Increasing transparency: Ameliorating the relationship between the Board of Trustees and students

January 27, 2016 by Noah Grumman

Students at the college have a peculiar relationship with student government. On a campus known for a highly engaged student body, student government is met with deep apathy. This fall, only 41 members of the entire Class of 2016 voted in the College Council (CC) race, and all four elected representatives were write-ins and ended up with seven or fewer votes in the run-off. Last spring’s CC presidential election debacle was perhaps the most intense burst of interest in the College’s student government in the last decade. But in the midst of the live-tweeted annulment proceedings in Goodrich, scorching editorials in the Record and uncensored hostility on Yik Yak, it was easy to forget that the uproar was over an election in which nine of 13 races were uncontested.

Student government at the College is sickly, but its greatest ailment is neither the alleged insularity of CC nor the minor misdeeds of a few candidates for co-president. It is that, on issues of importance, student government is relegated to the sidelines. Most decisions of consequence are made by the Board of Trustees in secret – geographically and ideologically removed from the students they are intended to benefit. Though the Board certainly makes efforts to stay attuned to the student body, students are only systematically guaranteed representation on the Honorary Degrees Advisory Committee.

On Saturday, for the first time in recent memory, a group of trustees met publicly and solicited input from the student body. The event was hastily planned, but CC President Marcus Christian ’16 moderated a civil and productive conversation. This should be recognized as a landmark event, and the College would benefit greatly from making it a yearly institution. It could be widely publicized, held in a larger venue like the ’62 Center and include members of CC onstage alongside trustees. Such an event would not only establish a better line of communication between the student body and the Board of Trustees, but also lend greater legitimacy to student government by giving it an official avenue through which to influence the Board. Every January, shortly after the U.S. president delivers the State of the Union, a “State of Williams” meeting would give the College a chance to check its own pulse.

A more powerful step would be to allow the co-presidents of CC to serve terms as full voting members on the Board of Trustees. Though this may sound radical, simi-lar arrangements have been very successful at Duke, Princeton and a number of other peer institutions. The symbolic power of such an arrangement would benefit the whole College community. It would be the ultimate statement of agency for students – a message that this is your school and you help shape its future. It would also lend greater weight to the CC presidency and student government. For the Board, it could be another step towards the decades-long goal of reflecting the diversity of the Williams community and a safeguard against detachment from the needs of students. Finally, it would be a compelling advertisement for the College. As an institution that prides itself on nurturing leaders of the next generation, a student trustee program would display confidence in its ability to do just that.

Duke’s “Young Trustee” program is particularly well-thought-out. There, candidates are vetted by a screening committee before campaigning in an election open to the entire student body. The winner then serves one year as a non-voting observer fol-lowed by one year as a full voting member. Preserving the confidentiality of the Board would be a slight obstacle. Asked about the possibility of a student trustee in a 2003 interview with the Record, then-trustee Paul Neely ’68 responded that “there are areas where you get into pretty confidential discussions … What happens at schools that have students on the Board is that those Boards figure out other semi-devious ways to [evade] those topics without student say. Then those students feel more excluded than anything.” It would be perfectly reasonable to expect a confidentiality agreement from a student trustee, and, for particularly sensitive subjects, a protocol could allow certain discussions to occur without the student trustee’s presence.

The creation of a student trustee position has been suggested a number of times in recent Williams history. Some discussion occurred in 2000, when the Record published two editorials advocating further consideration. Perhaps the closest attempt was made by the Gargoyle society in 1968. With last spring’s election debacle and this fall’s abysmal voter turnout still fresh in mind, the time is ripe for another push to give student government a permanent role in shaping the future of the College.

Noah Grumman ’16 is a computer science and economics double major from Upper Arlington, Ohio. He lives on Meadow St.

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