Amherst Magazine

How to Pick a Leader

By Charles R. Longsworth ’51

In June, one member of the 20-person Amherst Board of Trustees will succeed Jide Zeitlin ’85 as the group’s chair. How will this new leader be chosen?

The Trustees of Amherst College (more informally known as “the board”) are responsible for assuring that the college retains a qualified president, faculty and staff; gathers and manages resources needed to fulfill its mission; and is prudent and law-abiding. Six trustees are elected by the alumni body and 14 by the board.

The chair is elected by the board. He or she presides at board meetings; determines (with the president, administrative staff and board committee chairs) the meeting agendas; and, in consultation with the board, appoints committee chairs and members.

The chair is subject to annual election by the board. Although the total term of service is not specified in the bylaws, it has become generally understood, ever since the early 1970s, that the chair will serve for six years. The exceptions are Zeitlin and Amos Hostetter Jr. ’58, both of whom served, or will have served, for seven years. Those extensions were to provide continuity at times of presidential transition—in Hostetter’s case, for the first year of the Anthony W. Marx presidency, and in Zeitlin’s, for the first year of Biddy Martin’s presidency.

All sitting trustees, whether term (elected by the board) or alumni (elected by the alumni), are eligible to become chair. Although trustee service is limited to two six-year terms, election as chair suspends the time-of-service limitation.

When it came time to change chairs in 1980, there was some controversy within the board as to how the new chair should be chosen. In response, trustees came up with a procedure designed to minimize politicking, to ascertain the willingness of individual trustees to serve as chair, to avoid premature designation of a likely successor (no vice chair, for example) and to assess the effectiveness of the board.

This procedure has been used for the election of the last five chairs: George “Spike” Beitzel ’50, Tom Wyman ’51, myself, Hostetter and Zeitlin. The board intends to use the same process to choose Zeitlin’s successor.

Here is how it works: The outgoing chair—who, at her or his discretion, may seek advice from the board’s trusteeship committee—recruits a former trustee, who interviews, in confidence and (when possible) in person, each current trustee, asking for responses to the following questions:

  • How well are the trustees carrying out their responsibilities?
  • How could the trustees improve their performance?
  • Who, naming up to three persons in order of preference, should be the next chair?
  • If you were selected as chair, would you be willing to serve?
  • Should the normal term of the chair be other than six years?

The former trustee then meets with the current chair and the trusteeship committee to report the findings. The committee deliberates and chooses a new chair. The outgoing chair reports that choice to the board, and the process is completed.

Longsworth, who served as board chairman from 1992 to 1998, proposed the current method of choosing the chair to trustee Harry W. Knight ’31 in 1980.