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Guest editorial: How the Legislature can restore balance to UVM board

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Posted on March 11, 2013 |
By Emerson Lynn



Legislation has been proposed that forbids lawmakers from serving as trustees for the Vermont State Colleges, the University of Vermont and for the Vermont Student Assistance Corp. The bill’s purpose is to prevent the conflict of interest that arises when legislators serving as trustees have the responsibility of representing both the taxpayers and the schools. The belief is that the legislators should not be put in the position of serving two masters.

This legislation has been proposed before, to no avail. As expected, those legislators serving as trustees insist the conflict is easily managed or that it doesn’t exist. The schools take no position for the obvious reason that it makes no sense to offend those who vote on their appropriations.

Thus, nothing changes.

The proposed legislation has two glaring weaknesses: First, it’s an all-or-nothing proposal; second, it makes the discussion personal — it’s a challenge to the integrity of any legislator serving as a trustee.

Thus, instead of talking about function and effectiveness, we’re talking about personalities.

That gets us nowhere.

It is a discussion worthy of serious consideration, but for reasons that go beyond a perceived conflict of interest.

Consider the University of Vermont. It has 25 trustees and nine of them (36 percent of the board) are legislators. Additionally, three of the trustees are appointed by the governor. That’s a bit Montpelier-centric — to say the least.

In return, UVM gets a whopping 6 percent of its revenue from state appropriations, one of the lowest percentages in the country.

That makes no sense. The imbalance exaggerates the influence of the Legislature and it limits the needs of the university.

The reality is that the Legislature will never increase its appropriation levels to UVM much beyond what they are today (as a percentage of the school’s revenue). To prosper, the school not only needs the Legislature’s help but it needs additional flexibility and strength at the board level. 

Most schools in UVM’s peer group are governed by boards half again as large as UVM’s. MIT has 74 trustees. Brown has 54. Brandeis has 50. Middlebury has 33. The average number in a survey of schools similar to UVM was 42.

Why?

Because other schools use their trustees to raise money, or to forge connections that benefit the schools, or to represent constituencies other than legislators.

If the Legislature is never going to substantially increase the percentage of its appropriations to UVM, then doesn’t it make sense to do what’s necessary to help the school succeed elsewhere?

It does, and the Legislature could do this with relative ease, and, at the same time, maintain a level of influence commensurate with its contribution.

All it would need to do is to revise the school’s charter to allow UVM to expand the size of its board. At the same time, it could reduce the number of legislators that would serve as trustees. The Legislature doesn’t need nine of its members sitting as trustees, but why not one from the House and one from the Senate?

This is the sort of leadership we need to see from legislators and from UVM. What we have now is not only imbalanced, but misguided. It’s not efficient to have almost 40 percent of your board responsible to a single entity.

This is particularly important in Vermont and with UVM. The university generates over a billion dollars annually, making it one of the largest players in Vermont. Even a small improvement can generate significant advantages. It’s incumbent upon the Legislature to push for changes that strengthen the school, and concomitantly the state itself.

This is why the discussion is so much larger than a conflict of interest concern and why legislators are only paying lip service to the state’s needs if the debate does not embrace the potential that is within easy grasp.

— Emerson Lynn, St. Albans Messenger

  

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