Board Editorial: Student Representation Critical for Meaningful Campus Governance
Over the next few days, Whitman’s Board of Trustees will convene on campus for their most important meeting of the year. During their February meeting, the trustees approve next year’s budget, set tuition for the college and make decisions about a number of development projects and long-term plans which directly impact Whitman students.
This year, Associated Students of Whitman College (ASWC) President Kayvon Behroozian will be asking the trustees to allow students direct representation in trustee meetings. The Pioneer editorial board supports having a student representative present at Board of Trustees meetings, and believes that such a policy would be beneficial for the student body and the college as a whole.
Various ASWC leaders have been working to increase student representation on the Board for many years, and progress has been slow. The last compromise ASWC reached allowed student representatives to sit in on four of the Governing Boards’ committees: student life, diversity, academic affairs and enrollment. While a step in the right direction, this access does not allow students to speak when trustees are making decisions which most impact the student body.
Students traditionally have very little power on campus. We are ephemeral, the argument goes, and cannot keep the college’s long-term interests in mind. The fact remains, however, that Whitman as an institution is ultimately supposed to benefit the student body. While administrators and trustees have decades of institutional experience with the college, many of them are several steps removed from the day-to-day lives of most Whitman students. As editors of The Pioneer, we are often asked by administrators and faculty what issues students are most concerned about on campus. Regardless of their level of involvement in campus life, administrators and trustees necessarily have a much more limited perspective on the Whitman student experience.
Furthermore, as the consumers of a Whitman education, students have a right to be aware of the significant decisions being made in their name.
In the past, members of the Board have raised confidentiality concerns when asked about student representation. Yet 20-year-olds are no less capable of acting with integrity than adults of any other age. Many Whitman students, including members of the ASWC Executive Council and current representatives to Governing Board committees, currently have access to confidential college information. Confidentiality has not been a problem in these cases. Greater access to college policy and decision-making is always politically challenging for students to come by; student representatives will not take such access lightly.
More importantly, opponents argue that student turnover rate is too high for students to participate meaningfully in board decisions. Representatives would have two years at best on the committee, hardly enough time to learn the ropes and become functioning members alongside trustees who understand the 10-year trajectory of the college.
We view this turnover rate as a valuable asset for the Board. The student experience is a crucial part of Whitman’s appeal. While a 10-year vision for the college is critically important for the viability of the institution, a shorter-term vision is equally important when it comes to matters of the campus community. The appeal of the Whitman community is a powerful draw for prospective applicants. The insight of students who are deeply ingrained in this community would provide critical insight to a board concerned with application and enrollment.
While students currently sit on committees which discuss these issues, all policy decisions are made by the Board of Trustees behind closed doors, where students have no ability to weigh in or provide a student perspective. There is space to allow student voices to be heard without shifting the way power is distributed on campus. Even if granted voting privileges, one representative will not be able to tip the balance on decisions by virtue of their vote alone.
Many of Whitman’s peer institutions have already taken steps to give students a voice in trustee meetings by allowing young alumni, student body presidents or other campus leaders to sit in on meetings, with or without voting privileges. In the opinion of the Pioneer editorial board, it is time for Whitman to take this step as well. The details of the arrangement should be open to discussion and compromise from the Board and ASWC, but the goal should be nothing less than a student presence at all trustee meetings.
Having student representation at all levels of campus governance would speak to Whitman’s emphasis on student engagement, but it will not come easily. As we urge the trustees to allow students to sit with them, we implore the student body to keep pushing for access and representation. As many years of campaigning have shown, securing student representation on the Board of Trustees demands long and patient dialogue. If administrators think that student interests are ephemeral, let’s show them that our desire for full representation in campus governance can persist across class years.