Trustees Postpone Student Rep. Vote

Sydney Allen, Editor-in-Chief

Student senators are facing an uncertain start to the fall semester as they persist in their battle to get a student representative on the Board of Trustees. The board tabled the vote over potential student trustees during their June quarterly board meeting, postponing the vote to their Oct. 5–7 meeting period.

Last March, Senate submitted a proposal asking the board to create a task force to look into the possibility of adding a student to the Board of Trustees. This was the second proposal Senate had submitted the board, as the first — a proposal asking directly for a student representative on the board — was denied in Dec. 2016.

After months of protests, negotiations, and petitions, Senate appeared to catch a break as the board approved this second proposal, agreeing to create a collaborative task force with board representatives and student senators to look into the possibility of student representatives.

The task force consisted of College senior and Senate Chair Thobeka Mnisi, College senior and former Student Senator Josh Koller, and three trustees: Jacob Gayle, OC ’79, Anne Chege, OC ’16, and Ed Helms, OC ’96. The group corresponded from March to June, emailing and holding conference calls to discuss the issue.

Details of the proposal are still confidential as negotiations continue.

While senators are still hopeful, they are concerned the postponement indicates some undisclosed qualms within the board.

“I think this is a new idea that, for reasons beyond me, Oberlin never considered seriously enough,” Mnisi said. “People are resistant to change, and the board as a governance structure tends to be quite rigid. I think they are trying to find a way to incorporate what might be a significant structural change without capsizing the existing structure of the board. To me, this is very simple and obvious — it makes no sense why we have no student representation on the board. But to some of senior board members, this seems too radical, and I think while everyone seems warm to the idea, some people are worried about proper implementation of it.”

Although the postponement produced some anxiety within Senate, students are remaining optimistic that a compromise can be found, since the board didn’t outrightly reject the proposal.

“I think they don’t want a student in the way that we proposed,” Mnisi said. “They could have said no, but they didn’t. While I’m frustrated with the rate of progress on this, I do think that they are trying to find a way that works. If not, it would be very deplorable of them to lengthen this process so much, then say no after so much of our efforts have been spent.”

Interim General Counsel and Secretary Donica Varner, who acts as the spokesperson for the trustees, said that the board is still considering the proposal.

“The board is thoughtfully considering the most appropriate ways to engage with students on college governance matters,” she said. “Board membership or participation comes with significant legal and fiduciary responsibilities for anyone serving on the board. While students are just as capable of respecting confidentiality, there are several aspects of student membership or participation on the Board of Trustees that must be carefully considered. The Trustee-Student Senate Collaborative Task Force has provided valuable insights on how do that work well.”

The push to add student representatives to the board comes after years of student complaints regarding opaque decision-making processes within the board and poor communication with students and faculty, including on issues such as last year’s tuition hikes, the response to and dismissal of Professor Joy Karega, the renewal of business relations with Gibson’s Bakery, the board’s response to the ABUSUA demands, and divestment requests.