Outgoing Board of Trustees chair Bill Helman '80 discusses College's future at town hall

by Alex Fredman | 5/3/17 3:30am


About 200 students and community members attended the town hall, which featured chair of the Board of Trustees Bill Helman '80 and executive vice president Rick Mills.

by Alex Fredman / The Dartmouth

On Tuesday afternoon, chair of the Board of Trustees Bill Helman ’80 spoke at a special town hall session that was hosted by executive vice president Rick Mills. Around 200 students, staff, faculty and alumni attended the hour-long event in Cook Auditorium.

The town hall was first scheduled for March 8 but was then rescheduled for March 15, though no reason was given. It was rescheduled again after a snowstorm overtook campus.

Elected as a charter trustee in 2009 and serving as the Board’s chair since 2014, Helman’s second and final term will conclude this June. The event was an opportunity for Helman to reflect on his time as a trustee and offer his thoughts on several issues facing the College today and in the future. In addition to serving on the board, Helman is a partner at the venture capital firm Greylock and serves on the board of the Ford Motor Company

After a brief introduction by Mills, Helman immediately opened the floor to questions from audience members. The questions dealt with a wide variety of topics, ranging from the College’s undergraduate liberal arts focus to the Moving Dartmouth Forward initiative to the creation of the Arthur L. Irving Institute for Energy and Society.

Helman began by saying that he was pleased with the Board’s progress with its role in recent years. In the past, he said, the trustees often lacked a core philosophy and goal for Dartmouth, hindering the Board’s ability to promote constructive change.

“The Board is ultimately responsible for strategy: what the College’s mission is, what we’re trying to accomplish here,” Helman said during the town hall. “And we have to be certain we have … the right people, human resources and financial resources in order to execute against that mission, that strategy.”

Addressing the question of what he considers his greatest concern for Dartmouth, Helman said that the rate of change occurring at Dartmouth has not been fast enough compared to the rest of higher education. He noted that more change needs to occur in the form of budget improvements, transitioning from Oracle software to the cloud, ending the use of No. 6 fuel oil as an energy source and investing more funds in entrepreneurial initiatives such as the DEN and the Digital Arts Leadership and Innovation Lab.

When asked in an interview with The Dartmouth after the town hall about how increasing this rate of change can be pursued from a financial basis without impacting already-rising tuition prices, Helman said that other steps involving budget reallocation can achieve this. Helman added that affordability is a serious concern for the Board, and that the College spends over $100 million a year on financial aid.

During the town hall, Helman said that the Board of Trustees has at times acted as a “black box” in that many people involved with the College, especially students, are not familiar with the Board’s impact on the school. Helman noted that the Board has improved significantly in terms of its communications since he joined but that volatility of the D-Plan can make interactions between trustees and leaders of various student groups difficult to arrange.

One audience member, identifying himself as a graduate student working on risk management for the College, asked Helman to respond to a recent editorial in The Dartmouth criticizing the College’s decreasing focus on the liberal arts, as well as to address student dissatisfaction with the administration on policies such as Moving Dartmouth Forward.

Helman said that while a liberal arts focus continues to be important for the College, the nature of liberal arts has changed significantly since he graduated in 1980.

“Dartmouth — and higher ed especially — is more than ever before perceived as a pre-career training ground,” Helman said. “There’s more pressure than ever to get a good job.”

He added that from a business-like standpoint, the College could benefit from viewing its students as customers and asking what the customers want from their education — which, he said, involves more engineering, business and computer science classes as well as increased opportunities for independent undergraduate research.

In addressing student dissatisfaction with administration policies, however, Helman said that the College must be willing to do the right thing on some issues — such as the campus-wide ban on hard alcohol — even if they are not popular with students. He expressed optimism in the Moving Dartmouth Forward initiative, saying he is hopeful MDF will change Dartmouth for the better, but noted that major changes such as this always face some amount of resistance.

Near the end of the session, Helman was asked about the creation of the new Irving Institute, and if there were ethical concerns given that the Irving family owns major oil company Irving Oil. Helman said the Irving family does not have direct input on the academic foundation of the Institute, adding that the College may not have communicated this clearly enough.

Helman said in the later interview that the decision to serve eight years as a trustee was an easy one for him.

“Dartmouth was incredibly important in shaping me into who I am today, and I learned a lot here,” Helman said.

Mills said that as chair of the Board, Helman has served as a driving force behind the Board’s role as the governing institution of the College, and that he always approaches problems from different perspectives.

“I think [Helman] has added a tremendous amount, and I think he changed the nature of the kind of dialogue that happens in the board room,” Mills said. “And that’s been hugely valuable.”

When Helman steps down from his position in June, he will be replaced as chair by current vice chair of the Board Laurel Richie ’81, who is a consultant for Teach for America and served as president of the Women’s National Basketball Association from 2011 to 2015. Mills said that Richie’s background in advertising and communications will serve her well as chair of the Board.

“She’s an amazing leader,” Helman said. “She’s an incredible communicator — really a much better communicator than I am. And she’ll be a terrific chair.”