Board Decision Disregards Value of Student Input

This article is part of the Review’s Student Senate column. In an effort to increase communication and transparency, Student Senators will provide personal perspectives on recent events on campus and in the community.

Cornell University, Colorado College, Ithaca College, and Howard University are just a few of the elite private institutions with currently enrolled students serving as full members of their respective school’s Board of Trustees. These schools, along with many private and a significant majority of public institutions, have welcomed student membership on their boards, acknowledging that they deserve a seat at the table.

The nearly two-year-long path that many dedicated Oberlin students have taken to have the Oberlin’s Board of Trustees vote to add a student member may imply that adding student trustees is a daunting prospect with uncertain consequences. However, reviewing the records of schools that have already taken the admirable step of representing students at the board level shows that this is not the case.

To provide a sample of assessments, a University of Massachusetts spokesperson holds that “student representation is a way for other board of trustee members to have direct feedback on issues that affect students.” A St. Mary’s College of Maryland, associate vice president relayed that the school is “very receptive and appreciative of the insight from the students.” A former vice chairman of Anne Arundel Community College wrote that “students — who are, after all, what the institution is fundamentally about — have no such power [to deal with issues through negotiations and contract decisions] unless they have a voice on the board.”

The views of these college administrators and board members may be shocking to some members of Oberlin’s board, but they are certainly not unique. We did not ask for voting rights on the board, for a say in tenure review, or to affect hiring and firing decisions. We asked for students’ voices to be heard at the highest level of the College’s governance and for reformed communication channels. We asked for non-voting membership, nearly identical to faculty membership, on board committees. We didn’t ask for the Academic Affairs Committee or the Executive Committee. We asked for seats on four committees where we felt our insight and expertise would be relevant and valuable.

Our proposal was rejected by a board that was not ready for even the mildest level of student participation in board proceedings. The board said that they want “as much student input on important matters as is feasibly possible,” yet when we presented the way to amass that input in a direct, regular, and institutionalized manner, they said no. The board demonstrated through their vote that they fundamentally do not believe that students would provide valuable contributions to board committees. In fact, they think it would be damaging, that some trustees would “think out loud less candidly if students were in the room.”

I’m hugely disappointed. Our board — comprised of CEOs, COOs, vice presidents, and law partners — does not feel comfortable discussing how to keep Oberlin a great school in posterity before the very people the school is built around: its students. I truly believe that the board has made the wrong decision for themselves, for students, and for Oberlin. While Senate is disappointed by these results, we will continue to explore avenues for student-trustee engagement. Senate Chair Thobeka Mnisi will be leading a working group to develop other possibilities. Senate working groups are open to all students, and we encourage those interested to reach out and get involved.