More Students Should Be on the Board of Trustees

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD

On April 8, the SGA passed a bill requesting the addition of a second student constituent to the college board of overseers. This initiative arose in response to what the bill identifies as “limited and lacking student representation and consequential engagement with the Middlebury college board of trustees,” and aims to increase student involvement in the college’s decision-making process.

But the Patton administration has final say in the matter. In the spirit of collective governance, the administration should embrace the plan — but not just stop there. Inside and outside the boardroom, trustees need more points of contact with students, especially when they make decisions that impact the student experience.

Middlebury’s governance structure can be confusing, but in short the trustees oversee the institution’s long-term health. The board of trustees is split up into three boards of overseers: one for the undergraduate college, one for the language and abroad schools, and one for the Monterey Institute. Several trustees make up the college board of overseers, as well as one faculty member, one staff member and a number of partners.

As it stands, the SGA president serves as the sole student constituent to the college board of overseers enjoys no voting power. This bill aims not only to add a second student, but to grant both the ability to vote. In addition, the board of trustees has six standing committees: prudential, programs, resources, trusteeship and governance, and risk and strategy. If approved, the plan will add student representatives to the programs, risk and strategy standing committees.

On Monday, the editorial board met with the co-authors of the resolution, SGA president Jin Sohn ’18 and chief of staff Ish Alam ’18 to discuss the value of student constituents.

“Speaking from my own time on the board,” Sohn said, “I can attest to the fact that there’s not a lot of student representation.” Still, she went on to detail how her experiences with trustees have been positive.

“I feel as though they always want the conversation to keep going on,” she said, “like they’re genuinely interested in what students have to say.”

Still, the trustees can always benefit from firsthand input about campus life — input that extends beyond informal meals and into the boardroom itself.

The bill aims to increase the term length of student constituents as well, a smart way to better integrate students onto the board. Under the current system, the SGA president serves on the board for a single year (in other words, for three meetings). Under the new bill, this term would be extended to two years, such that student constituents overlap for a year. This is a sensible solution to ensuring the kind of continuity that faculty and staff constituents already have.

As the bill proposes, students should be better prepared for the processes involved with sitting on the board. They would be able to more effectively establish meaningful relationships with other board members. This is crucial; in the past, Sohn explained, the board has been against having a larger student proxy because board members have to feel comfortable in the room in order to engage in constructive conversations. With longer terms, both board members and students will feel more established in their roles, allowing each to speak freely.

This plan would make students privy to upcoming changes, and thus better able to stand up for student interests when it matters. This is particularly important with standing committees, where many of the ideas which actually come into effect on campus originate. For instance, when the construction of a new temporary building to house the computer science department was first floated, no student was present. Since such a change will affect students’ lives, this seems like an unacceptable disconnect. 

Voting power is perhaps the most democratic way to give students more say in Middlebury’s governance. “There’s indisputable value when it comes to having a student in the room,” Alam said. While he and Sohn acknowledged that voting power may be a long shot with this administration, we commend the SGA for including the idea. Though it may seem ideal, it’s actually feasible. A substantial student voice in college affairs is necessary; even better if it were met with voting power.

The bill specifies the appointment of two student constituents. Indeed, it’s difficult to pick two students to stand in for such a diverse student body. We urge the SGA to consider carefully who would best serve as student constituents — students of color, for example, or those who have demonstrated a passion for Middlebury but might not be considered a “typical” student. Also, the two year term might eliminate juniors who want to go abroad. To that end, it might make sense to elect rising seniors, who could serve their last year and then the year after they graduate.

The SGA’s plan must be part of a larger project of widening communication channels between the board of trustees and students. This means more frequent events, both informal meals and focused meetings — not only with athletes or first-generation students but a wider sampling of Middlebury students. Before deciding policy on particular issues, like divestment, the trustees could even invite knowledgeable students to present in the boardroom — where the decisions themselves are made.

Finally, we call for more clarity and transparency within the trustees’ decision-making process. Adding student constituents to the board is a necessary — and long overdue — first step in putting governance at Middlebury closer to the students, but it should not stop there. We urge the administration to approve the SGA’s plan, and to work proactively to increase transparency on all levels between students and trustees.

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.