Trustees and College Community Work Together for Bright Ideas and Stamps of Approval
October 1, 2002
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Author: Tim McCahill
The second week of October will be a refreshingly normal one for the Board of Trustees when they convene on campus for their annual fall meeting. Unlike previous years, discussion of new building projects will not be on the trustees’ agenda; rather, the Board will deliberate on regular matters related to the regular management of College affairs.
College buildings have loomed large in trustee discussions from the mid-1990s, but particularly with the completion of Bicentennial Hall in 1999 the nature of these conversations has grown to encompass the size and complexity of Middlebury’s physical expansion. In the three years since the science facility was finished, the College has witnessed a rapid evolution towards realizing some elements of its Master Plan: First, from 2000 to 2002, the construction of the Ross Commons extension; second, beginning in the fall of 2001, the deconstruction of the Old Science Center and early construction of the new Library and Technology Center (LATC) and, just two weeks ago, site preparation for an expanded Atwater Commons on the north end of campus.
But what role do the trustees play in deciding the future physical shape of the College?
The Board of Trustees, according to its charter, is charged with having “the ultimate authority for the governance of Middlebury College,” and deliberates primarily on issues related to policy or College finances, in cooperation with President McCardell and other key members of the Middlebury administration.
Comprised of up to 27 members, the Board of Trustees is organized along five smaller sub-committees; of these, the Buildings and Grounds and Budget and Finance committees play a substantial role in decisions related to the design and priority of College buildings or projects of over $1 million in cost.
In conjunction with Ron Liebowitz, executive vice president and provost, Dave Ginevan, executive vice president for Facilities Planning and the Vice President for Administration and Treasurer Bob Huth, President McCardell sets long-term priorities for the College. Some of these are included in Middlebury’s Strategic Plan, which was approved by the Board in 1992, as well as a 1998 resolution to enhance the College’s residential life system and improve its physical plant, which was also endorsed by the trustees.
Demand for new facilities can stem from two sources: Internally, from staff, faculty or students or, as was the case during the Bicentennial Campaign of the late 1990s, externally from monetary gifts made to the College with the condition that funds be directed towards a specific project. Decisions to proceed or hold off on these projects — regardless of where the demand for them originated — are made according to the College’s Strategic Plan and its blueprint for future physical growth, the Master Plan, and must meet the final approval of upper-level administrators. Once approved, a project proposal is crafted and submitted to the Board of Trustees, which makes the final decision on whether a project should proceed by granting it “conceptual approval.”
“[Conceptual approval] means [College administrators] bring the Board the program, they buy in, they comment on it,” explained Glenn Andres, Christopher A. Johnson Professor of Art, History of Art and Architecture. “And once we get approval, we refine the program and then start looking for architects. Sometimes trustees suggest architects for a project. We have a pool of architects that the College’s Facilities Planning group has dug up. And we go through a winnowing process and may interview half a dozen firms — the trustees are involved in those [interviews].”
The trustees, Andres went on to explain, make the final decision on a suitable architect for a project.
A critical part of all large projects is reaching consensus both within the Board of Trustees and between the Board and relevant members of the College administration, namely Facilities Planning and its advisory body, the Project Review Committee, which assumes much of the burden of reviewing projects before ground is broken on construction. This makes for a significant back-and-forth as buildings are tailored to meet budgetary demands — also decided by the Board of Trustees — and other considerations of design or environmental impact.
But Andres agreed that this process of consensus building works, and signals an improvement from earlier years when Board decisions were driven overwhelmingly by donations or the egos of some of its members.
Such sentiment was echoed by Ginevan. “It [the Buildings and Grounds Committee] has become more active,” he commented. “The College has become more active, so obviously the Board committee will become busier.”
But as the hive of activity on College buildings shifts from one end of campus to the other, some projects will be met with greater criticism than others, particularly from members of the local community. But Ginevan was quick to separate this more negative sentiment from Board of Trustee decisions, commenting, “As Middlebury College is expanding and growing, not everybody is going to like it. But that is OK; that is a healthy environment. I would rather have that than no one caring.”