The University must rethink its Board of Trustees

Spandan Marasini, Contributing Writer

In August 2019, the University unveiled its largest academic facility: Academic East. The $38 million project expanded on existing infrastructure, primarily bolstering facilities for the College of Engineering. The building has over two dozen laboratories, 30 offices, multipurpose study spaces, a green wall and a donor wall. 

Unlike the flora of its counterpart, the donor wall is studded with glass plaques, engraved with the names of the benefactors of the new facility. One of the very few plaques dedicated to a single family or donor is that of Christopher B. Sullivan and Jennifer Ochsner Sullivan. Chris Sullivan studied mechanical engineering at the University and graduated in 1992; now, almost three decades later, he is on the board of his alma mater as CEO of Primus Technologies. 

Primus is described as being in the “Electrical Equipment” industry, and one of its primary markets is aerospace and defense. And the company seems to be doing well — in 2019, Primus was recognized by Raytheon with a Supplier Excellence Program Premier Award. Raytheon Technologies Corporation, as many will know, is one of the world’s largest aerospace and defense manufacturers. In fact, in 2019 alone the company made over $97.75 billion in revenue. It also benefits enormously from U.S. Department of Defense spending – it even has its own political action committee – and has spent tens of millions over the years on defense lobbying. According to a 2013 article from USA Today, Raytheon was one of 10 companies profiting most from global conflict and war. 

So what does it mean for our University’s paramount decision-making body to be chaired by a Raytheon Premier Supplier, who profits from wholesale slaughter, destruction of entire countries and remote assassination via drone strike, the latter of which has killed thousands of innocent civilians over the last two decades? This is an issue of primary importance, especially given the recent uproar by the student community regarding the University‘s tepid response to the murder of George Floyd and those of other BIPOC victims of police brutality. When University President John Bravman penned a letter to the community on the issues of racial justice, he was met by a sense of mistrust and urgency: people wanted actionable plans to deal with systemic racism, but the University, now as ever, would rather chart a middle course. 

The honorifics granted to figures like Chris Sullivan warrant a degree of conversation on the pipeline between defense manufacturers and universities. If eliminating systemic racism is the goal, how can the University justify partnering with corporations arguably benefiting from the death of innocent brown and black people halfway across the world? And this is not just a small-time partnership, remember – Sullivan is on the Board of Trustees, arguably the top of the University hierarchy. 

Another member of the Board of Trustees worth scrutinizing is Bob Chrencik ’73, former President and CEO of the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS). Chrencik no longer occupies this position, having resigned in March 2019 after explosive allegations of conflicts of interest, self-dealing and ethics violations emerged. Specifically, the board of UMMS was heavily slammed for its role in the payment of $500,000 to trustee and former mayor of Baltimore Catherine Pugh for children’s books that she had published; Pugh was awarded the money from a no-bit payment while serving on health committees on the Maryland State Senate. Along with a litany of other accusations, this incident led not only to the ouster of University alum Chrencik, but also the resignation of Pugh and many other members of the board. Chrencik might have found himself kicked out of his role at UMMS entirely, but even a year after the scandal, he still occupies a position on the University’s Board of Trustees. The decision by the University to maintain Chrencik as a high-ranking administrative executive can be seen as, at best, naïve, and at worst tolerant of double-dealing and malformed ethics at the upper echelons of its chain of command. Instead it prevaricates; the highest body of the University has actively involved a disgraced executive in its decision-making, and likely hold his word in high-esteem. 

“As an institution of higher education, we have an obligation, as our mission statement and our strategic plan clearly state, to address historical and emerging barriers to equity and inclusion and provide all students, faculty and staff the structures and programs to thrive on campus and in a diverse world. This includes overcoming racism,” wrote Bravman and current Board of Trustees Chairman Chris O’Brien after Bravman had received heavy criticism for his ‘Breath of Life’ email. But to overcome such ‘barriers,’ the University first has plenty of self-reflection to do. 

Co-signatory to this email Chris O’Brien is himself embroiled in some controversy, which is worth examining in turn. O’Brien’s deputy is Vice Chairman Harriet Edelman, who amongst other roles, is the director of Assurant, a large insurance company. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Assurant lobbied in 2019 for the passage of the Federal Insurance Office Abolishment Act of 2019. The Federal Insurance Office is a regulatory organization established by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, as a reaction to the many violations by financial services companies that led to the Great Recession. Assurant and, by virtue of her large leadership role at the company, Edelman are proposing the removal of the Federal Insurance Office, in attempts to deregulate and loosen oversight in their industry. It is important at this point to note that the financial crisis of 2007-09 disproportionately affected lower-income, black, and Hispanic households. Many others on the board have had long tenures in the financial services sector, with previous positions at corporations that enabled (or actively aggravated) the forces behind the Great Recession. While the administration of continues to release half-expressions of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, its own Board of Trustees stands as culprits for the very societal ills the movement opposes.

In fact, almost 50% of board members are either involved in financial services, real estate, or corporate law. Needless to say, the Board is also overwhelmingly white and rich, and only one member has the career to suggest a dedication to public service. In its mission statement, the University writes, “Bucknell seeks to educate our students to serve the common good and to promote justice in ways sensitive to the moral and ethical dimensions of life.” If this statement is true with any degree of depth or seriousness, the top levels of the University may need some education of their own. Bucknell cannot afford to play both sides — to espouse support for multiculturalism and inclusion, all the while maintaining a power structure that privileges the opinions of Raytheon contractors, white-collar criminals, and financial services profiteers over the life and prosperity of its most vulnerable communities.

Every trustee serves as their own social statement, and given the current composition of our Board, it may be germane to step back and question the University’s commitment to fronting marginalized voices, supporting economically underprivileged populations, and even social justice in general. Their lack of introspection is certainly evident; questionable figures have maintained positions of power while the chair of the board and the President of the institution have committed to creating an environment that is “inclusive in fact and not merely in rhetoric.” To be “inclusive in fact” will take a high degree of honesty, and thorough scrutiny of whose opinions factor most crucially into the University’s decision-making. If the Trustees are seen not to reflect these supposedly deeply-held values of equity, inclusion and “sensitiv[ity] to the moral and ethical dimensions of life,” perhaps it is time to renegotiate who makes those decisions entirely.

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