Trustees Are Not Thermometers

Aug 27, 2013 12:15 PM ET

Murninghan Post Blog

#5 in "Time to Talk About the Public Interest"

The TakeAway: In the United States, key to our political form of representative self-governance is the idea of good trusteeship, of stewardship, of wise statecraft. The same holds for corporate governance. Being a director means the ability to think big and long-term, as well as focus on the here-and-now, to balance multiple and competing interests with good judgment and an ethical outlook. The fiduciary challenge, then, for trustees and directors (similar to that confronting judges, because “judgement” is core) is to make public decisions that fulfill both the immediate obligations contained in a charter or mission statement, and the broader public interest obligations attendant to human health and well-being

The primary assumptions governing the role of trusteeship and directorship became neutered within the past 100 years as a result of the rise of the modern bureaucratic state and the corporate form, the ascension of scientific management and neoclassical economic theory, and the professionalization and technological transformation of financial services.

Yet being a trustee carries with it representative responsibilities to “the other” or “others,” so the threshold question becomes: Which “others” are we talking about, and whose interests are being protected and advanced?1

Put another way, are trust beneficiaries to be viewed as economic units alone, with little interest in anything other than the size of a dividend check or a payout? Or might they also be viewed in more human terms, as individuals with lives led much as trustees themselves do, who breathe the same air, are vulnerable to illness and disease, to the same eruptions in the earth’s ecosystem or social systems?

Much like trustees and directors, are not beneficiaries also dependent upon a civil order that is literate, safe, and respectful of human dignity and creativity? Indeed, might not these very same beneficiaries be qualified to vote? Are they not—as are we—citizens, too? Do they watch television, surf the Internet, read books and newspapers, listen to music, or admire (perhaps even create?) works of art? Do they seek to learn, or (to use that hackneyed phrase), develop their full potential, not just in childhood or adolescence, but throughout their lives? (Continue reading here...