223 years overdue: Improving communication between the Board of Trustees and students

The meeting with the Board of Trustees’ Committee on Student Experiences gave students an opportunity to present their concerns to trustees. The approximately 100 students in attendance spoke eloquently about many important issues. The meeting was a good first step towards fostering cooperation between students and trustees, albeit a small one. It is unclear, however, how the information gathered at the meeting will inform the trustees’ decisions, and this broad discussion may not have produced enough viewpoints about any one topic. The lack of transparency on the part of the Board of Trustees, as always, remains the largest obstacle to a productive relationship with the student body.

The Committee on Student Experiences has important duties regarding residential life, extracurricular activities, admissions and financial aid. The committee should seriously consider the input gathered at the meeting, as these areas almost exclusively concern students. Without a clear plan for addressing the comments made by students on Saturday, it seems all too likely that at least some of them will be forgotten.

Regular meetings with trustees, ideally scheduled shortly before the board’s four regular annual meetings, would better position issues raised by students at the forefront of trustees’ discussions and oblige the trustees to update the student body on what actions they took regarding those issues. It is regrettable that this seemingly simple and obvious meeting is historic. It should not have taken 223 years for trustees to hold this kind of open forum, and they should do so much more frequently going forward.

Open meetings about specific aspects of the College’s governance would yield more information for the Board of Trustees. This initial broad survey of student concerns was useful for learning what those concerns are, but not how to address them. This meeting should be the beginning of many specific discussions between trustees and students, not the end of them. The other trustee committees should also hold open meetings. For example, the student body should have the opportunity to talk to the Investment Committee about divestment and to the Committee on Faculty and Instruction about faculty diversity.

Future meetings should provide more opportunities for students to ask trustees questions, because such question-and-answer sessions would hold the Board of Trustees more accountable to the student body. The Board of Trustees has failed in its obligation to make its actions transparent to the Williams community, and answering students’ questions would begin to rectify that.

It is fundamentally wrong that the trustees, charged by the College’s charter to maintain the institution, hide the most important decisions from the students for whom the College exists, along with the faculty, staff and alumni who maintain it. The Board of Trustees’ policy to keep the minutes from its meetings under seal for 50 years, in particular, would be humorous were it not such a blatant insult to the student body’s ability to participate in the governance of the College. Contrary to what a trustee said at the meeting, the College’s Charter does not stipulate that the Board of Trustees cannot release minutes or any other information. Students deserve to see current minutes and agendas so they can stay informed and offer input before the board makes decisions.

The Board of Trustees should also release the names of nominees for board positions so that students can decide whether or not the Nominating Committee and Society of Alumni are considering a diverse and qualified group of candidates to represent student interests.

The trustees’ lack of transparency has bred an adversarial and mistrustful relationship between them and the student body. Williams, as an institution, is dedicated to its undergraduates, and it is a problem if its Board of Trustees is not. It will take much more than one meeting to change that, but Saturday was at least a start.

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