October 29, 2013

FISCHER: The Accessibility of the Board of Trustees

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Last week, during the Trustee-Council Annual Meeting, I had the pleasure of attending a small meet-and-greet with a few trustees. The session was organized for “greek leaders” and it was fascinating to chat with a few of the influential Cornellians who shape the future direction of our alma mater. My prior perception of the Board of Trustees was that of a nebulous gathering of celestial, faceless figures in a post-fallout, arctic fortress of solitude. This gathering of contemporary luminaries, I figured, was concerned more with its own machinations than the everyday goings-on Far Above Cayuga’s Waters.

Based on my discussions with fellow students over the last two and a half years about the role trustees play in our daily lives, it seems that many share my lack of understanding. However, after spending just an hour with only a fraction of the 64-person Board, I feel like it is safe to say that the trustees care about the state of diversity and inclusion, the Greek system and other salient campus issues. They are not simply shadowy figures, engaged in back-room discussions but rather real, down-to-earth people.

If simply exchanging pleasantries with these extra-campus leaders could inspire a change in my perception of the Board, then presumably, a concerted effort on the part of the Board to connect with the campuses in Ithaca, New York City and Qatar would have an even greater effect of understanding on the student body. I encourage the Board to undertake an effort to connect with the students of these three campuses on a far more personal level. Whether this means publishing profiles of several of the trustees a month or engaging in more frequent face-to-face interactions, it could be enormously beneficial for inspiring the kinds of ambitious changes that are necessary for Cornell’s reputation as a world-class University.

President Skorton’s oft-quoted and sometimes-maligned pledge to “end pledging as we know it” in the Greek system, the current state of need-blind admission and the admittance of only qualified “legacy” students are all campus policy issues that the Board should help shape. A concerted effort to increase student awareness of the actions and duties of the Board of Trustees would help affect the changes that are necessary for the continuation of Cornell’s culture of excellence. To this end, I believe that there should be a greater deal of transparency surrounding the Board’s dealings. I searched online for minutes or even agendas from their meetings but I was unable to find anything. This should change if the Board wants to connect meaningfully with the student body.

Additionally, with increased student investment in these large campus issues, the Board of Trustees can also benefit from increased student involvement in policy issues. Although the position of student trustee is intended to bring a student’s perspective onto the Board, surely greater collaboration between campus denizens and trustees would only have positive consequences. A more inclusive decision making process, along with a humanized decision making force would surely ensure a greater investment in necessary and formative change.

The state of higher education in this nation seems to be at a crossroads. With the ephemeral spectre of “education reform” looming over the national discourse, the presence of an active Board of Trustees is critically important to ensure that Cornell remains a leader in education.