Editorial: The board of trustees saves face

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Mountain Hawks. Brown and white. Business and engineering. Path to Prominence. Donald Trump’s honorary degree.

Every brand has a handful of words consumers and onlookers typically associate with its personality.

How a brand obtains these cued connotations relies upon how it is represented.

Sometimes, it takes just one very public and memorable situation for consumers to associate a brand name with a related trigger word.

Take Proctor & Gamble’s laundry detergent brand, Tide. After videos of people eating Tide Pods became viral, the brand became associated with this alarming, but popular, trend.

Just like the Tide brand, Lehigh’s brand has been under media scrutiny largely because of the controversial topics that were discussed at board of trustees’ meetings March 1 and 2.

Among other things, board members deliberated the revocation of President Donald Trump’s honorary degree, as well as the potential for fossil fuel divestment.

These two decisions draw a concern that the board’s motives are purely backed by monetary gain. Lehigh makes a hefty dollar off of investments in fossil fuel — an industry that has been proven to negatively impact our environment. Divesting would mean removing support of environmental damage, and allowing for potential reinvestment in more renewable resources.

Acknowledging the ethical and environmental impact of investing in fossil fuels shows Lehigh is more than just financially driven — that we have ethical values.

While the board’s decision about divestment would have long-term physical repercussions, the vote to rescind Trump’s honorary degree is more symbolic.

On Saturday, the board decided once again to take “no action” in response to calls to rescind Trump’s honorary degree from Lehigh.

There is no such thing as taking “no action” — every choice is an action. Despite numerous calls for an explanation, however, the board has failed to adequately justify its decision.

If Trump were not president, would Lehigh still defend him?

And while there is no definitive answer to this question, his position of power should not pardon him from being compared to Bill Cosby, whose honorary degree was revoked without debate. It seems the board rescinded Cosby’s honorary degree to save face and distance the university from his reputation.

Is Lehigh’s board of trustees not revoking Trump’s honorary degree to also save face?

As an editorial board, we hope to hold our university’s decision-makers accountable.

It is important to try to understand the polarized context in which such decisions are made. To do this, it is crucial to acknowledge Lehigh itself is a brand.

The powers and responsibilities that fall on the Board of Trustees are as follows:

“The Board shall have all powers provided to directors by law and shall have and exercise full power and authority to do all things deemed necessary and expedient in the governance, management, and control of the business and affairs of the University, including, without limitation, the establishment of the University’s general, educational, and financial policies.”

Every decision the Board of Trustees makes is said to be for the betterment of Lehigh’s management and control of the business. Maintaining order is part of the job description.

However, the importance of fostering an environment that encourages open and productive conversation is just as important to implement from the top-down.

While educational and financial responsibilities seem to hold equal weight in this statement, it seems as though the board is putting a heavier emphasis on financial risk aversion.

Who is Lehigh’s board of trustees trying to please?

Ingrained in its decisions are the board of trustees’ true motives. The board seems to be looking to maintain a brand loyalty with its repeat customers.

According to the 80/20 rule, around 80 percent of sales come from 20 percent of repeated customers. Since Lehigh is a brand, appeasing the top 20 percent of donors would be in Lehigh’s best interest. After all, the board of trustees is responsible for Lehigh’s financial stability.

At the same time, however, the board has a responsibility to its current students and recent graduates. Though we are today’s students, we will be tomorrow’s donors.

Valuing the current generation’s opinions will instill positive brand equity. Making students feel like their voices are being heard shows a commitment to the university beyond the fiscal.

The board appears to be listening carefully for any notion of negativity among highly valued alumni donors, but they are hardly listening to the unrest among the current faculty and student body.

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23 Comments

  1. Barry Jenkin ‘66 from a time when Lehigh had real scientists on

    What needs to be replaced are todays students and faculty. And please print a list of the fake science that proves fossil fuel companies are hurting the environment, your literature and religious professors are promoting this tripe but show me the peer veviewed science that proves the point. Equations with invented variables can be used to to prove a predetermined result. True scientis are still skeptical

    • Lehigh needs to replace its students and faculty? If you replace a school’s students and faculty, you get an entirely different school. At 70+ years of age, you need to come to terms with the fact that the Lehigh of today is not your Lehigh, and we’re okay with that.

    • Mr. Jenkins – you are “FROM A TIME WHEN LEHIGH HAD REAL SCIENTISTS.” Looks to me like you could use a REAL lesson from a REAL literature professor (actually, an 8th grader would do). *reviewed, *to , *scientist *today’s

      I suggest you proof-read your harsh comments before you criticize today’s faculty and students.

      For the record, you sound a lot like our president, paying yourself some compliments while ignorantly discrediting your opponents.

  2. James Turner on

    Really? Tide laundry detergent? This was the only decision the Board could reach. There are Trump supporters among Alumni that donate significant amounts of money – and the risk of offending those individuals is high. Funds that pay for scholarships, that pay for buildings, that help carry the financial load so we have this wonderful education. For you to insinuate that “open and productive conversation” is somehow threatened is narrow and wrong.

    • So you admit that the board is acting out of fear of financial repercussion from donors who are also Trump supporters. If only our board had the courage to admit it too . . .

      • Robert Davenport on

        Courage or stupidity? Sort of like telling the other players at the poker table why you made a raise. There is no upside to giving a reason, the Board would lose freedom of movement; haters gonna hate.

  3. Robert Davenport on

    Who would have responsibility if the Board decided to divest of all objectionable investments and new investments resulted in a massive drop in the dollar amount of donations? The board of course. This is assuming that the 30,000 plus signers of the petition, the yea faculty voters and concerned alumni would not have guaranteed any reduction in donations. Of course the last statement is a fantasy. There is no cost to petition signers with the current Board decision. According to some their may be a savings due to cutting donations to Lehigh.

    Cynics may say that Lehigh was better off as a all male Engineering and Business school with some Arts. I don’t subscribe to that, but the benefits of changes at Lehigh have come with some problems attached.

    Remember that past Boards, probably more conservative than the current Board, made changes that have resulted in todays Lehigh. As in many life tasks, you can observe that: it’s a dirty job but somebody has to do it. The Board has acted responsibly with timely and clear, albeit non-explanatory, responses. The decision having been made twice, can the same be said of Board critics as they continue the war of words?

    • Margaret Buell on

      Could you please expand on your statement that “changes at Lehigh have come with some problems attached.” Exactly what problems have admitting women and having a College of Arts and Sciences introduced?

      • Robert Davenport on

        Women behaving badly as per AXO probably other instances. Possibly men behaving badly due to women continually on campus rather than as guests. More protests, is it performance art? More diverse student body leading to more friction between students. More students leading to lack of student body integrity. Lack of Marching 97 participation (recently improved). Disconnect between current students/faculty and alumni/administration. Someone may come up with more.

        • Margaret Corrigan Buell on

          So, Lehigh would be better if everyone were more like you? hmmmmmm . . . I need not say any more.

          • Robert Davenport on

            I wrote: “Cynics may say that Lehigh was better off as a(n) all male Engineering and Business school with some Arts. I don’t subscribe to that, but the benefits of changes at Lehigh have come with some problems attached.” You asked for: “Exactly what problems have admitting women and having a College of Arts and Sciences introduced?” I answered with a list. Did you not like my list? No comments other than a put down?

            Of course I think things would be better if more people were like me but if everyone was like me we would have lots of problems with not many solutions. Diversity is good if we listen to each other. I can’t “listen” if you don’t write.

        • Wait, did you just say that Lehigh men behave badly because, over the past 45 years or so, women have become more than campus guests? God help me for asking this, but where is Amy Charles when you need her?!

  4. Oh, where to begin. There is much fertile ground. Your thesis appears to be the final paragraph “The board appears to be listening carefully for any notion of negativity among highly valued alumni donors, but they are hardly listening to the unrest among the current faculty and student body.”

    First, the on-line petition with 30,000 students asking to revoke the diploma is not reality. Last time I checked, there are 5,000 current undergraduate and a total of 7,000 students at Lehigh. One person, one vote – and that was not one current student one vote.

    Your entire thesis assumes the current student body wanted to revoke the diploma. Keep in mind, Trump won the presidential election and carried Pennsylvania. Don’t you think there is a substantial percentage of current students that support the president? Of course there is – whether its 40%, 50% or 60% – the Board listened to them. Remember – he polled at only 40% heading into Election Day but when people got behind the curtain – they pulled his lever. The pollsters concluded many people were reluctant to say they supported him on the phone but voted for him in the privacy of the polling booth. Don’t assume that doesn’t exist on your campus.

    I would argue the Board’s constituency is both current and former students and even prospective students. Former students matter to the Board – whether they are donors or not. Do you think 100% of them were in favor of revoking the Diploma? Of course not and the Board is listening to them.

    Its an important lesson for young editorial boards – just because people are loud about an issue doesn’t mean they represent the entire constituency or even a majority.

    A second important lesson for you is try and keep politics out of business. Like it or not – college education is a business. Lehigh has a budget. It’s has operating costs and capital demands. Every time you introduce politics into a business situation, you run the risk of alienating 50% of your customers (current students, former students, prospective students, donors, employers).

    I am NOT surprised that your professors didn’t figure that out. Professors are generally not known to be adept at business. All your professors did was further reinforce the notion that conservative students need to speak up. They showed they are so radical that they are willing to vote for something which they knew would hurt the university monetarily and further undermine public debate from conservative students.

    Read the opinion from your reporter called “Free our speech” and all the comments on that article as well as the news article on the professors vote. Your editorial has done nothing but further show your lack of understanding that there are lots of other opinions that matter on campus and beyond. Just because you didn’t get what you wanted, Editorial Board, or what the professors wanted, doesn’t mean the Board didn’t take your views into consideration and of course what everyone else wanted.

    Sometimes you don’t get what you want. And don’t always assume your view is pervasive. It’s not. How else can you explain the person sitting in the Oval Office.

  5. Good Governance on

    Boards are created to guide corporations into the future from a high altitude. They are not designed to be rubber stamps of other stakeholders such as alumni, faculty, administration, or students. Good Boards take a deliberately very long run view and less emotional approach to decision making – good Boards are strategic and not tactical…and definitely not reactionary.

    Stakeholders that would like to rescind Donald Trump’s honorary degree have been allowed to make statements supporting rescission and have signaled their virtue by their actions. The Board has made a very unsurprising decision given its role. To expect a different outcome is to be naive and to ignore Board realpolitik.

  6. Current Student on

    Fossil fuel divestment will put Lehigh at a significant disadvantage for the growth of their endowment fund, which offers financial aid and grants to roughly half of the student body. Additionally, in divesting, Lehigh would lose its voice as a proponent of change.

    Why draw the line at fossil fuel producers, rather than the corporate consumers? Let’s divest from all automobile companies that do not primarily sell hybrid or environmentally friendly cars. Every airline company? Trucking and ocean transportation companies? Energy providers such as PPL? Manufacturing companies that produce or design plastics with oil-based components? Every investment bank that recruits at Lehigh has a sales and trading team with transactions involving hard commodities. Where do you draw the line?

    ExxonMobil is spending upwards of $1bn per year on clean energy. Shell’s spending totaled $400m on solar power and electric charging technology. Total, Statoil, and BP, among others, are doing far more good than the corporate consumers of their fossil fuel products.

    A number of sovereign wealth funds across the world, particularly in the Nordic countries, have prioritized ‘social cause’ characteristics in their investment decisions, minimizing the weight of financial valuation in these choices and harming them relative to other funds.

    I don’t want Lehigh’s endowment of $1.2bn governed by the ‘loudest petition.’

    In 2015, the last year its records were made public, SolarCity boasted a net loss of $769m, the year before they lost $375m, even after enormous government subsidies. To assert that companies like this are a sound investment choice is naive.

    A number of these companies recruit at Lehigh. That is not to say we should not divest because of ramifications like decreased recruiting, but because the goal of improving our world’s environmental conditions is done through our students’ active roles at these companies.

    Suggesting we divest completely is shortsighted and harmful, not only to Lehigh now, but to its future students in need of financial aid. Lehigh’s strength is its relationship with these companies. We need to continue to guide students in their education to become active proponents of change in these organizations, not shut the door.

    • Amy Charles '89 on

      Congratulations! You’ve aligned yourself with the Lehigh students who felt the same way about divesting from South African investments, and figured we ought to leave other people’s apartheid governments alone. Especially if divestiture might cost money.

      As it happened, of course, American divestment campaigns were part of why apartheid ended in South Africa, and somehow the schools that divested haven’t fallen down.

      I really must find out the Latin for “consistently on the wrong side of history” because goddamn if it doesn’t belong on a Lehigh crest.

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