For Universities to Thrive, Students Need a Seat at the Table

For Universities to Thrive, Students Need a Seat at the Table

For Universities to Thrive, Students Need a Seat at the Table

The board of trustees is one of the most influential decision-making bodies on a campus, yet many of them lack adequate student representation.

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At many universities, the board of trustees is the most important decision-making body on campus, overseeing the school’s budget, selecting presidents, and deciding the range of climate action the university pursues. The board at the University of Connecticut is no different, comprising 21 members with nine faculty representatives. Only two trustees are students themselves, with the vast majority of the board never feeling the effects of its decisions.

At UConn, activists have increasingly turned to the board as the object of their advocacy. “We know that the BoT is the group that is most powerful in making university wide decisions, especially those that are financial.” said Musa Hussain, UConn senior and president of the UConn Environmental Justice Front

In March, seven students held a sit-in during a BOT meeting to call for climate action while another group of students showed up to protest UConn’s handling of sexual assault cases. As students shared their concerns, the BOT chair attempted to cut students off and stop them from speaking. 

“Receiving so much pushback for simply trying to vocalize student issues was an incredibly difficult moment.” said Hannah Ravenell, UConn Senior and president of UConn Collaborative Organizing. “The board has the student speaking section more for show than because they actually are interested in student needs…. there was no empathy or concern for our well-being in having to fight to speak.”

According to a range student interviews, the lack of action from the UConn Board of Trustees on a host of issues has been frustrating. They have asked the board to take steps to fight sexual assault, racism, tuition increases, and more—with few results. “I feel that the Board of Trustees inherently does not have the interests of students and university employees in mind…. UConn is a capitalist entity with an ideology of endless, unsustainable growth” said Nell Srinath, UConn junior and president and founder of the student organization UConn UNCHAIN. “The board will always come down on the side of increasing tuition, cutting employee benefits when it can, and making UConn more attractive to private investment.”  

According to Damani Douglas, senior at UConn and one of the two students on the board, the BOT has, in fact, had a fair number of accomplishments. “I feel in my brief time, we have made significant progress on student concerns, especially in electing a university president and securing a climate pledge.” Douglas does however agree that expanded student representation would be beneficial to the university. “All stakeholders should have meaningful representation on the Board.”

According to UConn spokesperson Stephanie Ritz though, “no trustee is on the board to represent any one ‘constituency,’ including students. The role of every trustee is to act in the best interests of the university as a whole.” Among the top public universities, said Ritz, only one includes more than two voting student members. “The presence of students on governing boards reflects the value that these institutions…place on student voices. However, the fact that only one institution includes more than two voting student members also reflects the importance of having experienced leadership on university governing boards.” 

For students coast to coast, the lack of proportional representation is a problem. While UConn does have both a graduate and undergraduate student representative, many universities have only one student on their board of trustees—with some having none at all. Last August, Howard University students expressed frustration after the Board of Trustees voted to eliminate their single student position. Over 1,500 people signed a petition, created by the Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter at Howard, to reverse the board’s decision and reinstate the student representative. “It is imperative that the student voice is not muzzled or silenced. There can be no investment in Howard if that investment does not directly include students. WE are Howard University.”

In October, Eleanor Clemans-Cope explained in The Princetonian how the structure of Princeton University’s board—which has no current students—lacked transparency and accountability. “The Board is dangerously antidemocratic and opaque. Two-thirds of the Trustees, often big-dollar donors, are appointed by the Board itself.” A series of articles by Divest Princeton highlighted these donations, specifically in relation to the fossil fuel industry. “From 2007 to 2020, at least 12 former and current members of the Board gave large sums to Princeton (often through linked or family foundations) totaling more than $74.7 million.” 

At New York University, students criticized the school for “poor decisions that haven’t put students first” during the pandemic. “This present crisis has shown that student representation at every level of governance is needed.” In 2021 this criticism was followed by calls for increased transparency in recruitment of trustees; democratization of the board, especially as related to divestment from fossil fuels; and renewed calls from the student government for greater representation. As of now, the Board of Trustees still contains no student representatives. 

In April, Nora Van Horn wrote for The Nation about the lack of climate action from the Board of Trustees at Penn State—and the need to elect alumni who would prioritize the issue. “Penn State’s highest governing body, the 38-person Penn State Board of Trustees—which is overwhelmingly wealthy, white, male, and over 65—is the body that ultimately makes decisions on behalf of the Penn State community.” Students, staff, and alumni launched Penn State Forward, a group advocating for inclusive governance. Alumni elected the Penn State Forward candidate, Dr. Christa Hasenkopf, a fellow alumn and atmospheric scientist, in May. 

Could Penn State Forward’s strategy be replicated at other universities? For years, the undergraduate student government fought for expanded student representation at UConn. As it is a state school, adding more student representatives requires the state legislature and the governor—who is a member of the Board of Trustees—to pass and sign a bill expanding the board. In 2015, such a bill was vetoed by then-Governor Daniel Malloy. “There are many avenues for student input in the decisions affecting the student community at the university,” wrote Malloy. In 2018, another bill was introduced into the Connecticut House of Representatives, with the university strongly opposed. UConn submitted testimony opposing the bill, citing the need for experienced and unbiased leaders. It was never brought to a vote. Another bill was introduced again in 2019, but similarly failed.

But organizers are still fighting for expanded representation. “There are so many student organizations doing such amazing work on [UConn’s] campus in efforts to better the student body,” said Ravenell. “We will not accept less than what we believe to be possible.”

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