The Pomona College Board of Trustees has opened a series of internal reviews and set up a task force on communication between students and trustees, prompted by the controversial document checks that cost 17 Pomona employees their jobs last semester.
Members of the Trustee-Student Task Force on Campus Community Communication, charged with developing ways to create better exchanges of information between Pomona students and trustees, said they plan to submit their recommendations to the Board of Trustees by the end of this month.
The board’s internal processes are likely to take longer. Audit Committee Chairman Terrance Hodel PO ’64 said that one goal is to write a new procedure for responding to complaints and submit it for a board vote in May.
The need for a new written procedure became clear last year, after the board had to improvise parts of its response to an allegation of illegal hiring practices in the college administration, Hodel said.
“We really don’t have a policy on how to deal with complaints that the president is involved in criminal behavior,” he said. “Needless to say, we didn’t think we needed one.”
The board currently has a policy on responding to whistleblowers who complain directly to the chair of the Audit Committee about fiscal misconduct. Last year’s complaint, however, was not covered by the existing rules because it was submitted to Board Chairman Paul Efron PO ’76, and because its content was not strictly fiscal, Hodel said.
“The complainant didn’t follow the correct process [and] probably didn’t know about it,” he said. “If you want to get into some sort of nitpicking, I guess you could say it didn’t go through the right channels, but the bottom line is, there was a complaint made against the president of the school. Somebody had to investigate it that was on the board, and the closest thing we had to a procedure was the whistleblower procedure.”
Hodel said that Efron had chosen to handle last year’s complaint through the Audit Committee, a move consistent with the board’s policy on responding to fiscal whistleblowers. Yet, the complaint was referred only to the Audit Committee chair, not to the whole committee.
The small group of trustees dealing with the complaint also decided not bring the matter to the full board’s attention until after an external audit of Pomona employment files had been finished. If the board had been operating under its whistleblower rules, the Audit Committee would have been required to “promptly notify the Board of any decision to retain outside counsel or other experts, including financial consultants or other outside audit firms,” as stated in the Bylaws of Pomona College.
The decision to keep the complaint among a few trustees was motivated by the need to keep the complainant’s name secret, coupled with a sense that there were few options to discuss, Hodel said.
“It just wasn’t necessary to get the [whole Audit Committee] involved,” he said. “It’s not that they weren’t trusted. It just wasn’t necessary because we knew what we had to do.”
Even now, Hodel said, “probably six to eight people at the most” have been informed of the complainant’s identity. He estimated that an even smaller number of trustees have seen a copy of the original complaint.
A new subcommittee of five trustees is investigating the process through which the board handled last year’s complaint. Hodel said that he was initially asked to serve on this subcommittee, but it was quickly decided that neither Hodel nor Efron should participate because of their direct involvement in the complaint response.
Efron declined to comment for this article, as did the trustee who will lead the subcommittee.
Hodel said that the Audit Committee will use the subcommittee’s findings to help in the writing of the new complaint procedure. He predicted that the resulting policy would be “very similar” to the procedure used by the board last year.
“I think we did the right thing, so I’m not saying we’re going to change a lot of things,” he said.
Broader change may come from the trustee-student task force, which met for the first time Sunday.
“I’m optimistic there will be changes,” said Nate Brown PO ’12, a member of the task force and the current president of the Associated Students of Pomona College (ASPC). “Even within the task force we’ve already agreed on several things such as [that] the trustees are going to look for a way to release the draft of the [meeting] minutes.”
The new communication measures that have been discussed include informal student-trustee dinners and the appointment of a Board liason, Brown added.
ASPC Vice President for Finance Leslie Appleton PO ’12, who is also serving on the task force, said that she hoped future meetings would include more specific discussion of potential changes than the first one did.
“Seeing as it was a first meeting, it was a very good way to get the ball rolling,” she said. “We spent a lot of time talking about the role of the Board of Trustees and how it’s broken down, and I think that’s useful for people on the task force to understand.”
Kathy Lu PO ’14, who participated in last semester’s vigil outside Alexander Hall to protest the document checks and terminations, said that she wanted “to make sure something like this would never happen again” by improving communication between students and trustees.
“What we’re looking for is to establish some kind of comments period after any major Board of Trustees decision that would impact all of us in the community and the staff that work here,” she said. “We’re also looking into creating a permanent position for a student representative on the Board of Trustees, hopefully with voting rights.”
Lynn Yonekura PO ’70, a trustee serving on the task force, said that the proposal to include a student on the board was “something we have to talk about.”
“Certainly that would be a major change, not that that wouldn’t be possible,” Yonekura said. She pointed out that many board committees currently include students, even though there are no undergraduate trustees.
Michelle No contributed reporting for this article.