Holding Schools in Trust

Holding Schools in Trust

From The Yield, Winter 2014

Independent school trustees have a significant impact on a school’s enrollment health. To learn more, The Yield sat down with Dr. William New, sitting trustee for The Putney School (VT), to gain his insights about the independent school trustee, the future of independent education, and the significant factors every trustee needs to know about enrollment management. William New, M.D., Ph.D. is currently chairman of The Novent Group, a consulting firm in Palo Alto, California that assists early stage social ventures with mentoring and direction. He was the founder and executive chairman of Nellcor, where he developed the pulse oximeter in use today in virtually every operating room in the world. Dr. New received degrees in electrical engineering from Stanford University, his M.D. from Duke University, a Ph.D. in physiology from UCLA, and a Masters in management from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

You’ve been involved in independent education for 60 years beginning as a student at Cate School. What feeds and sustains your deep and long-time commitment to independent schools?

Standardized, formulaic, large-scale, test-driven public schooling designed a century ago for conformity and worker preparation in an industrial world does not comport with the post-growth, post-industrial economy we face going forward. Independent schools—free of political whim, the public purse, and religious dogma—are our best hope. Small schools where no child is ignored or left behind are the least risk. Fostering of collaboration, design thinking, individual thought, inclusiveness, and a cooperative sense founded on fairness is the optimum preparation for leadership as an adult. Subject content matters less and less—critical thinking and creativity more and more. When I survey the panoply of education offerings available, independent schools, especially small and personalized ones, are the best preparation today for our problems tomorrow.

You have served on multiple boards including both the NAIS and SSS boards. How has the role of independent school trustee changed or evolved over time?

Boards circa 1970 were dominated by “old boys” in boarding schools and “powerful fathers” in day schools. Decisions were generally made by a dominant few with rubber stamp “consensus” expected. By the 1980s, a few mothers appeared on boards, generally lawyers or other professionals, joined by an occasional wealthy widow. There were no African Americans, no Asians, no young alumni, or (perish the thought) students in attendance. The 1990s flowered with female members (as boys’ schools became coed), a few (too few) African-American professors or clergy, some entrepreneurial wealth, and the introduction of younger alumni. Still the older males reigned. Board table arguments occasionally occurred, but consensus was still expected—otherwise decisions were put off.

Year 2000 brought a mix of younger members (work), donors (wealth), and loyal white hairs—male and female (wisdom). Independent board members (similar to corporate board structures) appeared—with their ample school experience and a fresh point of view, being neither an alumnus nor a parent. School staff is in greater attendance, evident when the room largely empties during executive session. Rubber stamps are being put aside. There are more votes with dissensions and abstentions than ever before—though the tone is gentlemanly (old boys still reign). An increasing number of board members are doing their own research on topics and not depending solely on “board reports” from school leadership.

These are all positive signs, albeit developing at glacial speed. The silent question is whether independent school trustees can accelerate as fast as do the externalities affecting their institutions.

What is most challenging/ rewarding about board service? How much time does a typical independent school trustee give to this endeavor?

The biggest challenge is ensuring all members show up at every meeting having read pre-meeting materials and prepared for discussion. The most rewarding is having all members fully engaged for the full meeting, not arriving late, none departing early, and giving thoughtful input.

Day school trustees commonly meet every month for several hours. Boarding school trustees generally meet quarterly for a couple of days. A full evening of homework is required before each meeting. Committee attendance is additional work. Altogether, an active trustee devotes a minimum of a day per month, and many committee chairs or board officers double or triple that. A board chairperson, working with the head of school, communicating with committee chairs, stewarding significant donors, and assuming or delegating a myriad of board tasks, effectively has a half-time job.

Do you have any advice for fixing the problem of our schools’ overreliance on high tuitions?

Independent schools have a strategic choice: concentrate on educating the offspring of the 1% (in which case tuition per student should be substantially raised to cover operational and investment costs), or alternatively, reorganize to educate middle class youngsters (for whom tuition is unaffordable and financial aid is mission critical). Attempting both together (raising tuition plus increasing financial aid) to chase the widening gap stretches the socioeconomic barbell distribution.

A compromise would be a sustainable school, where the top half subsidizes the bottom half (50% financial aid—in practice, where the top half is at truly full-pay tuition = total school expense divided by total student headcount). All annual giving and endowment yield supports the bottom half (school plus personal expenses) and is not pooled into the general school budget where it would subsidize every student.

A useful thought experiment for trustees is to start afresh with a clean slate to design a new school around present facilities that will be fully self-supporting on affordable tuition with charitable giving as only gravy—not the potatoes. Ponder a hands-on outlier where the daily work of running/maintaining the school is student-powered, perhaps an urban version of Deep Springs College. Or a virtual school heavy on technology with few buildings well suited to digital natives. Or start with a billionaire alumnus, who was a financial aid student, and sell your vision. We need a fresh rethink, not a lengthened shadow of business-as-usual… which brings us to AltSchool.

You are supporting AltSchool. What elements about its program and vision do you think independent schools should adopt?

AltSchool is a clean slate, starting with the individual needs of students as the organizing principle, including the 10-15% with learning differences, aimed to prepare children for a digital century. Schools are store fronts, playing fields are public parks, urban field trips are the classroom, each child has personalized curriculum on his/her own iPad, mom/dad/teacher can track Susie’s progress online, venture capital replaces endowment, Google-level technology provides the back office, neighborhood schools are networked, and schools go to where the children are.

AltSchool starts with what we foresee as inevitabilities circa 2100; considers what you need to learn at age 10, then works backward to create schools and curricula around a digital paradigm. The originators (experienced engineers and educators) are creating novel IT tools that can be used anywhere, anytime, with any student. Can independent schools adopt this digerati model in the 21st century? Independent schools adopted Montessori, Waldorf, Dewey, and other progressive alternatives that flourished early in the 20th century. I see AltSchool carrying on that pattern of creating an alternative to traditional education. Building sustainability into the genetic code of alternative schooling is the saving hope for independent schools.

How do you see student assessment changing in the future?

Less focus on achievement, more focus on altitude, aptitude, and attitude. Altitude is that ability for astudent to rise above aggravation, frustration, fatigue, and distraction to concentrate productively on school studies and responsibilities—what some have simply termed “grit.”

Aptitude is the ability of a student to learn something brand new, to adopt the “beginner's mind,” to learn from others often by simply watching. Natural athletes have aptitude—they just need to watch someone play a new sport and they quickly “get it.” Tiger Woods at age two watched his father putt golf balls on the carpet. A natural musician learns the same way. Yo Yo Ma at age five watched his father play the violin. Admission should find evidence of aptitude, i.e. early self-directed learning.

Attitude is social behavior, good or bad. A child who gets along well with others (a cardinal lesson of kindergarten) has great attitude, especially if he/she has a “will do” group cooperation (an early sign of leadership). A “can do” aptitude and a “will do” attitude are key determinants of academic and career success.

What can enrollment managers and admission teams do to increase their value with boards?

Boards primarily interact with the head of school, and each head has his/her own style. Some freely delegate to administrators, each of whom reports to the board and fields questions in his/her area. Other heads are heliocentric, with all the sun shining their way. They report all key information themselves, field questions, and only use administrators as stand-by backup.

I counsel department chairs to try their hand at administration, and administrators to try their hand in other areas. If these administrators see a headship in their future (fewer and fewer want the headaches), I recommend they work at another school, perhaps in another capacity or geography for a valuable cross-pollinating experience. These are the sorts of broad individuals who have the greatest odds of being asked back when the board is looking for a new head.

A word of advice: interact with trustees either in the boardroom or out. Invite them to admission receptions. Have lunch when you are in their town. Work with your development counterpart—after all, admission knows student families first and often best. All of this increased exposure will raise your value with the board—and raise your marketability when you move on and up.

What enrollment management data do trustees need to aid in strategic planning?

Admission should report to the board three or four times a year. The first time is in the fall to provide an as-enrolled summary of the entering students, a projection of the student mix desired in the coming year, the psychosocial and economic status of the anticipated admission pool, and perhaps any upcoming admission receptions that trustees may want to attend or to refer potential families/students.

The second report should come during the winter when all applications are due. This is the time to share the funnel to date—size, shape, student characteristics, surprises, and guesstimates as to the weeks coming. Perhaps some background commentary on trends being seen and where resources may need to be added or shifted as trustees start budget considerations.

The third report should come during the spring when acceptances have been sent and enrollments are returned. The funnel should be updated, again noting any surprises positive and negative. This is a good time for extended Q&A since most of the data are in and final budget approvals are imminent. This is the meeting at which trustees should “put it all together,” and, within a budgetary context, confront tradeoffs of staffing, financial aid, mission creep, and emerging trends.

A summer meeting around graduation is a good point to hand out final statistics, give a heads up on the direction for the coming year, discuss any unusual summer melt or reenrollment uncertainties, exhort trustees to talk about the school during the summer months when prospective parents often start thinking about the coming school year(s), and urge the tardy to get their annual fund contributions in with a hint of the unrelenting need for increased financial aid. Summer is also a good season to do some research on trends, listen to audiobooks about shifting demographics and economics, and to spend time with cohorts from other schools to widen one’s perspective.

What advice do you have for an admission director when reporting to the board of trustees?

Trustees need to be concerned with the big picture (setting compass bearings), not with operations (laying out maps), and certainly not with micromanagement (building roads and designing signposts). In this case, the big picture means looking at the admission funnel, more the shape than absolute numbers, and seeing projections as to future shape change. Color coding the funnel to illustrate segmentation expectations is useful.

Admission is a continuous tradeoff exercise: violin player vs. athlete, math vs. actor, boy vs. girl, domestic vs. international, full-pay vs. financial aid, legacy vs. diversity— the list is endless. Trustees do not need to see this sausage making in grim detail. They should see the end result as a portrayal of mission and that mission portrayed in necessary financial aid. Trustees cannot have their cake and eat it too—tough trade off decisions are necessary, and they are getting tougher each year as resources tighten.

Admission today is the 25th reunion class a generation from now, and next to facility construction, admission has the longest influence on the school’s future. As such, trustees need to concentrate on that long-term mission with appropriate indicators (funnel shape, demographics, economics, geographics)—rather than next year’s numbers.

It is easy to drown trustees in numbers, percentages, charts, tables, graphs—and that should all be provided to them before the meeting—but the admission report should be big picture, confirmation and alignment with mission, and time for a short Q&A. Most Q’s can be answered with a brief, “It is in your board materials— next question, Henry?” Let them call you later (few will) after they have done their homework reading. Again, focus on the big picture, the compass direction, the funnel shape, the external pool, and mission—trustees can and should digest numbers on their own.

What education do trustees most need in the areas of admission and enrollment management?

Futurist: Of all sectors within independent schools, admission has the longest-term effects, selecting students whose adult success (or not) will impact our planet leading into the 22nd century. This is the time horizon that trustees must contemplate as they set the compass for the direction of the school. This is uniquely the responsibility of the board. Only the alumni—admitted today—will remain to carry the torch. Understanding that critical role played by admission—as central to the mission of the school—is important for every trustee to internalize.

Idealist: The mission of the school succinctly summarizes goals and hopes for the future, set by a compass direction. The direction chosen—of the 360 degrees possible— is the simplest expression of these dreams and ideals, and it should represent consensus of the board. The admission staff will “sell the dream,” finding families who share these aspirations for their children. Admission depends on the board to set the vision.

Realist: Of the possible 360 degrees, many are not realistic. We must start with a candid, no-delusions assessment of where the school is now. Idealism is what we want to pass on to our successors. Realism expresses the odds that we can reach our goal with the compass bearing we choose. Admission depends on the board setting a realistic direction to achieve their vision with favorable odds.

Taoist: We cannot set our compass looking forward through the rearview mirror at a school remembered “back when.” Trustees must understand that change is inexorable, moving ever faster, and of uncertain impact. Schools that cannot or will not change quickly enough slowly (perhaps suddenly) die. Admission research on population shifts, family statistics, disposable incomes, educational aspirations, school choice criteria, communication preferences, competitors, and a host of other market factors must be available for trustees to change. You are the teachers, and the trustees are the students. Lesson learned—the school changes and lives. Lesson ignored—the school perishes.

“If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you aren’t afraid of dying, there is no change you can’t achieve.” Lao Tzu (c.604 - 531 B.C.)

“A formula for success? It’s quite simple, really... go ahead and make mistakes... double your errors... that’s where you find success.” Thomas J. Watson, IBM (1874 - 1956)



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