It will be 50 years before anyone not on the Williams board of trustees knows exactly why Morty Shapiro was chosen as president, or even why the board made any of its other decisions, for its minutes are sealed for a half-century. While the board has the power to choose the president, invest the College’s funds and amend the school’s bylaws, almost nothing is known of its proceedings except its final decision. Nishant Nayyar ’02 has drafted a proposal that would change all of this by seating students on the board.
Nayyar based his proposal on the idea that student government ought to have a say on the ruling body that ultimately makes all major policy decisions at Williams. He responded to the traditional fear that student trustees would jeopardize the school’s long-term well-being by concerning themselves with short-term goals, saying, “[This harm] is outweighed by the familiarity students have with the school, a familiarity which is sorely lacking on the board with the exception of maybe the president.”
Nayyar pointed to student and young alumni involvement on the boards of Cornell, Princeton, Duke and Brandeis as a further sign that Williams needs to catch up with the times. Except for Brandeis, though, the schools mentioned bear little resemblance to Williams. Other liberal arts colleges such as Amherst, Wesleyan, Middlebury and Swarthmore have taken steps that are meaningful but more conservative than those of these universities.
While there are no voting student members of Wesleyan’s board of trustees, Alua Arthur, president of the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA), says her school is “two steps ahead of other institutions.” The six chairs of the WSA’s various committees sit on the board along with the president and vice-president. The chairs vote on board committee meetings, but not when the board meets as a whole. The president and vice-president have no voting rights at all.
Michael Lewis, chair of the WSA Evaluation Sub-Committee, explained the role of students on the board at Wesleyan, “Student observers in the general meetings help make other students more involved in the process, and they can be informed about issues going on in the administration if they attend meetings. People should want to know what issues the [board of trustees] deals with because these are issues that effect all students directly or indirectly.”
Lewis, however, not completely content with the status quo, is currently petitioning to have a student implemented as a full-fledged member of the board.
Swarthmore’s board, like Wesleyan’s, has no students as full-members, but include two student observers. Jordan Brackett, co-chair of Swarthmore’s student council, explained the absence of voting students “Terms on the [board of trustees] generally last either four years or 12 years, depending on what type of position they hold, and the nominating process is quite rigorous. Therefore, it makes sense that students wouldn’t be full members of the board.”
Matt Schwartz, one of the elected student observers, presented a different opinion: “While we do have students as full members of the College Planning Committee and the College Budget Committee and I think students could give valuable input as full board members.” Schwartz later conceded, however, the unlikeliness that the board will ever accept students as voting members.
Middlebury also has no voting student members, but allows student observers.
Though several of Williams neighboring schools have reached a compromise with their students by allowing them to observe board meetings, Williams has yet to take any action. Dean of the College Peter Murphy explained the College’s position, “I know it looks like there is some super-secret stuff that would somehow be different for the presence of student observers, but I don’t think there really is.”
Murphy suggested that student and community interaction with board as it stands now is the best possible situation. He went on to question the role students could play on the board. “I think that students overestimate the impact they will be able to have. The work of the board is detailed and frequently stretches over many years, and deals with the broadest of issues. And why students? There are no members of the staff or faculty on the board either.”