THE BLOG
10/30/2013 04:11 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Wizard of Oz: Lifting the Curtain?

When we choose a college or university, we expect a lot for the money we pay. We cannot expect colleges to provide us jobs, but any help we receive is better than nothing at all. The last thing we want is that the governing body of our college act like they are a modern-day Wizard of Oz, a group of men and women who sit behind a curtain and make anonymous decisions that affect all of us. The writing is on the wall and even the boss' boss is listening. At least this is the case at Guilford College.

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Lionel Johnson is a man who has worn many hats in his lifetime. As vice president and director of International Government Affairs at Citigroup Inc., he was responsible for advancing Citigroup's international government relations agenda through engagement of senior U.S. government officials, regulatory agencies, and multilateral institutions in the United States and abroad. Later in life, Lionel led the expansion of the U.S. Chamber's program in Turkey, the Middle East, and North Africa as a vice president at the United States Chamber of Commerce.

Lionel's accolades are impressive and yet there is not an air of pretentiousness on the other end of the line as I interview him. Lionel sits on the Board of Trustees at Guilford College, the alma mater of two of his children. During the board's October meeting, the Student Affairs Committee that he chairs had a great idea: reach out to students, as individuals, to demystify themselves.

Lionel's suggestion could not come at a better time, as faculty, staff, and students wonder who the Trustees will choose to lead the college after our current president retires. The committee's recommendation also agrees with the core values that Guilford embodies, which include equality. We are a Quaker institution that strives to align ourselves with "Quaker rituals," as President Clinton once labeled it, during a talk he gave here. We do have some pretty unique practices at the college. For instance, we call our professors by their first names. They may have earned their Ph.D. from Yale or Harvard, but being practical is the Quaker way. With a student to teacher ratio of 16 to 1, we receive a personalized education, although some students feel more like numbers.

Student leaders like Mary Heisey, a junior from Carlisle, Pa., think that board members are not in touch with students needs, especially when students are rarely engaged by the trustees.

"I appreciate the proposal for interaction between the board and students," Heisey says. She hopes that eventually the Board of Trustees will engage students on policies that affect the student body. Even if the option Heisey wishes for is not possible at this time, creating rapport between the two parties is a good start.

Lionel saw the writing on the wall and the questions behind the silence. His committee thought it was the right thing, to connect with students, when he and his committee made their recommendation to the board in October. His colleagues agreed, and the entire board approved the measure, although the details are still being worked out.

Lionel said that he "would have to find out which board members would take part in the efforts," though he says many have expressed interest in taking part in student sessions. It is likely that the college's two student governments would host the event.

Even more than answering students questions and getting to know each other, Lionel says he and other board members are there for graduates who are looking for jobs, especially in the fields the various trustees have mastered.

"I always help those who are seeking jobs, or advice for jobs, in my area of expertise," Lionel said. "I expect other board members are willing to do the same."

Jobs and advice aside, Lionel said that his committee had the bridging of gaps in mind when they proposed the idea to the full board.

"There is a bit of mystique surrounding what the Board of Trustees do and the decisions we make. Getting to know us as people will help the college understand the decisions we make as a group," Lionel says.

Faculty at the college agree.

Maria Rosales, assistant professor of political science at Guilford College, thinks that a platform where students and trustees meet will be well received not only by students, but faculty as well.

"A platform where trustees familiarize themselves with the institution would be great. Right now the board doesn't have a lot of direct connection with us, and sometimes misunderstandings are more likely when people don't talk face-to-face," Rosales said.

"The Board [of Trustees] is a crucial part of this college, as are all these other groups of people, and we can work best if we all understand better where everyone is coming from."

Rosales thinks that there would have to be a few details worked out before such informal meetings would be effective.

"There should be an intentional effort to diversify kinds of students that are exposed to the trustees so that all groups of people that are on campus have a chance to be represented," said Rosales.

Not all members of the board will feel comfortable meeting with students, according to a forty year veteran of Guilford's Board of Trustees, Walter Blass.

The former director of strategic planning for AT&T and business owner said that there was no other way for board members to understand what is taking place in real time.

"As a trustee, you cannot expect to understand what is happening on the ground when you parachute in for three days and leave for three months," Blass said in a telephone interview. "I have always welcomed student input and even seek it sometimes, but that is not the case for all trustees, which is representative of the diversity of our board."

If this proposal by the board to reach out to students is successful, it might serve as a model that attracts students to Guilford College's liberal arts setting.

Only time will tell.

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