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Interview: Peter Markell, New Chair of Trustees, Discusses Goals, Recent Activism at BC

Peter Markell, BC ’77, was officially selected last month as the new chair of Boston College’s Board of Trustees. In an interview Friday with The Heights, Markell talked about his time at BC, his goals for the Board, and his take on recent activism on campus.

The Heights: Can you talk about your time at BC?

Peter Markell: I came to BC in 1973, and I had taken a bookkeeping course and I liked working with the numbers and that kind of stuff. So I went into the School of Management, decided to do a concentration in both accounting and finance, and went through my four years. That worked out great and I got a job in public accounting when I came out.

TH: What has made you stay involved with BC?

PM: I thoroughly enjoyed my experience when I was there. I was involved, I was on the budget committee in the undergraduate government, and that kind of stuff. I was an RA. I just enjoyed the whole thing, and I liked the fact that I was able to get my management degree but also take liberal arts courses, and really grow as a thinker and understanding values. I always tell people that the business side was great, but the philosophy, the theology, the history, the social sciences, all those courses round you out as a person and make you a better contributor. Looking back, being good technically at what you do is really important, but being able to solve problems that are important to people is as critical to success. And I really felt BC gave me a base for that.

TH: Can you talk about your career?

PM: So I got out of BC in ’77 and I went to what was then called Ernst & Ernst, which became Ernst & Whinney, which then became Ernst & Young. I went to work on the audit side at Ernst, I stayed on that—interestingly enough, I developed a career on the audit side but I also ended up running human resources for the New England area of Ernst. Became a partner in 1988, ended up running three different business service lines in my time as a partner: I ran health care, I ran entrepreneurial services, and I ran retail, distribution, and manufacturing. So all great experiences, learned a lot, et cetera. So then in the winter of ’98, beginning of ’99, I was asked if I wanted to leave Ernst and come join Partners HealthCare. The timing was right, I thought about it, I made the decision. So I started as Partners in February of ’99. Been there ever since, taking on additional responsibilities here and there to the point where now I’m the executive vice president, CFO, and treasurer.

TH: What has your involvement been with the Board?

PM: I’d have to go back and count the years, to be honest. You basically get voted in for a four-year term. You can serve two four-year terms and then you have to come off for at least a year. So I served those two four-year terms, I came off for a year, and I’m back on now, so I’m somewhere in the middle of that second go-around. So it’s got to be 12, 13 years, something like that. I was on the Finance Committee, then I became the chair of the Finance Committee, and then a couple of years ago I became vice chair [of the Board of Trustees] with John Fish as chair, and then I became the chair.

TH: What are your priorities as chair?

PM: The board has three key responsibilities at the end of the day: it has to select and continually evaluate the CEO, it has to help the CEO and his team on strategic issues, and then it has oversight responsibilities. So in reality, we need to make sure the Board is executing those three responsibilities. I think the big thing is, the University just went through a planning process, and we need to work with Father Leahy and the team to make sure we execute on that strategic plan coming up. Different things the Board members are interested in is how the University looks to the future. The University has been tremendously successful, so the challenge is how do you not rest on your laurels, and how do you look to the challenges of the future and best prepare yourselves to deal with it. We want to make sure we focus on diversity within the Board, and diversity can be defined many ways, but the fact of the matter is you want different points of view, you want different backgrounds, et cetera. So the Board can get varied viewpoints on what’s going on and then coalesce around what it thinks it needs to do to move forward. … The Board needs to be objective, it needs to support management. The Board doesn’t run the institution, management runs the institution, and we have to do the three things I defined that are the job of the board.

TH: Is there a specific program or target number in place for diversity on the Board?

PM: I don’t think we set a specific number—the challenge always is, do you set a specific number, because if you don’t set a target, do you really drive to it? But you don’t want to set a target for the sake of setting a target. But there’s no question that we have to put a lot of effort into looking at Board membership and reaching out for diverse members, whether it’s AHANA, whether it’s gender, different things like that. Again, it’s the collective wisdom of the board that makes a board really good, and we have to make sure we’re looking for that.

TH: What are you excited about in the new strategic plan?

PM: I think the sciences are a big deal. This investment in science we’re going to make I think is critically important to the future of the school, and we need to make sure we do that right and execute on it, because we have to find the right niches for that program, because it’s a competitive world in that area right now. So I think that’s very exciting. I think the focus on being a more international university is very interesting and has a lot of people excited, so I think that will be a very interesting thing for us to focus on and play out. The revision of the core and keeping our focus on the liberal arts component of who we are is important. The four things that are laid out in there I think is very important.

TH: Is there a dollar figure on the size of the planned investment in the sciences?

PM: You’ve got to look at it in its various components. The finance department is in the process of working with the provost and others who are driving the program. So there will be a capital investment in terms of a building and all the equipment that has to go into it, and then there’ll be an operating investment, which is recruitment of faculty and the operation of the programming, et cetera. I don’t have what that is at the tip of my fingers because I know they’re working on it as we talk.

TH: What’d you think of the race-related campus activism earlier this month?

PM: I think that’s what you’re going to see at a university. I think we’re at an interesting time in the country’s history and the development of everything and at the end of the day, what I truly believe in is you need constructive dialogue, and people of different races, religions, gender, et cetera. What you really need to do is meet and talk with people. When you can meet and interact personally with people that are different than you, you gain an appreciation. Yeah, they may look, think, or have a different view on life than I do, but they’re a human being and we’re all human beings in this together, so I think the dialogue is good. If there were simple solutions it would be done already. So I think we’ve just got to keep the dialogue going, talk, and, you know, there’s no room for hateful messages. They serve no purpose. But the question is, how do we create a constructive dialogue to move forward and make things better? And I think that’s what the University cares about at the end of the day.

TH: Do you think University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., should personally address events like the racist incidents that prompted students’ activism?

PM: You know, that’s always a difficult thing for a president to do, because then you get stuck with the issue of what do you and what don’t you speak out on. If you speak out on one thing, then people say, well, how come you didn’t speak out on this or the other thing? And I’ve talked with Father—the issue is, does he have to speak out personally, or does the University need to state a position on it? So these are philosophical-style things. And I think Father’s point of view is, it shouldn’t be about him, it should be about the University and what the University’s position is on things. And I know that sounds like a fine line, but it’s an important one.

TH: Anything you’d like to add?

PM: For me, it’s a real honor to chair the Board. I think we have a great heritage at BC, we have a great university, it’s going in the right direction. There’s always things you can work on to improve and make it better, and that’s what we’re gonna be focused on. But at the end of the day, it’s really about education, and giving people the opportunity to improve their lives, learn how to think, and be constructive members of society. And I think BC’s ability to be a higher education institution and bring the Jesuit, Catholic values to the thinking is a noble cause.

Featured Image Courtesy of Partners HealthCare

October 29, 2017