George Drake ’56 served on the Board of Trustees from 1970-1979 and was President of the College from 1979-1991. Drake spoke with the S&B’s Carl Sessions about the Board’s responsibilities, history and notable figures.
How did your relationship to the board change from when you were a member to when you became president?
It was an interesting phenomenon to have been a trustee and then become the president. It’s a bit of a shock when you finally come to grips that you’re working for them. You were colleagues before and now you’re working for them. You report to them and to a degree they tell you what to do…They always have the power to tell the president what to do, and they do hire and fire the president. You’re their subordinate…It’s always awkward on the Board. The area where they have, and should have, the least influence over is the academic life. Their job is predominantly general policy of the College and financial soundness of the College, so people working in those areas have the most influence.
The College website says that the function of the Board is to assure the “great and lasting good” of the College. With the recent debates on campus regarding need-blind admission, the longevity of the College and the College’s commitment to social justice may be at-odds. As both a former Board member and President, do you agree that these two values sometimes come into conflict?
Conflict is too strong; there is sometimes tension. On the one side you’re spending money and on the other you’re trying to husband money, and there’s always that tension on the board. I certainly felt that as president that they were always concerned that our budget was too high and we might not be spending the money as thoughtfully as we should.
The core of the Board are alums. The opportunity that Grinnell presents to students regardless of financial circumstances has been huge at this college. When I became president or when I was a Board member we were not nearly as well-off as we are now. And yet, the College was close to being need-blind then. That’s been pretty consistent. The Board isn’t in a position to say ‘Don’t spend money.’ The Board is in a position to say ‘Spend money the most effective way you can that’s consistent with the values and the mission of the College,’ and being available to students with need is and always has been part of that mission, and I think always will be. The question is how wide open it [financial aid] is. I don’t think any member of the administration or the Board wants to back away from that commitment.
How do you see the interplay between the Board and the College? Do you think that the Board members work to fit themselves into the ethos of the College or is the College structured around the Board members?
Much more the former…They’ve worked very hard [to try to] sense what is most important to the College—what it is.
I think back to Joe Rosenfield [’25] who was the key Board member both when I served and when I was President. One of the reasons Joe was such a great trustee is that he really did get it. He was the one who could determine, more than any other Board member, the direction that the Board would take on a particular issue. He was very sensitive about not using his influence too heavily, but his influence was there.
Let me cite an example of one of the issues that exemplify the tension between the Board’s responsibilities to husband the College’s resources and also what the College feels its position should be. And that’s divestment during the South African apartheid era. That went on for over 15 years…consistent pressure from the students, and to a degree the faculty, to divest of any business in our stock portfolio that did business in South Africa. The Board’s response was that we should not decide our investment policy according to that moral position but to what maximized the resources of the College—that’s our responsibility, not taking moral positions. And that went back and forth for 15 years. Finally, the Board did decide on a selective divestment policy when there was an organization that [rated] these companies as to how deeply they were involved in the apartheid regime. Once you had that rating system it was a little easier once a year to sit down and say ‘Well, let’s look at our portfolio against this index of ratings and decide what to keep.’ That’s the most salient example. Students were very activist then. They would take over Board meetings. The Board would have to walk a gauntlet of students to get to their meetings. It was quite vocal…It pit the values of the College—social justice—against another value of the Trustees, which was to maximize the portfolio.
You mentioned Joe Rosenfield earlier. Could you speak about his friendship with Buffet and their investment in Robert Noyce’s company Intel?
Warren Buffet’s involvement with the Board was exclusively because of Rosenfield. Warren once told me ‘I don’t much care about Grinnell College, but Joe asked me to do this and I’ll do anything for Joe Rosenfield.’ He had that kind of respect for Joe. Warren was extremely involved. He chaired the Finance Committee and came to all the meetings. It was in that era with both Joe and Warren that the College set aside venture capital funds. In an era when venture capital was becoming important, particularly the high tech industry. They were an early investor in Intel when Bob started it up. Bob of course was a very important member [as well]. At a certain point, it was Bob Noyce’s recommendation that we divest of a lot of those holdings because we had so much in Intel and he felt nervous and responsible that if Intel didn’t do well. it would adversely affect the College, and he didn’t like that responsibility. The College ended up selling a lot of its Intel stock, but it was an early help to get Intel started.
Steve Jobs served on the Board during the 1980’s. Why was he invited to join?
We were sitting around on the committee that would appoint new Trustees and Bob Noyce was on it and we were saying ‘We really need some younger Trustees’ and Bob said that ‘There’s this guy out in the Valley who I think is a [up and] comer. He’s 29 years old and his name is Steve Jobs.’
Bob talked to him and he showed some interest. Steve actually was on his way to New York for the IPO for Apple, just at the moment they were becoming a public corporation, and he stopped off in Des Moines. On the way back, he stayed in the dorms for a couple of days. Students had no idea who he was—he just hung out. And afterwards he said ‘This is a pretty swinging place, I guess I’ll be a Trustee.’ He wasn’t active very long. But he managed to hold us up on the renovation of Burling library for two years because he said ‘The day of the library is over and you’re not going to need all that room for books.’ We finally concluded that we would renovate it and add to it mainly because we needed more good space for study. He was active for two or three years.
Anything else that you would like to add?
When you think about the Board in the 1980s when you had Warren Buffet, Joe Rosenfield, Bob Noyce and Steve Jobs. With Buffet and Jobs, you have what turned out to be two of the maybe three or four top gurus in American finance and industry on the Board of Trustees in this little college in Iowa. It’s extraordinary. There were other board members who were, in terms of their abilities, in that league. It was a tremendously good board. I always felt like I had been run over by a steamroller at the board meetings because they had so many ideas and you ended up with 10 or 12 things to try to do. You’d have an agenda, but it sort of went out the window, because these ideas would go flashing around the room. The fact that we are one of the wealthiest colleges in the country is due to that board in the 80s. Joe Rosenfield said he wanted to make Grinnell financially impregnable. I’m not sure we’ve done that but it was certainly his goal and he came close to it. When he became a trustee in 1941, if you subtracted the dormitories, the endowment was $78,000. He said ‘This College will never survive unless we build the endowment.’ So he set out as his main goal to build the endowment, and what we have now is the result of those decisions.
Would you say that the 80s were the golden decade of the Trustees?
It’s easy for me to say that because that’s the board I worked with—but probably. We have a powerful board now, but we don’t have quite the national clout: Bob Noyce is gone, Steve Jobs is no longer there, Warren Buffett not active, Joe Rosenfield is gone. I don’t want to denigrate the current board at all, but it was an exceptional group in the 80’s. It was a lot of fun to work with them.