April 19, 2011

Your Student Trustees and You

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I know you are all celebrating the imminent, long-awaited addition of a campus pub to the Straight. What you don’t know is that furthermore, I promise to get the University administration to install vending machines dispensing beer in every dining hall on campus.  Okay, so maybe this isn’t middle school politics and there are some things that your elected leaders, the student members of the Cornell Board of Trustees, can’t do. There are a lot of ways in which we can represent you, however.

Because you read the opinion pages of The Sun, you have at least heard of the Board of Trustees, but how many of you actually know what that black box known as the “Board” does?  The Board articulates a vision and sets overarching policy for Cornell. According to Cornell’s charter, the trustees have “supreme control” over the University (good Lord, what would Freud say about this?). What, however, does this control mean in practice? It means that when Cornell is contemplating how best to serve its students, faculty and staff by articulating plans for an effective response to mental health concerns, the trustees are discussing and approving those plans. It means that when the campus community is wondering whether and how Cornell will meet its commitment to enhance diversity of Cornell students and employees, the trustees are thinking critically about what policies and programs we can implement to achieve these goals. It means that when Cornell is considering how best to live up to its strategic commitment to improve educational excellence, the trustees are examining and evaluating the effectiveness of faculty advising, service learning programs and departmental organization.

Trustees do exactly what their titles imply; they hold Cornell in trust. This means that they create broad policy that will help the University be the best institution it can be not only this year, but also 100 years from now.

We do not, however, manage the everyday decisions that occur on campus. For example, while we may identify an infrastructural need on campus and amend Cornell’s Capital Plan to include a building that will be started in 2028, we do not become involved in deciding the exact square-footage of each office in new construction projects.

The Board is currently considering the topic of means restriction on the bridges in Ithaca, but we are also overseeing a $4.5 billion endowment, a massive faculty hiring effort and a Medical School halfway around the world in a nation whose name most people can’t pronounce (just to offer a sampling of our responsibilities). Each trustee represents every student at Cornell. But he or she also represents every faculty and staff member, Cornell alumnus, Cornell parent and everyone with a vested interest in the Big Red. With over 250,000 alumni alone worldwide, trustees are in the position of representing a constituency about the size of the population of Wyoming.

You might be thinking that this is all well and good. Some people you don’t know are making decisions that you are not aware of, to ensure the future of a University you will no longer be at by the time many of the decisions are fully implemented. Why, then, am I talking to you about the Board of Trustees today? Because YOU elect two representatives to this Board. One graduate student (me) and one undergraduate student (the person you will elect next week) serve on the Board for two-year terms and have the same voting rights, speaking opportunities and agenda-setting capacity as any of the 62 other trustees with whom we work.

A chief responsibility of the student trustee is to understand what students think and why they think it, and then to decide how to best use that information. This is not an easy task considering that there are over 20,000 students on the Ithaca campus alone. One way in which the student trustees wish to make communication with the student body easier is through this new bi-weekly column in The Sun. The undergraduate student trustee and I will switch off writing this column, in which we will share with you major decisions about which the Board is thinking. We will also use this column as a platform for soliciting your advice.

It is wonderful that you have two students on your Board of Trustees; only eight percent of private institutions of higher education in the U.S. can claim this level of student involvement, and not even all of those schools afford their student trustees full voting privileges. What good is this representation, however, if you do not utilize it? I can try to solicit your opinions, but I cannot individually reach 20,000+ students. You can reach me, however. In an era when concerns about administrative decisions at Cornell are reported in The Sun almost daily, I hear surprisingly little from concerned students. I hold office hours in Manndible Café every Monday from 11:30-12:30 (I am the guy with the orange glasses, reading The Sun, and slobbering my “carnito” all over the table). You can also send me an e-mail or call my cell phone (my information is in the University directory).

I hope you now have a better understanding of the Board, and that you more clearly understand how you can use your trustees to make your voice heard on the highest level of University governance. If nothing else, at least take the time to have a say in who your next student trustee will be. The elections begin next Wednesday; all students will receive an e-mail with foolproof instructions on how to vote. Only 15 percent of students bothered to vote last year, when I was elected. If you are one of those people who bemoans all the Americans that allowed (insert a politician’s name here; my favorite is President Bush) to be elected because they didn’t vote, don’t be the hypocrite who chooses not to have a say in your representation on the Board come next Wednesday.

Darrick Nighthawk Evensen is a graduate student in the Department of Natural Resources and the graduate student-elected trustee. He may be reached at dte6@cornell.edu. Trustee Talk appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Darrick Nighthawk Evensen