Public Trust is Earned--- Even by the Media

Public Trust is Earned

Public Trust is Earned--- Even by the Media 

Chancellor Jean MacCormack 
University of Massachusetts Dartmouth 

The Herald News Editorial of August 1 Absent Trustees betrays our Trust is another thinly veiled attempt to discredit the UMass Trustees because they are exercising independent judgment about the leadership and future course and direction of UMass. I am disappointed that more homework was not done before trying to malign a group with bogus % of participation numbers instead of careful consideration of what it means to exercise public trust. 

Of course, attendance and participation at Trustee meetings are required for Trustees to effectively serve. Showing up is required. But lets get the facts straight. The board meets four times a year in full public session. There are two one-day meetings and two two-day meetings. There are also open pre-meeting committees that deliberate two weeks before the meetings. As an invested participant, I would have to say Trustee attendance at these sessions is always good, although over the life of their five, and if reappointed ten year terms, it is likely that individuals will miss some sessions. As the Chancellor, I have had to miss a few meetings, as I did recently when my mother died. But like me, the Trustees work hard with the President, the Chancellors, and their colleagues to be updated about topics discussed if they miss a meeting. Many of them also serve on other UMass affiliated Boards representing the full Board. They often attend and participate in campus events, serve on ad-hoc working groups, meet and support the President and Chancellors on specific planning or change projects. 

We are not told on what basis attendance records were calculated, but I can say without hesitation our Trustees from Southeastern Massachusetts are the most active, loyal, and conscientious of any I have known in my twenty-two years being affiliated with the University. It is highly unusual for James Karam, William Giblin, former Trustees Robert Karam, Dan Bogan or Joseph Finnerty not to be present. And in fact, it is unusual for them not to be chairs of groups, not to ask hard questions and not to push the envelop in terms of new ways of doing business or managing administrative services. While they take their responsibilities for the whole University seriously, they never fail to look out for the interests of this region and its people. They and many of their colleagues from other parts of the Commonwealth always respond to my requests for advice, feedback and participation. For me there is no question that they are there when we need them and when they feel they need to push us. Contrary to the impression trying to be created, this is definitely not a no-show, no-action Board of Trustees. 

Far more important than just showing up is their ability to be informed and knowledgeable about the University and assume and exercise public trust. These Trustees do not rubber stamp President or Chancellor requests, nor just do what a Governor wants. You would not want them to do that. The purpose of having independent Trustees of the University of Massachusetts is to have a checks and balances leadership structure with the power to oversee the growth, development and financial health of an institution responsible for the education of more than 59,000 students, a $250 million dollar research enterprise, and a complex and engaged set of public service initiatives that the Commonwealth has come to count and rely on. Trustees assume a major responsibility for an important enterprise. 

A person who chooses to accept an appointment as a Trustee of a public higher education institution does it because they believe in the power of education to transform individuals and communities and because they hope to contribute their specific expertise to a broader purpose and greater public good. Taking on public responsibilities as a private sector businessman or woman is usually prompted by lessons learned early on about the value of giving back to one’s community, or is generated new from concerns about the quality of life and the possibilities for the future in the places that we live. It is volunteer activity that offers no monetary rewards for its demands on time or expertise, and seldom provides a great deal of prestige or gratitude from the public. I think good Trustees are those who strengthen institutions they lead and serve faithfully even when it demands unpopular actions. 

Recently the Chair of the Board was widely maligned in the media for having a conflict of interest because of her husband’s business activity. Now we have attacks on attendance records. After review, the Ethics Commission found no conflict for the Chair but this does not get equal coverage by the media. Will there be stories about the endless hours Trustees here in the South Coast invest in University projects? The media has a public trust responsibility as well. If exercising public trust for a UMass Trustee requires showing up, being informed, making independent judgments, and being accountable to the public, it shouldn’t mean less for the media. 

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