SMU’s Board of Secrecy
Published: Thursday, April 15, 2010
Updated: Tuesday, November 20, 2012 17:11
Editor's Note: The following is Part 3 in our "Hidden on the Hilltop: SMU's Culture of Secrecy" series, which examines the secretive nature of various operations at SMU.
"The management and direction of all affairs and interests of the University shall be vested in the Board of Trustees."
– SMU Bylaws
The Ernst & Young Gallery is aptly named.
Four large arched windows frame the east side, filling the spacious room with sunlight when the blinds are raised. The entrance, on the west side of the Fincher Building, features double doors with glass panes that allow a sweeping view of the gallery.
The room, housed in the original home of the Cox School of Business, seems a fitting place for SMU's stated mission: "The University is dedicated to the values of academic freedom and open inquiry and to its United Methodist heritage."
On the morning of Friday, Feb. 26, the SMU Board of Trustees conducted its first meeting of 2010 in the Ernst & Young Gallery. The window blinds were closed. Partitions were placed next to the double doors inside the room to prevent anyone from peering in. Doors were locked.
This too is fitting.
The board of trustees is the most powerful group at SMU. Its members have final say over every important decision on campus from the budget to the Bush Library. They make these decisions behind closed doors. The board treats its records like classified documents.
Every agenda, vote, resolution and contract is hidden from public view. Trustees are equally vigilant in shielding the minutes of its meetings. The board provides no list of the reports it receives, much less their contents.
On the SMU Web site, there is a single page devoted to the board of trustees. It lists the names of the 42 members and little else. There is a phone number for "The Secretary."
That person is Mary Anne Rogers, associate secretary in SMU Legal Affairs. Rogers said the limited information on the trustees is designed to protect their privacy.
"We try to protect our board members as much as possible," she said. "You can understand. They are CEOs of big companies and are very important people."
Ray Hunt is a VIP. A billionaire. Number 261 on Forbes 2009 list of the world's richest people. President George W. Bush twice appointed him to the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Hunt has been a member of the SMU Board of Trustees since 1976. SMU's Articles of Incorporation limit the maximum length of service to 12 consecutive years. The Daily Campus wanted to ask Hunt how he's managed to stay on the board for 34 years. Hunt declined to be interviewed.
He was not alone. The Daily Campus contacted more than half of the 42 trustees. Three of every four refused.
For the trustees, there cannot be too much secrecy. Each year, the trustees solemnly promise never to make public what they discuss in their meetings.
"At the first of the year, we all pledge to one another that this is a private discussion, that this should not be shared with anyone else," said Caren Prothro, a trustee for at least 17 years.
The handful of trustees who did grant interviews said confidentiality is good for the board and beneficial for SMU. They see no reason to explain their decisions. And they have no intention of changing how they do business.
According to Linda Pitts Custard, a trustee since 2000, questioning the board is a waste of time.
"Students need to focus on class and getting A's," she said. "As long as the school functions well, students need to not worry about how the board is run."
Many SMU students said that given the stakes involved, it would be foolish for them to be unconcerned.
"I wholeheartedly disagree" with Custard's view, said Drew Konow, a junior from Baton Rouge majoring in religious studies and foreign language and literature. "That's espousing an opinion that somehow students aren't affected by decisions and the decisions aren't relative to our future."
Alex Vazquez, a senior from Dallas majoring in Spanish and psychology, echoes Konow's view. "[The board members] deal with the outward perspective…It's like they're looking at a picture and saying, ‘Oh, it looks so pretty.' But they don't see the inside, the nuts and bolts."
There is a student trustee on the board. Fred Olness, president of the Faculty Senate, and other trustees proudly point to this as evidence that they are in touch with students and their concerns.
"SMU is rather unique in the sense that it has a student representative to the board of trustees and also the committees," he said.
However, American University and Duke University—both private Methodist colleges recognized by SMU as peer schools—may see this as less impressive. American has three student representatives on its 32-member board, said Maria Pahigiannis, the board's assistant secretary. Duke has four student trustees on its 36-member board, according to Christine Collins, the board's executive assistant.
There is a unique aspect to SMU's student trustee. At American and Duke, the student body elects those who will represent them on the board of trustees. At SMU, any full-time student who has completed at least 36 hours with a GPA of 3.0 or higher can apply for the student trustee's position.