If there is one lesson University President Thomas LeBlanc’s tenure reaffirmed, it is the vitality of safeguarding against autocratic rule. From the disastrous 20/30 Plan to the mass layoffs of facilities workers that paved the way for a campus-wide mold outbreak, the adverse consequences of concentrating power in the hands of a few who do not represent the interests of students have made themselves clear. Right now, “full authority over all personnel and activities” at GW is totally concentrated in the hands of a small faction known as the Board of Trustees. It is about time that ceases to be the case. GW must democratize decision-making at the University by ceding power to students, faculty and staff.
The Board of Trustees consists of 22 members who are responsible for both nominating and voting for Board members. According to the University’s bylaws, students, faculty and staff are prohibited from serving as a trustee. Instead, the chair of the Board, a role currently held by Grace Speights, can nominate “the president of the Student Association, the chair of the Faculty Senate, and a representative of the GW Alumni” to serve as a “Board Observer,” or a ceremonial, non-voting person who may be able to attend regular Board meetings if they are invited by the chair of the board. Already, by structural design, power stays in the Board of Trustees given the fact that they get to decide who constitutes the Board.
For example, Chair Grace Speights is a partner at one of the most notorious union-busting firms in the country, Morgan Lewis. This certainly is not someone who should be entrusted with the power to make decisions in the interests of GW workers.
Similarly, Trustee Avram Tucker is the CEO of a financial consulting company that provides litigation services to Fortune 500 companies to dispute claims involving damages. Tucker also previously worked at Exxon Mobil and served as an expert witness for Exxon during the legal aftermath of the Exxon Valdez accident. Tucker probably is not an authority we should trust to represent student interests in environmental matters, like that of closing the RSC.
Additionally, gentrification tycoon and trustee Charles R. Bendit has achieved prodigious success as a co-partner of Taconic, a large real estate firm in New York City that has developed areas deemed to be super-gentrified or exclusionary. Unironically, Bendit is quoted in an article titled, “Expert says NYC lacking homes for families making over $100,000.” He cannot possibly represent student, worker or faculty perspectives over questions of addressing homelessness in the District or affordable housing on campus.
Given the unilateral power vested in a group of individuals whose backgrounds and interests are not conducive to them representing the people who make GW run, it should come as no surprise when the University makes decisions that don’t seem to do much good. This is precisely the reason why students, faculty and staff should undertake the task of organizing for a democratic University.
Student and faculty power as it currently exists at the University is insufficient for achieving the materialization of our interests. Bodies like the Faculty Senate or the Student Association, while useful spaces for coalescing our interests as members of the University, are mostly advisory in terms of their power. Resolutions and recommendations are great, but they don’t call into question the distribution of power itself. If decision-making were democratic, we wouldn’t have to advise those in power on our interests because we would also constitute those in power.
In the University’s semi-defense, GW’s administrative structure isn’t particularly unique and in fact, follows a long trend of the neo-liberalization of the University. But, this shouldn’t diminish the importance of calling into question the validity of such an organizational structure. Democratic organization has been unable to penetrate the space where students, workers and faculty spend most of their time for far too long. We must reimagine the role of the student, the worker or the professor as co-constitutive members of the University that all, as equals, should be setting the agenda, making the policies and seeing them out.
It is clear that the current power structure of the University lends itself to exclude voices that are representative of the interests of students or faculty, and instead include those that represent alternative interests. To democratize administrative authority at GW we would need to restructure University operations so that the members who comprise the University community are also participants in its construction. This could be as innocuous as amending the University’s bylaws to expand the Board to include students, workers, professors and other staff as voting members. Or, perhaps the dissolution of the Board, accompanied by the facilitation of increased collaboration between various University groups that have the power to make decisions in their interest, would be even better. After all, students, workers and faculty are the people that actually makeup GW, so it would make the most sense that they would be the ones making the decisions about the University – not Speights, Tucker or Bendit.
At the very least, the GW community should absolutely undertake a conversation about what the implications and underpinnings of our administrative organization are, and what the measures to reimagine a new one could be. The University, through this invitation, has the opportunity to innovate a completely novel organizational structure that would be a testament to the vitality of democracy. And if they hope to earn the trust of the University community, they better.
Karina Ochoa Berkley, a junior majoring in political science and philosophy, is an opinions columnist and the assistant copy editor.