data-driven miners that we could start to imbue into the curriculum. And I think that kind of blended liberal arts vision is what you’re going to see going forward.
DB: And it’s I think it’s just liberal arts, continuing to evolve to fit the nature of what people are going to encounter in their life.
BP: There’s two more questions. One is that, obviously, we just concluded a large multi-year fundraising campaign that brought in one hundred and sixty million dollars. Still, though, when you compare the college’s endowment to many of the peer institutions that I know that we keep track of, I think it’s fair to say we’re still lagging behind and to some extent they are. Given that higher education is you know as competitive as ever and that raising tuition — you know there’s a limit to how much you can do that — what do you see as kind of the longer term financial strategy for the college? What are the some of the issues the board is considering, and, overall how would you say the board is looking at the college’s finances moving off into the — into the future?
DB: Well, this afternoon, we’re actually are going to have a presentation from a subgroup of the board who spent the last year as the long term financial planning committee, looking at all of the elements of the finances of the college from several different perspectives. I think the information that’s been made available very transparently by the college to help the trustees on that group — I was part of it — better understand where we think we’re headed and, you know, I think is going to give the board and the new president, when he arrives, a much clearer picture of the environment that we see. There’s clearly a decrease in the number of students that are graduating from four-year colleges. You know, the demographics are changing, so that will impact the way that the college looks at its planning steps going forward. I mean, certainly, looking at the budget, we’re looking at today for the next four or five years, I think there is a reasonable approach going forward to kind of do what we’re doing, to be able to invest in the places we want to, we want to reallocate resources where it is appropriate to do so, I mean, my view on all of this is that the college is in a healthy place. Would we like to have a bigger endowment? Sure. Does it prevent us from doing everything we want to do? I always used to say we can do anything we want, but we can’t do everything, so we need to select the things that we want to do and I think the board is clearer on the priorities of what –.
BP: And specifically in terms of, you mentioned, reallocating resources, are there any particular top level areas where we’re going to see money going from X towards Y?
DB: Well, I would look retrospectively and say, over the last few years, Chris Zappe, the provost, has reallocated certain lines from one department to another department for tenure track positions because there’s been less interest of students in taking those courses in one area, there is more demand than another area. I would expect that is an example of what we’ll continue to do. Those are the most precious resources, the teaching resources. And I think they’ve done a nice job in the past of doing that, and I imagine it’ll continue as the environment changes, we add new courses to better reflect that environment. And then we need people to lead those new courses. What do we do unless of so we can do more of this or something new?
BP: Right. And you mentioned when I think we had that email exchange right after the new president was announced that the search committee was confident in President-Elect Iuliano’s ability as a fundraiser. What informed that perception from from your perspective?
CS: I think, when you look at what underlies a good fundraiser, a good fundraiser is someone who can speak confidently and in a, sort of, educated manner about a vision that excites donors, and we felt that Bob does that in spades. And then we sort of put that together with the reference checks we did of people like the current and past president of Harvard and some other people who said Bob has been there during the ask of some very well-heeled donors, and so he not only personally has the skills, but he’s watched it happen. So, the next step is for him to take the number one seat. We think that he is excited about different components of Gettysburg and places where he can excite donors about a vision for whatever that is to be bigger, to advance. Some of our centers like the Eisenhower Institute, the Garthwait Leadership Center — these are things that he kind of feels he can elevate in the minds of donors — current donors as well as you know down the road with people like Ben Pontz Foundation — are ready to gift their millions.
BP: Well, we’ll see about that. Last question. You know, I know that your background as being a CEO of a large company, so if it won’t give you too many flashbacks, what would be your pitch for folks to invest in Gettysburg College not just financially but in every way over the next five to ten years?
DB: It’s the way that the liberal arts are taught here and the focus on things like critical thinking and communication and problem solving — complex problem solving — the kinds of things that you can’t get everywhere, but that I think Gettysburg does exceptionally well. I think the distinctive programs that Charlie just mentioned — you know if you take Eisenhower Institute, the Garthwait Leadership Center, the Center for Public Service, the Sunderman Conservatory. Each of those represent a different, unique opportunity to experience some of those skills that I mentioned a moment ago, and I think there’s going to be more of that for Gettysburg in the future, so I think you know that’s why I looked down the barrel of this and say, “This is exciting. It’s a very exciting time.”.
BP: And last question — What would you say are kind of measures of success for the board over the next year or two? Sitting here, if we do this again in two years, what we’ll have characterized for you that the past two years have been successful for the board?
DB: Well, I’d like to think that the academic program has continued to evolve to reflect whatever we think that future is supposed to look like and that it’s maybe evolved more quickly. I’d like to think that the financial health of the college is not in question, that we see we can continue to do what we’re doing, and, you know, I’d like to think that 100 percent of the students who leave here look back and say, “That was a tremendous education and created a lot of opportunities for me for into the future.”
To me, those are — I think successes with the students for me, so it’s all about students with a look back when they’re done and say, “Wow, that got me out, I’m prepared to do something.” Look back 10 years later and they say, “Wow, look what happened to me as a result of having gone to Gettysburg.”.
CS: I would always say and, with all that, within the context of continuing to be diverse and inclusive place. That was part of why we selected Bob because, despite the fact that he himself is not necessarily what falls in for the traditional — or the current — definition of diversity, although he is one of a diverse group of people. In his soul, he believes that talent knows no boundaries in terms of gender or race or ethnicity, and he’ll continue to work on that part of the strategy.
BP: Thank you.