The Board of Trustees will not include a voting student member any time in the near future – but this academic year, students will have a greater voice in its decision making, the Board’s top official said last week.
Board Chairman Nelson Carbonell said trustees will likely not change internal rules to add a voting student to the Board, but after a student-led drive for greater representation, student leaders will have an expanded role at meetings and on committees and task forces this academic year. Student leaders said the move is still a victory for student representation and will ensure students have input in the decisions made by the University’s highest governing body.
Nelson Carbonell, the chairman of the Board, created a task force last year comprised of students and trustees to analyze student representation on other universities’ boards and examine how a student voting member would fit in at GW. In a report submitted last spring, the task force concluded that installing a student member was not the right path, Carbonell said.
“Their recommendation was that there would be much more benefit if we started thinking about, ‘how do we engage a broader array of students on all of the work that the Board does, as opposed to having one student as a board member?’” he said.
The task force formally recommended adding the SA president and executive vice president as “non-voting student delegates” to the Board, allowing them to participate in open and closed meetings. Members also recommended including two non-voting student delegates – one undergraduate and one graduate – on every standing committee of the Board, according to the task force’s report, a copy of which was obtained by The Hatchet.
The committee found that the Board’s previous system for involving students in decision making – largely by having student leaders give updates to Board committees – created an environment where students felt their interests weren’t formally addressed by the Board.
“This has led to a lack of trust in the Board of Trustees and a feeling that students should be represented more deliberately in the University’s governance,” the task force concluded.
Carbonell said the Board is exploring all the recommendations, but long-term changes will likely require student training and amending the Board’s bylaws, which are set to be reviewed next academic year.
This year, the Board will expand its academic affairs committee to include two student members, rather than one, before its first meeting in October, he said.
Two students will also be voting members on two Board task forces – one on improving GW’s student experience and another focused on alumni engagement – which will meet throughout the academic year. The student experience task force will compile recommendations on how to address student complaints about campus culture, affordability and academics, while the other group will examine how to keep alumni involved now that the $1 billion fundraising campaign has reached its goal, Carbonell said.
“If it’s a task force, I can appoint any voting member – student, faculty, whoever,” he said. “If it’s a committee of the board, then it’s only trustees. So, we just said, ‘let’s use a task force structure to do that, and then we can have students both participate and vote.’”
He said the SA president will also have a more in-depth role in discussions at Board meetings instead of only presenting the SA’s agenda and accomplishments.
“We’re going to ask them to not leave or sit in a corner, but be more actively participating in the meeting to the extent that we can do that,” he said.
The Board’s move appeared to end the latest in a series of efforts to add a student trustee but student leaders said it was the “widest leap” so far in involving students in the Board’s activities.
SA leaders also created a report about student representation in 2014, a decade after then-University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said he didn’t support putting a student on the Board.
In 2005, more than 70 percent of the student body voted in favor of student representation in a SA referendum. These efforts were stymied because the Board’s bylaws prevent students and faculty from becoming trustees.
Lauren Courtney, a senior who served as the SA’s vice president for undergraduate student policy and a member of the student representation task force last year, said that none of the members of the task force came into the role with the set goal of securing voting rights.
“One vote will not have the power to change or sway an entire Board decision, but to have two students in the room who can be vocal advocates for themselves and their peers and provide student perspective is much more substantive,” she said in an email.
SA President Peak Sen Chua said the ability to more actively participate in Board discussions will help him become a more effective voice for students. He said amplifying student interests on the Board was “an idea that many thought was impossible.”
“The opportunity to participate in more conversations by providing an active student voice on the Board of Trustees will be critical in ensuring that consequential decisions are made with the input of students,” he said in an email.
Chua will also serve on the student experience task force with SA Executive Vice President Sydney Nelson. They will be responsible for the two student appointments to the academic affairs committee and volunteer engagement task forces before the trustees’ orientation Sept. 14. He said they will notify the SA Senate of any appointments in the coming weeks.
The push for student representation was the signature goal of former SA President Erika Feinman, who campaigned on adding two students as full voting members of the Board in 2016. They sat on the student representation task force, along with Courtney, three other students and three members affiliated with the Board.
“The biggest changes often come through a series of small steps, and I feel confident that this is absolutely a step in the right direction,” Feinman said in a Facebook message.
Andrew Goudsward contributed reporting.
This article appeared in the August 28, 2017 issue of the Hatchet.