Board of Trustees Chair Grace Speights said Board members will continue to “consider the views” of the GW community after students overwhelmingly called on officials to divest from the fossil fuel industry and add student voting members to the Board.
In last week’s Student Association elections, 85.7 percent of voters approved a referendum pushing for the University to divest from fossil fuels, and 93.7 percent of voters supported a referendum calling for one undergraduate and one graduate student to hold voting positions on the Board. Speights declined to take an official position on either result, saying officials have addressed and will continue to address student concerns moving forward.
“The Board of Trustees always welcomes feedback from students and takes their views into consideration,” Speights said in an email.
Trustees created a task force in February to examine GW’s environmental impact after a week of student activism on climate change. The demonstrations came after University President Thomas LeBlanc apologized for making a “racially insensitive” analogy, which was captured on video while speaking with a member of Sunrise GW about fossil fuel divestment.
Speights said the task force will include a “review” of fossil fuel investment policies and examine a “broad range” of issues.
“The Board also listened to students’ views on disinvestment in fossil fuels and decided to establish a long-term proactive approach to managing environmental, social and governance responsibilities,” she said.
In the week following the video, members of Sunrise GW protested an event celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Regulatory Studies Center – which has been accused of promoting an anti-regulatory stance – and about 70 students rallied for divestment outside LeBlanc’s residence on campus, the F Street House.
Sunrise GW also called on officials to divest from GW’s fossil fuel holdings in a letter late last year, which simultaneously asked officials either to cut ties with the RSC or disclose more information about donors.
The student group said in a statement that the referendum on fossil fuel divestment represents an “increase in support” for divestment. About 71.7 percent of students supported divestment in a similar vote in 2015 – 14 percentage points lower than this year’s vote.
Officials said about a year after the 2015 vote that the University would not divest GW’s endowment from its fossil fuel holdings.
“With a mandate from the student body, the Faculty Association, over 40 student organizations and the scientific consensus, President LeBlanc and the Board of Trustees must act now or continue their complicity in the greatest crisis in human history,” sophomore and Sunrise GW member Joe Markus said in the statement. “This will be their legacy.”
The referendum calling on officials to add students as voting members of the Board follows years of changes to student representation on the body.
The Board convened a task force in 2016 to research different options for student representation. Nelson Carbonell, the former Board chair, expanded the role of the SA president on the Board in 2018 but said the body was likely not in favor of adding a student as a voting member.
Speights said the task force recommended adding the SA president and the Faculty Senate Executive Committee chair as non-voting observers on the Board as well as ensuring student and faculty representation on all task forces as the “best approach” based on other University boards.
“We have no immediate plans to make additional changes, but the Board will continue to consider the views of our community as we move forward,” Speights said.
SA President SJ Matthews criticized the Board at its February meeting for not allowing her to stay during an executive session – the closed portion of Board meetings – claiming the student voice has become “nothing more than a token buzzword” to administrators.
“I am tired of having to defend the administration when they fail to condemn acts of intolerance on this campus,” Matthews said at the Board meeting. “I am tired of having to explain things on their behalf because there are administrators who don’t speak with students. I’m tired and I think you all are too, which is why I have a proposal. Let us in. Let us in the room and let us be a part of the solution and not the problem.”
Matthews said in an interview that including the student voice in all Board committees, especially the Committee on Finance and Investments, is “crucial” to provide direct input on major decisions.
“I think the Board of Trustees has the best interests at the end of the day for the student body, but I just don’t think they know the student experience,” Matthews said. “I think when you have students in the room to talk about what their experiences are on a daily basis, they’re able to make more informed decisions.”
SA Sen. Howard Brookins, U-at-Large, and SA president-elect, said allowing students voting representation on the Board will ensure students have a tangible way to influence the decisions administrators make. He said allowing student members to vote on the Board will ensure the University’s next strategic plan – which was halted last week in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic – aligns with students’ opinions.
“I think this can be a great opportunity to reevaluate the strategic plan and figure out a different way to implement it so that different humanities and other things that students and faculty members hold close are not being compromised,” Brookins said.
The Strategic Planning Task Force includes two student members – graduate student and presidential fellow Haley Grey and Matthews, the SA president. The full Board, which includes Matthews as a non-voting observer, will eventually approve the final plan.
Brookins said the election of two students to the Board will allow students to directly push to implement some of the other referenda that passed in the election, like divestment.
“I feel like it would be beneficial for somebody to be democratically elected to that position as it holds a lot of weight and can be very influential in terms of figuring out the process of which the school is run,” he said.
SA Sen. Brandon Hill, CCAS-U, and SA executive vice president-elect, said he will gather information throughout his term from other universities with students on their boards with voting rights to grasp how that type of system functions. He said learning the “intricacies” of the Board will be an important step in creating student positions within its ranks.
“I think students recognize that they’re at the table, but they’re not being heard, and their opinions and values aren’t respected by Board of Trustees members, and I think that students used this frustration and feeling in order to turn out and have that vote be so high,” he said.
This article appeared in the April 13, 2020 issue of the Hatchet.