Students Demand Role on Board of Trustees

The Board of Trustees held its tri-annual student forum last night, giving students the chance to voice their opinions and concerns to the trustees before they enter their quarterly executive session. Though students raised a number of issues during the forum, discussions regarding the potential of adding a student representative to the board dominated the evening.

For many students, the forum — which was held in four classrooms in the King building — marks the culmination of years of work, as the board is projected to vote on whether to include some type of student representation. Although the board was originally set to vote on the issue at their June meeting, it delayed the decision to this fall session.

Chair of the Board of Trustees Chris Canavan, OC ’84, acknowledged student frustrations at the delay, expressing a desire to increase transparency with students.

“We owe it to those of you putting [the proposal] before us to give you a straight answer,” he said. “We just don’t know what that answer is yet or when we will give it.”

Student attendees expressed discontent with the sparse communication afforded them by the board. Some said that because the board keeps its agenda confidential, students don’t know what information they should seek from the trustees.

“We can only ask questions about what we know, and there is a lot that we don’t know,” College senior and Student Senate Chair Thobeka Mnisi said.

College senior León Pescador, a Student Senator, said that students feel they aren’t included enough in the institution’s long-term planning.

“We need to establish a permanent communication channel that works,” Pescador said. “We’re asking for that chance.”

Honorary Trustee John Elder, OC ’53, commented on his experience of working with student representatives through the Student Affairs Committee, one of the few committees that allows student representation among the trustees.

“We hear from students involved in some particular aspect of college life, and we have them meet with the committee,” Elder said. “Our last meeting was with student representatives from [the Office of] Religious and Spiritual Life. Then the committee reports to the board as a whole. [This is a] formal way in which trustees hear students’ perspectives.”

Canavan added that there are several informal processes through which the trustees gain insight into students’ thoughts and desires.

“We meet with students a lot, [because] we would like to understand the perspective of students as best as possible,” Canavan said. “The challenge is in defining what is meant by ‘engagement.’ [Engagement] could mean many things.”

He said the board has no issue with receiving input from all constituencies involved: faculty members, community members, and students, adding that trustees make better decisions when they have diverse input. The controversy lies in whether the board should allow students to participate in discussions and vote on decisions.

“This has nothing to do with how we feel about Oberlin students,” Canavan said. “It’s about how we can do our jobs the best we can as trustees.”

According to Trustee Amy Chen, OC ’79, one reason they would potentially decline to add a student trustee is that students are only here for four years, while the board tends to deal with long-term issues. In her view, students looking for day-to-day changes need to talk to the administration.

“[The board looks] at long-term issues, which is why [it] is composed of alumni and trustees,” she said.

Mnisi argued that although it would be difficult for one or a small number of students to represent the entire student body, there are ways of addressing this quandary. As the chair of Student Senate, she suggested that the organization could hold a forum and listening sessions on weekends for any students wanting their voice to be heard.

“This [limitation] isn’t a good enough reason for one student’s voice not to be taken into account,” she said.

Very few schools in the U.S. — especially those in the liberal arts — have student trustees. However, students view this scarcity as an opportunity for Oberlin to maintain its pioneering reputation.

“I’m not fazed that 90 percent of schools don’t [have student trustees] because the ones that do are so valuable,” Mnisi said. “Those are the schools we should be looking at, not the 90 percent.”