Across U.S., input is a campus issue

Janette Neuwahl

Having a student help make the annual student affairs committee report to the Board of Trustees would be novel at Northwestern, but universities nationwide have been experimenting with different methods of representation for the past 30 years.

As the only private university in the Big Ten, NU has a different situation from its rivals.

Public universities are state-run, and many have instituted student representation on their Board of Trustees, also called a Board of Regents in some states. All the Big Ten schools except the University of Michigan have students sitting on the board as voting members.

Eamon Kelly, a senior at University of Illinois, is one of three students on the school’s 12-person board of trustees but is the sole student voter. Kelly said students have participated in board decisions for as long as 20 years but their ability to vote was granted only four years ago.

“We provide a lot of insight on issues happening on campus and offer perspective to the (administrators), who are not always as in tune,” Kelly said. “We also explain to students why things are necessary, and because we are able to bring the message to students, they’re more comfortable with decisions that are made.”

Issues such as tuition increases and budget cuts are some of the more important decisions Kelly said the board has voted on recently. Kelly added that at times, students are not allowed to vote when board members think there would be a conflict of interest, such as on faculty hiring.

“I would encourage other student bodies to seek (this position) out because it gives students voices, and I don’t see a negative to it,” Kelly said. “Students are capable of keeping things confidential and serving limits. We don’t go in and mess everything up.”

At the University of Minnesota, one student is elected by the state legislature every six years to serve as a voting “regent,” said Ann Cieslak, executive director for the university’s Board of Regents. Cieslak said the long term of the office allows students to understand the “intricacies of a complex research university,” giving them the advantage of experience when voicing opinions on matters.

in the private sector

Just having students on public schools’ boards doesn’t mean the boards are more receptive to students’ desires. Merrill Schwartz of the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities said private institutions have a tradition of many alumni serving on their governing boards so they have a stronger connection to students, but that is not true of public boards.

“They’re different animals and have a different feel to them,” she said. “The boards of private colleges generally love and want to promote their college and university, and on the boards of public colleges and universities, it’s more of an arms-length distance because the board both represents and promotes the institution but also represents the public and has to safeguard (its) interests as well.”

Private universities across the country nonetheless have experimented with different ways to increase student input into their boards, ranging from giving undergraduate and graduate students voting rights on the board to allowing students to sit in on committee meetings or putting recent graduates on the board.

At Cornell University, two elected student trustees get voting seats on the board. The positions, acquired after student protests in the late 1960s, are held for two-year terms.

“When it comes down to making decisions, I think it’s characteristic of a lot of universities that the board makes the final decision,” said Funa Maduka, a current student trustee for Cornell. “To have a student voice is important to any school because it brings a certain perspective that’s often overlooked.”

Maduka said one of her advantages as a student trustee is her experiences with the administration.

As a former student government representative, she feels her contact with school officials will help her influence the board’s decisions.

“At Cornell the board is more of a vote, whereas the administration makes major policy decisions and recommendations for the board,” Maduka said. “If you can get in on the ground level with administration on policy, you’ll have more success and influence the board.”

Though Maduka’s position has enabled students at Cornell to have a representative for their voice, Schwartz cautions that this might cause student trustees’ decisions to be slanted to their constituents, unlike other board members who don’t aim to represent a certain group of people.

“It’s difficult for a student to serve as an equal member, partly because they have very different terms in office and outlooks,” Schwartz said. “Also, often students are appointed for a year and it takes that long to get up to speed as a member and see the cycle of decisions that need to be made. So it’s difficult to learn the job and make a contribution in the time you have available as a student trustee.”

Maduka said that although she has to separate from her views as a student while serving on the board, she is confident she can make the distinction.

“Board representatives always have to walk a fine line because students expect you to represent their views while you are working for the university, so you’re conflicted in a way,” she said. “But I think it’s a balance easily achievable.”

While Cornell is one of the few universities with students who actually vote as board members, the push for student representation has been an ongoing battle at Stanford University.

The Associated Students of Stanford University, the school’s student government, has managed to get two student representatives, one undergraduate and one graduate student, on each of the board’s five committees.

They have also successfully lobbied for a young alumni program for the institution last year, an initiative founded at Princeton University that places recent graduates on the board to ensure a better connection with students’ views.

“Having students on committees and starting the young alumni program are both great steps in the right direction and are milestones en route to having students on the actual board,” said Matthew Brewer, student government president and a junior at Stanford. “Our situation now is relatively good, but it can be better.”

age-old, up-hill struggle

The push for students to sit on boards dates back to the student protests in the 1960s and 1970s, Schwartz said.

“In the ’60s and ’70s the idea that there should be student participation in all aspects (of a university’s decision-making processes) was a trend, but it has been less of a concern in the last 20 years,” she said.

Schwartz said her organization does not advocate student trustees because they aren’t objective decision makers. She said students should instead form committees for academic affairs or serve on the board’s committees, much like the proposal at NU.

“The idea of a trustee is that you hold the long-term interests of the university for all students, and there are other ways to get student input on issues than having a student trustee,” Schwartz said.

“Having a representative on the board is not a panacea.”