Neukom presides over growing Board of Trustees

by Dax Tejera | 3/2/05 6:00am

William Neukom '64 was elected chairman of the Dartmouth Board of Trustees in 2004 after serving on the Board for eight years. Now the chair of the Seattle law firm Preston Gates and Ellis, Neukom was Microsoft's lead lawyer for 24 years, defending the software giant in the government's antitrust suit.

As he prepares to arrive in Hanover for the Board's March meeting, Neukom spoke with The Dartmouth about his role as the Board's chair and the issues facing the College today.

Chairman of the Board

Neukom assumed the role of chairman of the Board three months after he pledged $22 million to create an institute for computational science at the College. In less than a year as chair, Neukom has led the trustees in instituting strategic changes in the Board's committee structure. The reorganized Board structure now includes just three standing committees: facilities master planning, finances and governance.

The new structure also includes working groups designed to address critical issues on an annual basis. The inaugural groups are addressing issues of academic excellence and alumni relations. "It seemed to us those were two subject matters that deserved a sharp focus from a small group of trustees," Neukom said.

Neukom, who has also worked to maintain a balanced relationship with the senior management of the College, was careful not to cast a shadow over College President James Wright's administration.

"We resist the temptations to get into the matters of administration, or matters of management -- micro-managing," Neukom said.

Neukom said the Board continues to support Wright's presidency.

Student-Trustee Relations

Last fall, the Student Affairs Group, which had been allowed to meet with trustees and express student concerns at each of the Board's four annual gatherings, was suspended. Neukom said the decision was made during the Board's recent overhaul.

"In the restructuring of the Board's committees, we thought we'd be a lot more efficient and productive if we had just three standing committees," Neukom said.

Neukom suggested that the recent emphasis on student life through the Student Life Initiative allowed the Board to focus its working groups on other issues that were either overlooked or in need of reform.

"We have spent a lot of time on the Student Life Initiative -- the out-of-the-classroom experience at Dartmouth. We thought that academic excellence and alumni relations needed our first attention at this time," Neukom said.

Despite changes in the Board's structure, Neukom said the trustees have as much concern for student interests as they have ever had and that students are an "essential constituent" in the Dartmouth population.

Board Expansion

In 2003, the New Hampshire state legislature passed a bill allowing Dartmouth to amend its charter without the legislature's approval. The College lobbied for the legislation so that it could expand the size of the Board.

Dartmouth announced plans last year to expand the Board by six members over the course of the decade, bringing the group's membership to 22. Neukom said the trustees may not pursue the full expansion but are still dedicated to the goal of widening the range of trustee expertise.

"We've reserved the right to reconsider [a Board of 22 members] as we grow in small increments," Neukom said. "We are looking for a Board that includes all the talents and skills we need."

The expansion is already underway. The Board appointed one additional charter trustee last year, and the upcoming alumni trustee election will allow the College's alumni to select two candidates from six choices. Starting this fall, the Board will be composed of 18 members.

Alumni Trustee Election

The alumni trustee election currently underway has heralded unusual attention as two petition candidates have successfully appealed to have their names on the ballot alongside the four candidates nominated by the Alumni Council. Last year, T.J. Rodgers '70 secured a seat on the Board by launching a successful petition candidacy, marking the first time in decades that a petition candidate successfully vied for the trusteeship.

Neukom said he is not concerned by the recent rise of petition candidacies.

When asked whether the trend reflected poorly on the Alumni Council's judgment in selecting nominees, Neukom affirmed the group's work.

The Alumni Council nominees are "very accomplished alums who have done a lot for the College and deserve to be on the ballot," Neukom said.

Balloting for the alumni trustee election begins this month. The two alumni-elected trustees will assume their office in June.

The Direction of the College

Both petition candidates in the alumni trustee election have suggested in their platforms that a large portion of the Dartmouth alumni body is discontented with the direction of the College, specifically with the Wright administration's alleged claims that Dartmouth is a university in all but name. When asked what the Board was doing to address those concerns, Neukom said he is expecting recommendations from the Board's alumni relations committee.

Despite skepticism from some alumni, Neukom said, "the direction of the College is very positive."

Neukom also addressed the claims of this year's petition candidates.

"Dartmouth's core offering is the best undergraduate education in the world," Neukom said. "The reality is we are better able to do that because of the graduate schools and graduate programs."

Neukom expressed the Board's commitment to quelling concerns among alumni, especially in light of the ongoing capital campaign. Altogether, Neukom said he believes "this is a very good time for Dartmouth."