April 16, 2009

Gaining a Student Voice on the Board of Trustees

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The entrance to Willard Straight Hall is always a contested spot for student chalkings, including those painstakingly colored by students competing for a seat in the Board of Trustees every spring semester. At the very same spot only a generation ago, African-American students, loaded with rifles, paraded out of the Straight after taking over the building on April 21, 1969. This armed movement helped bring student representation to Cornell’s highest governing body, though to what extent is a hotbed for debate.
Robert Gottlieb ’72, who is one of the first Student-Elected Trustees in 1971, believed that the initiative to include students to the board was a direct result of the Straight takeover.
“[There is] no question about it, because what the Straight Takeover did was it burst the false image of a tranquil University with an idyllic campus.” Gottileb told The Sun in an interview last month. “You can’t have a real understanding of the problems on campus affecting students unless the students are in a position to have the ear of the men and women who are going to ultimately vote on various proposals.”
The very first student to serve in the Board of Trustees, however, begged to differ. Ezra Cornell ’70, the eldest lineal male descendant of the University’s namesake and founder, was appointed as an undergraduate in accordance to the University Charter. According to Cornell, his position “has nothing to do with the political unrest on campus [in 1969],” and he stressed that no single event contributed to the creation of student-elected positions in the Board.
“It’s an advance. But students didn’t come out [of the Straight] with guns saying ‘we need student trustees,’” said Cornell, who became a trustee when he turned 21 in 1969.
Instead, the need to improve communication, he emphasized, was one of the primary reasons: “A large part of all those political crises back then would have to do with communication and what I call ‘misguided feelings’ people held. It was not just students. Faculty, staff, townspeople were upset about a lot of things,” Cornell said. “Electing students and employees [to the Board] was one of the many things that would help improve communication.”
Following the Straight takeover, the Cornell community made serious efforts to reflect upon the governance of the University. The Constituent Assembly — comprised of elected students, faculty and staff — concluded from research that the Board of Trustees was “insensitive to the needs of the campus” and perceived to be “an in-grown, private club,” wrote former student trustee Robert Platt ’73 in an article that was published in The Sun on May 12, 1981.
As a result, a 50-member compromise committee drafted a plan. Apart from the creation of a University Senate, the plan also suggested replacing 10 board-elected trustees with four student trustees, a faculty trustee elected by the student body, a non-tenured faculty trustee, and four outside trustees elected by the Senate. Although the board initially only passed a watered-down version of the plan, it later compromised after the Assembly canceled the Senate elections and spent a month negotiating directly with the board. Approximately a year after the board signed an agreement to work towards the addition of 10 new trustees, the first student trustee election was held in early 1971.
Since the very inception of the position in 1971, all student trustees have also shared full and equal voting rights with the rest of the board. To this day, among its peer institutions, Cornell is the only university in which its student trustees are also voting members of the board, according to Tommy Bruce, vice president of communications.
Despite slight fluctuations, five student-elected trustees would typically serve on the 62-member board from 1971 to 1984. But following a proposal in 1982, the board’s membership was significantly reduced from 62 to 42, while the number of student-elected trustees fell from five to two. From 1985 onwards, two students would serve on every board.
The proportion of students in the Board — from five in a board of 62 to two in a board of 42 — was not significantly affected by its reduction in 1985. But today, while there are two student seats in each Board, the total number of trustees has been increased to 64.
Cornell, a trustee for life, emphasized that the board’s reduction in size in the 80s was aimed to increase its efficiency. Walter Hlawitschka ’82, who served as a student trustee from 1981 to 1983, concurred. He emphasized that the board’s contraction in size was not targeted towards students.
Articles from The Sun’s archives dating back to the early 1980s show evidence that student trustees then had a strained relationship with the board’s chairman Jansen Noyes Jr. ’39. Noyes told The Sun in an article dated April 7, 1981 that the board would benefit by eliminating its five student seats. He also commented that some student trustees had been using their positions to “create problems and personal ego trips … It has been damaging to the effectiveness of the Board.” The article also stated that “Noyes said problems with the student trustees have been growing over the years.”
Hlawitschka agreed that Noyes’ relationship with student trustees was strained. However, he added that the board’s reduction happened after Noyes’ tenure and that Noyes had no influence over the decision.
“Noyes was not very accepting to students on the board, but that was just his personality … He really didn’t have much interest in [these] students … He would be happy, if he had an excuse, not to have student input,” Hlawitschka said.
Hlawitschka also explained that there was “a fair amount of activity among student trustees. … There was controversy when student trustees participated with non-student trustees to sue the University. That could be why [Noyes] might have said student trustees were disruptive.”
Even so, Hlawtischka also said that other trustee members were “surprisingly very welcoming and curious. … We are able to develop a good relationship. We are not adversaries, but venturers of the same team.”
While emphasizing that their opinions are well-respected by the board, the two current student trustees both agreed that more could be achieved if there was an extra pair of hands to help with their heavy workload.
“Work is piling up for both student trustees,” said student-elected trustee Mike Walsh, grad. “It’s certainly a challenge. I certainly would love the extra help. … For the two student trustees, we often have to pick and choose what things to work on. It’s a pretty daunting task to be fully prepared for each board meeting and the several committees which we serve on.”
Undergraduate student-elected trustee Kate Duch ’09 stated in an e-mail: “As a student-elected trustee, I abandoned all of my extracurricular activities to devote all of my energy to this position. However, our undergraduate student body is so diverse and our experiences are so varied that one student cannot address all of the issues that are important to him or her during a two-year term. I would have loved to have had the opportunity to work with another undergraduate student during my term.”
Duch further explained that the Board should ideally consist of three students: two undergraduates and one graduate student.
Gottlieb, who also served as the University’s first student-elected trustee in the board’s executive committee, argued that the removal of a requirement for having students in the board of trustees’ executive committee would “significantly dilute the influence of students.”
“The executive committee is the heart and soul of University governance. … It is the first line of offense and defense for the University. It sets the agenda of the full board meetings. It is very significant to have a requirement that one student must serve on the executive committee,” Gottlieb said. “The board is sending a loud message, that student involvement is not as important as back then,” he added.
The executive committee, which is entrusted by the whole board to make decisions between the full board meetings, is one of the board’s many committees. Diana Daniels ’71, the current chairperson of the executive committee, said that trustees who are not on the committee are welcome to and often do participate in the committee’s meetings.
“Often times the student trustees do come to the executive committee meetings,” Daniels said.
She also stressed that “when you become a member, you take responsibility for the University as a whole. … You don’t just represent your constituencies. For example, I am an alumni-elected trustee. I knew when I took the responsibility that I don’t just represent alumni issues.”
A typical executive committee meeting would include, but not limited to, going through reports from the president and the provost, discussing budgets and matters related to hiring, compensation and property. The only time when the committee convenes in private is when it discusses executive compensation.
Current members of the executive committee, appointed by the board’s chairman and the committee on board membership, are mostly leaders of the board’s many other committees, according to Daniels.
Both current student trustees agreed that it is not necessary to have student trustees as members of the executive committee, as they could attend the committee’s meetings.
“It’s good to have a good small group of the board’s leaders to make those decisions [such as executive compensation],” Walsh said. “To be frank, working with executive compensation is not something I’m interested in. There are other things that I want to do in my tenure. I’m happy to leave that to the experts.”
Hlawtischka said that he did not recall any rule dictating the number of student trustees in the executive committee, but there was a general consensus that one student trustee would be a member of the committee.
“We [the student trustees] got together amongst ourselves to decide what committee we wanted to serve on,” Hlawtischka said. “There was an understanding that one student will be in each important committee.”