University of Massachusetts senior Heather Makrez, a member of her school’s board of trustees, said she loves her job because it forces university administrators to listen to her. UMass officials said they welcome Makrez’s comments and encourage students to have a say in how their school is run.
The tone at some other schools – which welcome the presence of students on their boards of trustees – is a stark contrast from that of GW’s, where both University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg and some members of the Board of Trustees have expressed opposition to the idea.
Since last year, Student Association leaders have been agitating for student representation on the GW Board of Trustees, but Trachtenberg said having a student on the board would be a conflict of interest, adding that the board – GW’s highest governing body – is not supposed to be a representative group.
Other colleges and universities across the nation – including Cornell University, Howard University, St. Mary’s College in Maryland and the University of Massachusetts – have had student representation on their boards.
“Being on the board has allowed me to voice and share my opinion with people who can make changes,” Makrez wrote in an e-mail last week. “It has allowed the students at the university to be recognized and heard.”
Makrez said she has been received “wonderfully” by the board.
“They all value the students’ input because we are a major group of people their decisions will affect,” Makrez said. “We are the ones on the campuses day in, day out.”
Bill Wright, a spokesperson for UMass, spoke positively of the arrangement as well. “Student representation is a way for other board of trustee members to have direct feedback on issues that affect students,” he said.
Marc Apter, associate vice president for Media and Public Relations at St. Mary’s College in Maryland, echoed Wright’s sentiments. “We are very receptive and appreciative of the insight from the students,” he said.
Most of the student representatives on the boards of trustees at these universities do not have the same power as non-student trustees. At St. Mary’s, student trustees are not allowed to vote on personnel issues, while at UMass, only two out of the five student trustees are given voting powers at any time. Students said, however, that these restrictions have not limited their effectiveness.
In a September 2003 article published by The Chronicle of Higher Education in The Chronicle Review, Kimberly C. Lang, a former vice chairman of the Board of Trustees of Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland, wrote that 60 of the student trustees and university administrators she spoke with for an article said they thought positively of the idea of student trustees.
Lang wrote, however, that students usually do not have the same power as other trustees and do not usually participate in all of the discussions.
“Virtually all students feel most comfortable discussing ‘student issues,’ like the curriculum, and believe that on such topics, they well represent the student body from which they were chosen,” Lang wrote. “Most students do not introduce issues that require board votes.”
But Lang also explained that student representatives are at a major disadvantage because they do not know the intricate details of a board’s workings.
In October 2004, the SA Senate passed a resolution calling for student representation on the University Board of Trustees. The fight was led by junior Morgan Corr – now the SA’s executive vice president – who started a student organization to advocate for student representation on the Board of Trustees.
Last week the SA passed new legislation reaffirming the Senate’s position of advocating for a student on the board. SA President Audai Shakour, a senior, disagrees with Corr’s tenacity in fighting for a student representative, arguing that fighting for student representation on the board is not the most effective use of the SA’s energy.
Trachtenberg has said on numerous occasions he does not support the idea of students on GW’s Board of Trustees. “The board is not hostile to the wisdom of students – there is just no formal role for that input in front of the whole board. It is heard in committee,” he said.
Trachtenberg said he does not discourage state institutions from having student representation, but he doesn’t want to disrupt a board that has worked well at GW.
“Because it is working well now, I don’t think it’s useful to compare us to other state institutions,” he said.
A snowball effect could also occur if students are granted representation on the board, Trachtenberg warned, suggesting that if students get a seat, faculty and staff will then also want representation.
While Corr argues all of these groups should get representation, Lang wrote that students are in a different position than faculty and staff.
“Faculty members and administrators can deal with their issues and concerns through negotiations, contract decisions and other avenues,” Lang wrote. “Students – who are, after all, what the institution is fundamentally about – have no such power unless they have a voice on the board.”
Charles Manatt, chairman of GW’s Board of Trustees, said the body’s bylaws prohibit students or faculty from sitting on the board.
At the board’s next meeting, scheduled for February, the board’s Student Affairs Committee will discuss student representation. For legislation to be considered, however, Manatt said the body’s guidelines must first be amended to allow a student on the governing body.