On the Record with Bill Durgin

After 26 years at Holy Cross, Treasurer and Chief Investment Officer William “Bill” Durgin will retire at the end of 2010. We sat down with Durgin for a no-holds-barred look at what his years on campus have meant to him and to the College.

The interview, which appears in the Fall 2010 issue of Holy Cross Magazine, continues here:


HCM: Why did you decide to work at Holy Cross, and, when you first started in 1984, did you ever imagine that you’d stay for more than a quarter-century?

Durgin: Choosing Holy Cross was relatively easy; the longevity took everyone by surprise. Rumor had it that there was an over/under pool circulating when I arrived on campus, with the longest bet on two years. From my perspective, Holy Cross was clearly a lateral career move from the larger, multi-school, three-campus environment of Tufts University. If things worked out well, what better career stop than one of the most prestigious institutions in Worcester? If it didn’t materialize, I was young enough at 33 to return to the larger university scene in Boston or other large metropolitan area. 

Other than Holy Cross, there was no other institution of our size and rankings I would have been interested in. This may be one of the reasons why I succeeded here. It was never about ego and personal prestige. Working in a large university, there was little opportunity for contact with students and faculty. More importantly, I saw or felt something in the interview process with Fr. Brooks and the board that said this place is special.

HCM: What are some of your fondest memories involving the Holy Cross Board of Trustees? What really goes on in board meetings?

Durgin: We were very fortunate to have a long line of distinguished alumni and friends of the College serve as trustees. While many were pillars of society and industry leaders, for the most part, they parted their egos at the gates of Linden Lane. We didn’t suffer from the usual “alpha dog syndrome” that plagues many boardrooms and often encourages adversarial relationships between boards and administrators.

Although there were representative from all walks of life, political persuasions and ideologies around the board table, discussions were always respectful, tolerant of one another’s views and always focused on what was best for Holy Cross. Congress could take a lesson from our boardrooms over the years. There would be a lot less incivility and greater focus on the common good.

Our board meetings were always lively with the divergent views around the table, often ending on a humorous note. In my early years, Eunice Shriver was a fierce proponent of student life issues and housing. As chairman of the board, Edward Bennett Williams was trying to balance a discussion on priorities between academics, athletics and student life. At the other end of the table, Ted Wells, a trustee and former protégé of Ed Williams and, like Ed, a prominent national litigator, was posing a series of questions to me, taking up Ms. Shriver’s cause for student housing.

After the first couple of questions, Ed kicked me under the table and said, “He is setting you up, kid.” A couple of questions later, he winked to Fr. Brooks sitting on the other side of me, pointed to me and whispered, “He’s in trouble now.” Then, Ted asked the final question to which an answer would clearly contradict something I said earlier. Ed jumped up from his seat, threw his hands in the air, turned his back to all of us and said, “He’s got you now; even I can’t help you!” The room burst into friendly laughter, and I had my first, but by no means final, helping of humble pie.

During my tenure, we were fortunate to have a great line of board chairs. John Brogan had the unenviable task of stepping into the role when Ed passed away, leading the board through the College’s sesquicentennial celebration and the first transition in presidency in more than 20 years. It was John, working with me and my staff in 1987, who, in the early days of spreadsheet modeling, challenged us to model out a formula that—through a mix of new fundraising, internal surpluses and investment returns—would result in an endowment of $150 million to coincide with the sesquicentennial celebration. Our alumni stepped up to the plate, and we weathered two serious economic downturns in the market on the road to exceeding our goals. It was a considerable reach on all three fronts but indicative of our willingness to set the bar high and not settle for mediocrity.

John’s successor was Jack Lentz, who also had a strong financial background. He was drawn to our modeling capabilities as he led the College through three presidents and provided stability as we worked to strengthen our financial health. Michael Collins and, most recently, Kevin Condron continued the line of outstanding board chairs.

HCM: Any reflections on your interactions with faculty and staff that you’d like to share with our readers?

Durgin: While we were often at opposite sides of the table when determining financial priorities and allocating institutional resources, discussions were always respectful, and, once again, we knew we all shared the same desire to do what was best for Holy Cross. Over the years I marveled at the number of alumni returning to campus for reunions, looking up faculty who made a difference in their lives: from the Jesuits, like Fr. Lebran who had an incredible following of students with very different political ideals, to the many lay faculty who carried on the Jesuit tradition to motivate students to think critically, pursue excellence in everything they do and serve others.

While faculty represent the heart and soul of the student experience at Holy Cross, our “unsung heroes”—represented by our administrative and hourly staff—deserve equal recognition for facilitating the teaching and learning experience for generations of students and faculty. Fr. Bill O’Halloran and Claire and Don Burns were strong supporters of the staff’s contributions to campus life. Thanks to Claire and Don’s generous funding of an endowment, we recognize staff members who demonstrate a commitment to Holy Cross and carry out the Jesuit tradition of service to others in their involvement in the community.

While space doesn’t allow me to do justice to the long list of dedicated staff over the years, I would like to give special mention to those who are looking down on us from above. Joe McDonough and Jack Scott were fixtures in athletics and campus life. Jimmy Doyle and Jim Pappas both passed on at relatively young ages but were a constant presence on campus. John Donovan, ex-Boston homicide detective who played a prominent role in the Boston Strangler investigation and conviction, was like a father and brother to me. We investigated and successfully helped to prosecute a relatively major embezzlement on campus during my early years at the College. Students in the ’80s and ’90s won’t forget Red Carey, a Kimball Hall ID checker and mother figure to many students, especially those trying to put one over on her.

Not as well known but equally deserving of recognition are longtime service employees Denny Shea and Jimmy Long. Recently retired, Denny spent many Christmas Eves and late winter nights crawling through the catacombs of our steam distribution system, trying to minimize the incidences of extreme cold, heat or no water in our dormitories. Jimmy spent an incredible 50-year career here, rising at all hours of the morning to plow our streets and organize the crew to clear sidewalks before the beginning of early morning classes. It is to Jimmy and his crew that we owe a debt of gratitude for maintaining the incredible beauty and safety we all enjoy as we enter the gates of the College.

HCM: As you look back over a highly successful 26-year career, what would you say is your legacy at the College?

Durgin: With the unequivocal support of past presidents and boards, I was given the freedom to build an administrative infrastructure that was second to none in higher education. My experiences did not stop at the gates of Linden Lane. As a representative of Holy Cross, I joined with colleagues from educational institutions to pioneer the founding of what is now the leading insurance liability and directors and officers insurance company in higher education. We started a self insurance workers’ compensation program with other Massachusetts schools and colleges that, along with liability insurance, saved the College millions over the years.

I was fortunate to serve a number of years in various capacities with the New England Association of Schools and College—first with the Higher Education Commission and ending, last year, as its treasurer. The experiences my staff and I enjoyed outside the institution helped us bring new perspectives to the campus and provided a wider view of what was going on around us.