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Unless something goes radically awry, I’ve now experienced my last meeting of Mason’s Board of Visitors. Not surprisingly, preparing for, encountering and recovering from BOV meetings is a key aspect of upper administration work. I won’t deny that there is usually some tension involved. Even when issues are fairly simple – and that’s been largely true with the Academic Affairs committee over the past several years, the group with which I’m most involved – there’s a certain amount of unpredictability.

I think it was after my second BOV meeting, back in 2000, that I decided to treat myself to a martini, only to discover I didn’t like the drink any more.

Members of the Board usually devote a good bit of time to their task, which is entirely volunteer work. They usually have or develop real attachment to Mason, and often seek to help us in many ways. Their efforts on our behalf in Richmond have often been extremely useful. Individual Board members have also guided us to important research contacts, helped with philanthropy – the contributions are many.

I should emphasize that Virginia’s system of having a separate Board for each University works really well overall. The latitude institutions have as a result to work out their own trajectory – in contrast to a more centralized state system – has really benefited the Commonwealth. This means that, whatever their occasional faults, BOVs for the most part function usefully.

But the tensions can be quite real as well. Inevitably, Board members don’t know as much about the University as administrators do. In my experience with Board of Trustees at a private institution (admittedly, I was not in a Provost role), the result was considerable willingness to assume that administrators knew what they were doing, with primary attention given to the fiscal situation or (rarely) the selection of a President; most other matters involved simply receiving reports. As a public body, the Mason Board of Visitors is less passive, but disparities in knowledge and in continuities of knowledge can create problems.

In my 14 years as Provost, we’ve gone through three major types of Boards, reflecting changing times and different gubernatorial party affiliations. On the academic side the initial Boards took some direct interest in curricula, and also other issues such as the tenure system, in ways that consumed a fair amount of time and had a few problematic results. Though I also remember one Board member who noted that he was listening to an academic on the radio and was about to dismiss him as another pointy-headed liberal when he realized the guy was from Mason; he modified his judgment to read, “ah, he’s OUR pointy-headed liberal”. I thought that was progress.

The recent Board has been really heavily focused on budget, on seeking cuts and efficiencies, paying great attention to holding down tuition. The pressure has undoubtedly prompted some constructive decisions. Some of us think it’s been a bit excessive at times – as when for several years our tuition was held well behind most of the other institutions in the state. But the framework has had constructive aspects, though a bit more attention to other facets of the University might have been useful as well. On the other hand, the Board did approve a fairly sweeping strategic plan, suggesting willingness to see the University work on goals beyond pure fiscal prudence.

The intermediate Board pressed us for the most part in a different direction: they were consistently interested in what we were doing to become “world class”. At the time I resisted this a bit, because (depending, of course, on definitions) the goal seemed remote, grandiose. But it was fun to be asked to come up with “stretch” plans and budgets, and the approach was beneficial in many ways.

Obviously, it’s chastening to reflect back on such changes in emphasis over a fairly short span. Boards might benefit from a bit more sense of continuity, even as they do seek to mirror shifting times

Let me end what was intended to be a fairly even-handed review with, first, my gratitude to the current Board for the recognitions they have offered to me and for the many rewarding personal links I’ve had with individual Board members – including shared trips to RAK and Pakistan. Even some of the more nervous encounters have mellowed in retrospect, and there have been some really good collaborations.