The Board of Trustees’ ‘Quarterback’ Most Students Don’t Know

She’s the chair of GDS’ Board of Trustees. She helps plan the school’s long-term future while advising administrators from afar on some of GDS’ biggest initiatives—ranging from anti-racism to reopening and campus unification to student services. In an interview with the Bit, she called herself the Board’s “quarterback.”

Yet most students have never heard of Lisa Fairfax. Nine of the ten students contacted by the Bit were unable to name the Board chair; most didn’t recognize Fairfax’s name. But Fairfax plays an important role in charting their school’s path for the coming years.

The Board—composed of 24 current or former GDS parents, including a few alumni—is “all about governance,” Fairfax said. It deals with high-level, long-term strategic planning—in contrast to the day-to-day operations that the school administration is tasked with.

The Board works somewhat discreetly, while Head of School Russell Shaw and his administration are more visible to students. According to Board member Frank Foer ’92, “Good governance and management dictate that the administration is front and center. We do a good job of getting the balance right.”

Shaw reports to the Board, which in turn gives him feedback and advice about his work. Fairfax and Shaw meet once or twice per week, letting him hear the perspective of someone “a bit outside of the building who doesn’t have a stake in the day-to-day arguments” that administrators might have, Foer said. 

Just days before Fairfax, a Black woman, became chair in July 2020, numerous Black students and alumni began to share their experiences of microaggressions and alleged discrimination at the school on the Instagram account Black at GDS. Fairfax said she and the Board had “tough conversations” with the administration about how GDS should respond.

And her own daughter, junior Nadia Fairfax, expressed criticism of the school’s handling of past racist incidents in an Augur Bit Opinions piece in March. 

Fairfax said the Board and administration frequently discussed racism and bias at GDS since she joined the Board in 2014. But the school has placed an increased emphasis this year on addressing racism in the community, raising the question of why, if GDS has prided itself on its focus on social justice since its founding in 1945, the school has only taken a more urgent approach to the issue recently.

Fairfax responded quietly when I brought this up: “This summer highlighted racism and bias in a really important way. Sometimes when these issues are very visible, it’s a reminder that we have to raise the profile of the work that we’re doing.”

After Fairfax joined the Board, she became increasingly involved in its inner workings. The Board elected her chair in July 2020, but her ascension to the role was not announced to students. Fairfax’s one-year term was recently extended for another year (ending in the summer of 2022) and can be extended once more under GDS’ by-laws.

As chair, she oversees the Board’s committees—including those that address the school’s finances, diversity and leadership—and consults with Shaw and fellow trustees on committee assignments.

Outside of GDS, Fairfax is a board member of DirectWomen, an organization that promotes board diversity, and recently finished her term on the Investor Advisory Committee of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commision (SEC). In 2016, President Barack Obama nominated her to be an SEC commissioner, but her nomination stalled in the Senate for the remainder of his term. Most notably, Fairfax is the Alexander Hamilton Professor of Business Law at George Washington University Law School, where she teaches and writes about corporate governance and other related topics.

To get away from her abundant work, Fairfax said she likes to work out and go running. During the pandemic, she has been spending time—and binge-watching Marvel movies—with her three daughters, Nadia, Regina ’16 and Fatima ’14, and her husband, Roger. Having her whole family at her home in Maryland has been the “silver lining of this pandemic,” Fairfax said. She is an avid sports fan—her favorite teams are the Red Sox, Patriots and Lakers. Although she said it’s getting tiring, Fairfax also likes to cook, perfecting old family recipes and experimenting with new dishes.

Since the start of the pandemic, Fairfax has taught her classes online and has heard from her college students about the strains of isolation and virtual learning.

In March, in a rare instance of trustees hearing directly from students, the Board invited members of the Student Staff Council to share their perspective on the state of GDS in a Zoom meeting. The student representatives brought a message similar to that of Fairfax’s students: that many GDS students have been struggling with mental health issues and stress aggravated by the pandemic. 

In response, Fairfax and other trustees have been helping the school’s counselors and wellness director make a plan to expand the school’s services to students. As with much of the Board’s work, Fairfax and other trustees have offered both guidance and resources to address the issues they deem important.

But most of what the Board hears about the school comes from members of the administration and staff, not the student body. Students “are mainly going to be engaging, as you should be, with your teachers, faculty and staff,” Fairfax said. 

One of Fairfax’s priorities has been ensuring a smooth transition from completely virtual to hybrid to fully in-person instruction. Although Shaw and senior administrators made the final decisions about reopening, Fairfax and the other officers on the Board advised them closely on the matter. 

She recognizes that much of the school’s vibrant culture has been lost during the pandemic and wants to make sure that students, especially freshmen, have at least some of the true GDS experience by the end of this school year. 

“This is the 75th anniversary of GDS,” Fairfax said. “This Board wants to make sure that GDS is not just here in 75 years, but is healthy, thriving and even better than before.”