During the Board of Trustees’ quarterly campus visit this week, Student Senate and former student members of the Steering Committee pushed for trustees to approve the addition of student representatives to the body. The Editorial Board endorses this effort and believes that including student voices will create a more meaningful and effective learning environment that will aid the administration in achieving its mission statement and better satisfy students’ needs.
Student representation on college boards is not unprecedented. The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges reports that as of 2010, “50.3 percent of the public colleges and universities that responded and 8.5 percent of responding independent colleges and universities had at least one student as a voting member of the board. In addition, 28.2 percent of public-institution respondents and 12.5 percent of independent-institution respondents included a non-voting student member.”
Peer institutions — Macalester College, Vassar College and Scripps College, to name a few — have included both voting and non-voting student members in an attempt to connect students and trustees. Representatives from the student body could bridge this gap by offering active feedback in conversations instead of only having the opportunity to react to crucial decisions about campus life.
Oberlin’s mission statement says, “The college expects that students will work closely with the faculty to design an educational program appropriate to their own particular interests, needs, and long-term goals.” What better way to address this tenet than to hear from students themselves?
It is well within the board’s power to pivot toward student inclusion. Oberlin College bylaws “allow the Board of Trustees to create, alter, or otherwise modify the number of trustees and the manner in which they are elected and serve.” The board also maintains authority “over its own composition and terms of service,” thanks to a 1970 amendment to the Charter of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute specifically designed to allow the addition of class trustees.
One member from each of the three most recent graduating classes is elected to a three-year term as class trustee. And while voices from recent graduates undoubtedly give the board deeper insight into campus life, no one understands current students’ needs more than current students. The trustees could and should amend the College’s bylaws to allow for student representation, just as it did nearly 50 years ago for class trustees.
Even non-voting student representatives would open up a constructive space for dialogue. It’s no secret that students often express disdain toward what many consider to be an out-of-touch board — so why wouldn’t the board help itself by opening a direct channel for student feedback? At the very least, trustees would have a better sense of what they are walking into when they make unpopular decisions.
Few would argue that students are fully qualified to provide input on all of the decisions the board must make about the College. The Board of Trustees, after all, is comprised of highly accomplished people in a variety of fields including finance, law, public education, social work and the arts. But the point is not for students to overhaul the board or monopolize meetings — it is to facilitate the critical conversations that must happen between trustees and students so we can better understand one another and hold the College accountable to its mission of “[graduating] liberal arts and Conservatory students who have learned to think with intellectual rigor, creativity, and independence.”