Trustees in academic regalia (from left, Ezra Cornell ’70, Chad Coates, and Mariana Wolfner ’74) take part in the procession during the 2017 inauguration ceremony for President Martha Pollack

Trustees in academic regalia (from left, Ezra Cornell ’70, Chad Coates, and Mariana Wolfner ’74) take part in the procession during the 2017 inauguration ceremony for President Martha Pollack. At right is former Cornell President David Skorton. (Cornell University)

Board of Trustees 101

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Hail, All Hail, Cornell!

As alumni prepare to vote for their representatives, we offer a pithy primer on the University’s governing body

By Joe Wilensky

Cornell’s Board of Trustees makes vital decisions that affect the University—and shape its future. But how much do you know about it and how it works? For example: were you aware that Cornell stands alone among nearly all other universities in giving board slots to students, faculty, and staff?

With voting for alumni-elected trustees beginning February 1 (see box below), Cornellians offers some history, facts, and assorted info on the University’s governing body.

The board is the biggest in the Ivy League. Cornell has 64 active trustees. For comparison, the next largest (Brown’s) has 54; Yale and Harvard have 17 and 13, respectively. Overall, the average board size for U.S. private colleges is 29, and just 12 for public universities.

Trustees choose the president. Among their other major responsibilities are approving the operating budget, including setting tuition and financial aid policies; signing off on major construction and renovation projects; and authorizing new schools and colleges.

Infographic showing the makeup of the 64 members of the Cornell Board of Trustees

The board includes state government leaders. Per the charter, several state officials (the governor, State Senate majority leader, and speaker of the Assembly) serve as ex-officio (“by virtue of their office”) trustees; typically, they designate deputies to attend meetings and vote in their stead. Additionally, three trustees are appointed directly by the governor.

Cornell’s president is technically also a trustee. A fourth ex-officio trustee is the current leader of the University.

Nonsectarianism was built in from day one. The charter originally stated that “at no time shall the majority of the board be of any one religious sect, or of no religious sect.” It later stipulated that “persons of every religious denomination, or of no religious denomination, shall be equally eligible to all offices and appointments.”

Kraig Kayser
The board’s current chairman is Kraig Kayser, MBA ’84. (Lindsay France / Cornell University)

The total number of trustees has fluctuated. Over the past century and a half, new bylaws have been added and the charter occasionally amended—though the number has remained stable at 64 since 2002.

There are 43 board-elected trustees-at-large. They include six who represent specific New York State industries (two each from agriculture, business, and labor).

The charter originally stated that “at no time shall the majority of the board be of any one religious sect, or of no religious sect.”

Eight trustees are alumni-elected. The provision for trustees elected by alumni was adopted in 1867, before Cornell opened—with the stipulation that they be added once 100 people had graduated. The first took office in 1872; today, elections for two slots are held annually, with alums serving four-year terms.

The board includes two faculty members. Faculty first gained representation in 1916 (though as non-voting delegates); full membership came in 1956.

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Cornell's life trustee, Ezra Cornell ’70, at the Ezra Cornell statue (his great-great-great grandfather) on the Arts Quad
Ezra Cornell ’70 with the Arts Quad statue of his great-great-great grandfather. (Cornell University)

Two students serve on the board. Student-elected trustees (currently one undergrad and one graduate or professional student) joined the board in 1971—a result of the commitment to shared governance that followed the Willard Straight Hall occupation two years earlier.

One trustee is employee-elected. Non-academic staff have been able to elect an employee representative since 1975.

The board always includes one “life trustee.” The position is held by the eldest lineal descendant of Ezra Cornell. The current occupant: Ezra Cornell ’70, the founder’s great-great-great grandson.

The current life trustee is also a record-setter. Ezra ’70, who joined the board at age 21, has held the seat for 53 years—making him the longest-serving trustee in Cornell history.

Women can now serve as life trustee. Cornell’s charter originally reserved the spot for the “eldest male lineal descendant” of the founder. In 1984—in part because the oldest child of Ezra ’70 is his daughter, Katy Cornell ’01, BS ’02—the University asked the state legislature to amend the charter to remove “male.”

CAST YOUR BALLOT

Voting for alumni-elected trustees will be open throughout February; Alumni Affairs recently posted interviews with the four candidates.

To learn more about the board and hear directly from the candidates (as well as from two current alumni-elected trustees), tune in at 7 p.m. EST on Thursday, February 2, for a webinar with Corey Earle ’07.

The first female trustee joined the board in 1895. The second president of Bryn Mawr, M. Carey Thomas 1877, was a leader in women’s education—though her legacy has been tarnished in recent years, due to increased understanding of her racist and anti-Semitic views. Today, women hold about 44% of board seats.

The first Black trustee was elected in 1965. Jerome “Brud” Holland ’39, MS ’41, also served as chairman of the Red Cross and as U.S. ambassador to Sweden. Today, about 33% of the board are people of color.

Emeritus trustees can still attend meetings. While the more than 100 former trustees who have been granted emeritus status can no longer vote, they may attend (and speak at) full board meetings.

Trustees Chad Coates, Mariana Wolfner, and Ezra Cornell at the inauguration of Cornell President Martha Pollack
Chad Coates, then an employee-elected trustee, displays the seal at President Pollack’s 2017 inauguration; Ezra Cornell ’70 holds the charter. Behind them is then-trustee Mariana Wolfner ’74 and (from left) former presidents David Skorton, Hunter Rawlings III, and Jeffrey Lehman ’77. (Cornell University)

Most of the work happens within standing committees. They number more than a dozen, focused on such issues as alumni affairs, investment, research, and student life. Other task forces and ad hoc groups are created to address specific needs.

The full board typically meets four times a year. Three meetings are held in Ithaca and one at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City.

Trustees march at Commencement. The annual May ceremony is a highlight for many board members, who join the procession to Schoellkopf Field in academic regalia.

Top: Trustees in the procession during President Martha Pollack’s inauguration. Former President David Skorton is at far right. (Cornell University)

Published January 19, 2023


Comments

  1. Randy Wayne

    I hope that the new trustees stand for academic freedom, open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, free expression, and constructive disagreement.

  2. Derick Adams, Class of 1981

    Cornell is a university that is filled with traditions, reading this reminds me that the board has transformed over time to meet the needs of the university and societal norms while preserving its traditions. It reminded me of the saying over the doorway in the fencing room, “respect the rules, honor the traditions.”

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