J. Landis Martin answers questions from faculty, reflects on time as Chair of Board of Trustees

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Evan Robinson-Johnson/Daily Northwestern

J. Landis Martin addressed the Faculty Senate on Wednesday.

Joanna Hou, Assistant Campus Editor

J. Landis Martin, chair of Northwestern’s Board of Trustees, answered questions from faculty members about retirement funds and diversifying the Board of Trustees at Wednesday’s Faculty Senate meeting. 

Martin began the meeting by discussing his biggest accomplishments from his term as chair of the board. 

“I’m so proud (of) Northwestern’s first-class teaching and interdisciplinary research that positions us high among the ranks of institutions of higher education,” Martin said. 

Martin also listed the University’s rise in rankings, successful fundraising efforts and diversity and equity initiatives. He then opened the floor to questions from faculty, who outlined their concerns on a variety of topics. 

Faculty Senate member and Feinberg Prof. Lois Hedman said the board is largely composed of people with business backgrounds, which prevents the board from truly representing academics. Faculty Senate member and physics Prof. Luis Amaral, who has contributed to The Daily, also said the board is unrepresentative of the NU community’s composition. 

“The Board of Trustees is essentially a place of representation for the alumni,” Amaral said. “What do you think is the possibility of us moving for something that is truly more inclusive and diverse?” 

While Amaral said NU’s top priority should have been public health when the pandemic hit, the University prioritized research initiatives related to medicine. He said a more diverse board with faculty and staff might have taken the former into consideration. 

In response, Martin said many members on the Board of Trustees have worked on the boards of other universities, and therefore add various perspectives. He said the division of faculty from the Board of Trustees maintains a separation of powers, and added there’s no guarantee more representation on the Board of Trustees would mitigate mistakes. However, he said it could be productive to consider expanding academic representation on the board. 

Faculty Senate member and art history Prof. Hannah Feldman raised issues surrounding the University’s withholding of faculty retirement funds. NU suspended contributions to retirement plans in May 2020 to help offset a projected $90 million shortfall for the 2020 fiscal year. NU has reported budget surpluses for the past three years.

Feldman said the University profited “tremendously” from the pandemic and told faculty it would recuperate 2020 retirement losses this year, but it did not due to legal complications. 

“When I hear from the Board of Trustees that there are legal complications, it’s very difficult,” Feldman said. “I would like to have confirmed that there is conversation about how these legal obstacles may be addressed.” 

Martin said he did not feel withholding the retirement funds was wrong legally or ethically. He said while the University acted on the guidance of legal advisors, it is concerned about the well-being of all faculty. He did not respond to Feldman’s question about addressing legal obstacles.

Martin’s five-year term as chair is set to end August 31. His successor has not been announced yet. 

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Twitter: @joannah_11

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