Edward Rothstein,

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March 4 1998 12:30 AM

Edward Rothstein,

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       I don't know if humankind was born to struggle, but if so, Boards provide the perfect habitat. I have struggled within Boards and with Boards; I have opposed Board factions and confronted Board opposition. The term "Board of Trustees" seems an oxymoron: How can notions of "trust" and "Board" possibly be associated with each other?
       Forgive the whining. I have just spent part of an evening working on a letter to the parent body of my daughter Dena's private school, a letter composed with several other parents in opposition to shortsighted actions by the school's Board. But I have also been on the other side of such conflicts: I served on a Board of another school and had my high-minded ambitions and worldly wisdom stymied by narrow-minded parental and administrative concerns.
       These wrestling matches are not, of course, restricted to schools with overly intrusive parental bodies or overly arrogant Boardly planning. Through much of last year, I chaired a committee established by the Executive Board of the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University, struggling to find a way to pull the high-toned, town-gown institute of intellectuals away from the brink of chaos and map out its future. Friends had resigned in moral indignation over a series of issues; I risked losing another friend over the contrary tactics and priorities I advocated. Now that the task is done, the institution survives, but I mourn a fractured friendship.
       But that conflict was mild compared with the tensions on the Board of a religious organization I serve on. One aging faction of the Board that held power for many years was steadily losing control. Having lived in the confidence that the religious notion of Eternal Life really referred to its possession of Eternal Power, that faction began to think it answered to a Higher Law. So it began invoking earthly variants. Four lawsuits have been entered against the Board; in one, I am a named defendant, keeping company with other Trustees.
       Are these experiences the exceptions? I once held the naive belief that Board membership would bring with it happy fellowship with like-minded patrons, contact with holders of great wealth and representatives of high society, warm self-regard for the charitable and cultural good being accomplished. Now, I see instead the muck of political struggle, deal-making in air-purified rooms, compromise and embattled enmity. This has to be an acquired taste, unless one has a passion for politics and power of all kinds. And grace is a rarity. Last week, for example, the Board of the New York Philharmonic rather crudely served notice to Kurt Masur, giving him until 2002 to wave his baton.
       I am not optimistic about my own gracefulness either. I have just got off the telephone with a parent; we were debating whether or not the Board's accusation that we are dealing in "rumor and innuendo" should be answered by citing that our sources are dissidents within the Board itself. There are, as in all revolutionary movements, some disagreements. There are more struggles to come and no end in sight.
       I would like to know the origins of the idea of Board governance: It is a strange mixture of cynicism and idealism. A Board must govern without seeming to. It must seem democratic but work like an autocracy. Consensus must be hammered out of conflict. And all in the name of virtue and institutional survival, at a time when there is virtually no consensus about anything, let alone virtue and institutional survival. Boards are born to struggle; there are times when I wonder if I was born to join them.

Edward Rothstein is cultural critic at large for the New York Times and writes the paper's "Connections" column on technology (archived here). He is the author of Emblems of Mind: The Inner Life of Music and Mathematics.

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