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Q&A with Rodgin Cohen
Joshua Fang '19 Co-Editor-in-Chief
May 23, 2018
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Q: What do you think Deerfield’s biggest accomplishment has been during your term as a trustee?

A: I would probably refer to several accomplishments. One is clearly adopting a policy and a program for emphasis on inclusion. We have an Inclusion Committee, and it will be made permanent. But structure is only the beginning –— the end is implementation, and I think we have a board, student body and faculty which are committed to inclusion.

A second accomplishment was a continuation of Dr. Curtis’s vision of providing enrichment for the faculty in terms of opportunities for education and development, giving faculty experience and the ability to learn more. There are a host of programs which the board was highly supportive of, and it all goes out of the Imagine Deerfield vision — not just the money, more of the vision. At the end of the day, this school has to stand and fall on the faculty. If we have the best faculty, we have the best school. It’s that simple.

There have been other accomplishments. Sometimes I’ve compared my role as President of the Board to a Tesla self-driving car. I have to get behind the wheel, but it can largely steer itself. It knows when to put on the brakes, and when to accelerate. So, some of these accomplishments happen because of others. We have pushed very hard for increasing our endowment and our endowment per student. That is critical to financial underpinnings of the school — not this year, or next year, but for decades to come.

Q: Do you foresee a future where Deerfield could be need-blind?

A: Putting aside whether that is the correct term or not, even today [during our Board meeting], we discussed that subject. We are actually not that far away from it. Forget the label for a moment — the way I would define the goal is that if you look at an applicant and she or he is qualified, should that person ever be disqualified because she or he needs financial aid? And actually, we have had that data recently, and we’re not that far away from it. As part of moving forward, that’s where a key issue will be.

Q: Would you ever seek another term as trustee?

A: Probably not. Nobody should believe they’re indispensable, or anywhere close to that. You don’t have that variety of experiences and outlooks [on the Board] unless you have new people coming in. I just think of so many of the new trustees, and they’re just a terrific group. If we had trustees coming back, they would have been excellent themselves, but we never would have seen these new people. I go through this at other nonprofits, and it’s a very similar issue.

Q: What is the Board’s perspective on the recent discussions surrounding Deerfield’s dress code?

A: Having listened a lot ,which is important, over the last few days, and before, it is clear that there are heartfelt and very strong views on this issue. It is an issue which is worthy and will get careful study by the Board. It is a governance issue, and so the Board will ultimately have the responsibility to make a decision.

But, within that, the Board would not be fulfilling its duty unless it sought and took into account the views of every relevant constituency. Students, faculty, administrators, alumni, parents, it’s all of the groups. It won’t be my decision, but I hope the discourse can be civil and rational. This is not a morality play — it is about what is best for the school. Morality plays a role, but so do pragmatics.

Q: Do you personally believe the dress code should change, and if so, how?

A: I personally don’t know enough; that’s why we need more information before that decision is made. We have heard today from people who feel passionately about the issue and who have been willing to express their views. That’s not the whole universe. We need to learn more, and we also need to figure out an approach.

Yesterday, in one of the meetings, a number of the students were all very articulate in their views. They said, first, they wanted a dress code. Second, they didn’t want a dress code limited just to broad principles. Third, they did not want a dress code which was based on exceptions. Rather, they wanted a dress code with specific requirements.

Q: How do you balance age-old traditions with Deerfield’s aim to prepare students for a “rapidly changing world?”

A: I don’t think the two are inconsistent, although it takes some real effort to make sure there is consistency. Deerfield and its traditions are not a religious doctrine in the sense of being unassailable and unquestionable. What they are more like is like a constitution; move from the religious to the secular, where change requires a careful deliberative process before it is made. There is a recognition that the constitution, symbolically speaking for Deerfield’s traditions, has served us very well. Change needs to be done not precipitously, but very thoughtfully.

Q: What is your role as President of the Board?

A: First of all, it is to set the agenda and help each of the committees, taking a role in assisting the committee head. It is to try and forge a consensus among the board members. It’s not surprising that if we deal with difficult issues there will be different views. It is also to encourage an environment of collegiality and respect in the boardroom. Boards which don’t have that are boards which will make serious errors.

Q: What’s your view on Dr. Curtis’s recent announcement that she will step down next year?

A: If I had my choice, she would stay longer. I think Dr. Curtis wants at least one more chapter of her life. I ran a large law firm, and I said when I took over that it would not be more than 10 years, and I stuck to it. It’s not that you run out of ideas, but you become a little bit too comfortable with what you have done.

From time to time, change in perspective is necessary. I would be very surprised, whether it’s Deerfield, or any other of the leading private boarding schools, that you will ever see another Frank Boyden, or some of the other heads of schools serving 25, 30, 40 years. It probably will be, if things are going well, a 10 to 12-year, maybe 15-year pace.

Q: Will you ever be back on campus?

Of course! I’ve still got Commencement, and I think I will try and make sure I find other reasons as well.