We owe much of what we enjoy here to the decisions and guidance of the Board of Trustees. But considering how much this group impacts us every day, how well do we really understand the board?
While some student groups engage directly with the trustees through positions like the Student Liaison to the Middlebury College Board of Trustees Investment Committee, to most students, the Trustees are nameless figures seen floating in and out of Old Chapel from afar three times a year, making crucial decisions on how the College runs and how our budget is spent. Few students truly understand the people who comprise the board and the process through which they operate, and often our existing conceptions are not accurate.
This disconnect exists on both sides of the aisle. Students often do not understand the board’s long-term responsibilities, and Trustees struggle to take the pulse of the student body. Nevertheless, the Trustees’ goals fundamentally align with the goal of many students on campus. We all desire to make Middlebury the best school possible.
The creation of an avenue to foster dialogue between Trustees and students would therefore benefit both parties. Students could view their own work on campus in the context of a larger picture, and Trustees could ground their long-term decisions in the current student experience. By aligning goals and cutting down on miscommunication, we can maximize our efforts to create positive change on campus.
Though some streams of communication between the students and the Trustees already exist through President of the College Ron Liebowitz and Special Assistant to the Board of Directors Stephanie Neil, the nuances of opinions and issues that concern students on campus cannot adequately be conveyed through a second-hand summary. Personalized discussions between students and Trustees would help both sides see eye-to-eye. While many Trustees are either alumni or parents of past or current students, the student body is dynamic and salient issues change with time. The board’s understanding of student issues should adapt with these changes, while still keeping track of the broader goals of the College and their fiduciary responsibilities. As Carolyn Ramos, a Trustee who sits on the Student Affairs Committee, said in an interview with The Campus last week, “Our core group — our client, if you will — is the students.” While her committee is especially responsible for keeping tabs on the student body, we encourage other committees to check the temperature at the ground level as well.
Because such discourse is outside of the established roles of Trustees and their physical time on campus is short, students must take the initiative to forge relationships with board members, be it for their expertise in a certain field or for their focus in a certain field of College functions. We, therefore, propose a streamlined liaison program in which student organizations or a group of students could reach out to a specific Trustee based on his or her personal background and role within the board. Trustees could then select one or two groups which whom they would meet if they so choose. The student groups that meet with Trustees during any given board meeting would vary depending on which groups feel moved to solicit the Trustees depending on the climate on campus. This process should be formalized so that Trustees are not overwhelmed by student emails, but should also not be intimidating for students who may be more hesitant to voice their opinions.
Take The Campus for example. Several Trustees have backgrounds in media, both purely in journalism and on the legal side. These Trustees would have a better understanding of the issues that concern us as an organization. Through this process, we would be able to research these Trustees and put together a proposal through Stephanie Neil in the hopes of sitting down and learning from each other.
To be sure, the liaison program is not for every Trustee, nor should it be a requirement. But for interested Trustees, the program would give them the chance to develop a meaningful relationship with groups of students that share their interests.
While we appreciate that the Trustees already time and money to the College, we also hope the love for Middlebury that compelled them to join the board in the first place will compel them to engage with the student body and get a taste of what the student experience is like today. Addressing the disconnect between students and Trustees would provide a productive outlet for concerns on both ends where opinions can be constructively communicated rather than indirectly conveyed through protest.
So, Trustees, as you meet and discuss big decisions on this campus, consider sitting down to lunch with us. We’d love to get to know you.