April 19, 2010

A True Student Voice

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Starting this morning and lasting until 10 a.m. on Thursday, all Cornell students have the opportunity to elect a fellow student to serve as a member of the University’s Board of Trustees. Cornell University is the only Ivy League school that allows students to serve as full voting members of its board.

The board has supreme control over the University. It elects the president and offers advice on the operation of the University. The board, as the highest governing body at Cornell, certifies an annual financial plan and can create academic programs. The day to day operations of the University are delegated to the president and administrators while faculty are delegated powers over matters of academic policy.

The board assigns part of its duties to 11 committees. The most visible of these committees include: Student Life, which reviews topics around the student experience; Academic Affairs, which focuses on the educational and research programs of the University and is also the final step in the tenure approval process; and Buildings and Properties, which approves the design and construction of new buildings and renovations. Additionally the board delegates authority to the Board of Overseers on matters relating to the Weill Cornell Medical College, which also has student and faculty representation.

Cornell’s board is relatively large, comprising of 64 members. As with many state-affiliated colleges, the Governor of New York sits is an ex-officio member of the board, as do the Speaker of the State Assembly and the President Pro Tem of the State Senate. Since it is impossible for anything to get done with these three guys in the same capitol building, let alone the same room, they usually send deputies in their place. Also ex-officio is Cornell University President David Skorton.

The eldest lineal descendant of Ezra Cornell is given life membership.  Ezra Cornell IV ’70 has been sitting in this role since 1969. He technically was the first student trustee and paved the way for the student-elected trustees to ascend to the board with full voting rights in 1971.

The governor, in addition to being ex-officio, can appoint three trustees. The alumni elect eight trustees. Two trustees are elected by the faculty of Ithaca and Geneva, and one by the employees. Students elect two, one graduate and one undergraduate.

The remaining 43 trustees are chosen by the board. At least two members each of the fields of agriculture, business and labor must be represented in this group.

Student trustees serve a two-year term, while all other trustees typically serve terms of four years.

The Willard Straight Hall takeover and the tumultuous state of higher education in the 60s serve as a prologue to the inclusion of students on the board. In 1971 the board was expanded to include representation from both students and faculty. Five student positions were created. One was a member of the medical school’s student body. Two were directly elected by the Cornell student body and two were appointed by the University Senate.

The faculty trustees at the time represented both tenured and non-tenured faculty. One faculty trustee was even elected by the students. A position for a community member who was unaffiliated with Cornell was also established. In 1975 the position of employee-elected trustee was added to the board.

As you can tell this system got very complicated and did not accurately reflect the non-constituency role of trustees. In the early 1980s the board membership size was reduced, and the Board of Overseers was created for the medical college. The student, faculty and staff trustee positions were reduced to their current levels and roles. The board then expanded to its current size of 64 in the early 1990s without increasing the number of faculty staff and student trustees.

This is not to say that the voice of the students has diminished. The two student trustees can be some of the most influential members of the board. Student trustee opinions are taken seriously, since we are elected by the body that will be most affected by the board’s decisions. The trustees of the University truly take their role seriously, and respect the voices of their student peers.

Please take five minutes today or tomorrow to review both of the student candidates and then cast your vote. They have both garnered significant amounts of experience representing Cornell students in various roles and each presents an excellent vision for their term as student trustee. Learning about the candidates and voting can be accomplished with a couple clicks at https://assembly.cornell.edu/vote.

In addition to the election of student trustee, there is also a referendum to amend the University Assembly’s charter (the current charter still contains a requirement of 20 percent voter turnout to be considered a valid election). The referendum will eliminate the requirement that the University Assembly conduct a referendum in order to amend portions of its charter. This will allow the U.A. to more efficiently restructure itself, addressing changing University needs while still being accountable to the students of Cornell. I encourage all students to vote yes on the referendum.

Original Author: Michael Walsh