Nelson Carbonell, a multimillionaire alumnus, chaired his first Board of Trustees meeting Friday. Since he was approved as the new Board leader in May, he has pledged to strengthen the governing body’s focus on communication with students and faculty.
That approach would be a positive step forward. But Carbonell has his work cut out for him if he is going to reform a University with an uneven track record for transparency and a habit of shutting students out of decision-making.
Student, alumni and faculty trust in the University has been frayed in recent years. Dean firings have cascaded into political turmoil. Administrators have made housing decisions without consulting students. There’s been overspending and admissions data manipulation.
In tough times, the Board needs to lead by a strong example. Carbonell needs to set a tone of transparency and accountability immediately.
To start, Carbonell has to make the contents of the Board of Trustees meetings more accessible for students.
Though many students might not know what the Board of Trustees does, they are the most powerful governing body on campus. Administrators like University President Steven Knapp and Provost Steven Lerman answer to this group of donors and alumni.
During their open sessions, which take place three times a year, trustees approve the University’s annual tuition rates, amount of financial aid for students. They decide on Knapp’s contract and bonus, and determine whether to upgrade residence halls or build modern science labs.
These are big decisions. That’s why we support Carbonnell’s plan to work more closely with students and faculty than his predecessor. But, so far, his are just words, not deeds.
The University is falling behind other schools, which have taken concrete measures to make the content of Board meetings public knowledge. GW should look to their example.
Right now, GW isn’t even doing the simple things to show they care about transparency.
Unlike the University of Virginia, the Board of Trustees does not broadcast their meetings online to reach a larger audience of interested students, faculty and staff. The move would provide universal access to their discussions, many of which focus on major University decisions that have a potentially great impact on the student body.
But at the very least, members should consider publishing meeting minutes online. The Student Association posts their minutes. So does nearly every other governing body, from local town councils to school boards.
With online minutes, students will know who is in attendance at these meetings and who voted for what. But even more importantly, students will know what is on the minds of these powerful leaders.
Carbonell should also launch a town hall tour to help gather student input. Trustees are expected more than ever to engage with administrators on big decisions, many of which directly affect the lives of students. Carbonell needs to hear what those concerns are.
And though alumni do sometimes nominate trustees, a more direct process where alumni can vote for trustees – like the ones at Penn State and Indiana University – would benefit students past and present.
In a perfect world, the Board would have taken concrete steps to reach out to students over the summer and in the first months of school. But it’s not too late now for Carbonell to make up for lost time.
Making conversations easily accessible is the only way students will be convinced their leaders have students’ best interests in mind.
No one likes empty promises.
This article appeared in the October 21, 2013 issue of the Hatchet.