Student leaders seek voice before trustees

Rani Gupta

Associated Government Government leaders took last week’s announcement that students could help present the annual student affairs committee report to the Board of Trustees as step forward in their efforts to gain student representation on Northwestern’s most powerful decision-making body.

Placing students on the board of trustees would increase communication and ensure student input in universitywide issues, some student leaders said.

But some trustees and university officials said the proposal deflects attention from the areas where students could have more concrete involvement: the board’s student affairs committee and NU’s advisory committees.

“To say it all comes down to student representation is so silly, because you know it’s not likely to happen,” said University President Henry Bienen in an April 25 interview. “It’s just another issue to keep pounding on and talking about to say we don’t love you.”

‘Make sure their voices are heard’

When he was ASG President, Jordan Heinz submitted a proposal to the board’s student affairs committee asking for student representatives to advise the board.

Heinz, an Education senior, said the proposal marked a step toward eventually making students board members with full voting privileges.

ASG President Rachel Lopez said she plans to continue the push, which has existed since the 1970s.

“Students have complained that the administration doesn’t care about them,” said Lopez, a Weinberg junior. “This is a way to make sure their voices are heard regardless of who is in Rebecca Crown Center.”

Lopez said the proposal will ensure a student voice on the board and give students a better understanding of how the organization works.

‘Superficial Appeal’

But Phil Harris, chairman of the board’s student affairs committee, said the issue is of “superficial appeal” because students already have the chance to participate in universitywide decisions.

“I don’t believe participation on the board would have a significant impact,” he said. “There are so many opportunities (for participation) that if there really was this groundswell of strong, overwhelming student support for representation, then I think those existing opportunities would be oversaturated, and this particular issue would have a lot more meaning to the board.”

Heinz said NU’s administrative committees, such as housing, dining, and a new building and planning committee, only allow students to be involved with short-range decisions, while a seat on the board would permit input in long-term planning.

‘Limited portion of the board’

Bienen said the board already allows for ample student input through the board’s student affairs committee.

“You’re meeting with a smaller number of trustees dedicated to worrying about student affairs issues,” he said.

This standing committee of 10 to 12 trustees meets four times a year with five ASG officers, William Banis, vice president for student affairs, and Marilyn McCoy, vice president for administration and planning.

The committee discusses matters that relate to student life but not issues dealing with building on campus, such as the plan to fill in one-fifth of the Lagoon, announced in February. Lopez said students want to extend their influence beyond this committee to the executive board.

“We’re only affecting a very limited portion of the board,” she said.

Harris said the committee usually relies on the ASG representatives to represent student opinion to the board but said he encourages other students to attend the committee meetings.

Students can petition the committee by working through ASG members or Banis, or by contacting Harris.

“We’re happy to listen to anyone,” Harris said. “We don’t set the agenda for those meetings – the students do.”

But some critics have said the committee has made too little effort to involve students outside ASG.

“Before the Lagoon thing, I had no idea this committee existed,” said Jay Goyal, a McCormick junior and member of the Northwestern Open Campus Coalition. “They have these meetings, but they don’t really publicize them.”

Lopez said she is working with the committee to increase non-ASG involvement in the student affairs committee.

“Just as the student affairs committee can’t represent all issues to the Board of Trustees, (ASG) can’t represent every single student,” she said. “We’re opening up the meetings in the hopes that (the board) will open it up.”

Involvement with the committee could be more efficient than student representation on the board, Goyal said.

“It might be more effective if you could get someone like Phil Harris on your side because he could be a more effective lobbier than (student trustees) could ever be,” he said.

‘Complete gag order’

Bienen said student representation would not increase communication between top administrators and students because trustees are bound by a confidentiality agreement.

“Board meetings are confidential, so you can’t be a representative in the way that representative democracy works,” he said.

Goyal said the confidentiality clause makes the current proposal largely symbolic. It speaks to student sentiment that NU officials don’t seek their input, as illustrated by the controversy over the Lagoon, he said.

“It would be less symbolic if the student wasn’t under a complete gag order,” Goyal said.

Lopez said even if student trustees couldn’t divulge specifics of the board meetings, they could better educate students about how the board works.

‘Life-time constituents’

Bienen said that though NU should take student input into account, long-term decisions should be left to trustees, administrators and tenured faculty because of students’ limited time at the university.

“Any department that is disinterested in what students think about what should be done in that department is very foolish,” Bienen said. “That doesn’t mean, ‘Hey gang, get happy, you’re going to choose the faculty here.’ Being influential and being heard are two very different things.”

But Heinz said that if the university refuses to entrust students with making long-term decisions, officials shouldn’t expect students to make donations as alumni.

“How can the university expect us to be lifetime constituents in terms of giving when they don’t entrust students with the long-range planning of the university?” Heinz said. “If President Bienen thinks my membership (in the university) should end when I graduate in a month, then it will.”