Staff editorial: Students have no place on the Board of Trustees

Last year, when a movement mounted to add a voting student member to the Board of Trustees, this page argued in favor of such a student trustee. The argument was focused on the position of students as stakeholders in the University, and thus deserving of a representative voice in GW’s highest ranking decision-making body. After much deliberation on the subject, this page is reversing its position and thinks there should not be a voting student representative on the University Board of Trustees. In fact, a voting student on the board has the potential to inhibit the mitigation of student concerns.

Such a radical transition in policy comes with a careful examination of the purpose of the board and the logistics of actually placing a student on the board.

The mandate of the board includes long-term campus development planning, major financial initiatives and broad University policy. It is a body that by necessity must think and exist long-term. Students at the University are ephemeral. By the time they are on campus long enough to wrap their minds around the complexities of big-picture issues, it is usually time for Commencement.

Most student concerns don’t even fall under the mandate of the board. There are various levels of University administrators and bureaucrats responsible for creating policy. While going straight to the top is often the best way to address concerns, an organization as large as GW requires a more nuanced approach.

The voices and votes of one or two students on the 33-member board would do little to counterbalance the board with significant student input, and in practice might actually hurt student interests. As it is structured now, the board regularly meets with student representatives in committees. Adding these trustees might cause the board to look only to the narrow concerns of its own student members for counsel when student opinion is needed, rather than to a variety of students working on myriad campus issues. The best way to represent student concerns to the board would be for issue-based groups to educate board members about student concerns within the more intimate setting of committee meetings.

Besides the philosophical issues about the necessity of a student on the board are the logistical quandaries involved in actually selecting a student for such an enormous role. Current members of the board achieved their status through significant financial contributions and commitment to the University and proven leadership in their chosen fields. For a student trustee, there is no such basic criteria that distinguishes any one student from another. While there are certainly students who have contributed to the University through their service or leadership, none can objectively say that they are more qualified than any other.

Two paths could lead to the appointment of a student trustee, and neither seems likely to produce the ideal effect. The Student Association could nominate students for the board. This, like all other SA-related functions, would no doubt devolve into a highly politicized process incapable of producing effective representatives. The other method, having the student trustees selected by administrators or the board itself, would most likely result in a student trustee with close ties to the administration. Such a trustee would only further the divide between the average student and the board.

For its part, the board could mitigate student concerns by operating more transparently. The concept of a board responsible for oversight is that any stakeholder should at least have access to its deliberations. Board meetings should be open to all students. To alleviate space concerns, the meetings should be broadcast in J Street or another large public venue. Students would feel a lot more comfortable with the board if they had the opportunity to see its deliberations and operations.

Representing the concerns of the thousands of GW undergraduate and graduate students to the Board of Trustees through a voting student member is impossible. Students would be better served trying to work toward increased transparency of board procedures and creating venues for interaction with the board’s subcommittees and members.

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