March 8, 2018

TRUSTEE VIEWPOINT | Running for Student Trustee

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This week marks the beginning of a campus-wide race for the next Graduate and Professional Student Trustee. While the official campaigning period remains on hold, graduate and professional students competing for this role are collecting petition signatures to secure their ballot spots. Many of the undergraduate, graduate and professional students who are asked to sign candidates’ petitions however, may not know what exactly a “student trustee” is. Questions that I frequently encountered included- what are the student trustees’ duties, who are their constituents and how does this election impact me?

Each year Cornell University undergraduate, graduate and professional students have the opportunity to elect a fellow student to serve on the university’s Board of Trustees. Cornell is one of the very few institutions in the nation to allow students to directly elect representatives to its highest governing body. Consisting of 64 board members — including corporate CEOs, government representatives, employees, faculty members and alumni — Cornell’s Board of Trustees is larger and more diverse than our peer institutions’. Whereas other colleges invite students to sit on their boards, attend meetings and discuss diverse initiatives, the two student elects on Cornell’s board hold full voting rights. This means that on issues regarding campus health, buildings and property, tuition and academic services, to name a few, the student trustees have real and concrete voices.

Cornell’s Board of Trustees is comprised of various committees and task forces. They include committees on academic affairs, student life, university relations, buildings and property, finance, and development. Joint Academic Affairs and Student Life Committee meetings discuss topics ranging from revised curriculum proposals to student health initiatives, student trustees have added to the discussion by presenting  presented issues ranging from student legal service and bystander intervention programs, to food insecurity and campus free speech. The student trustees provide an important pulse on the student community. I often find that despite the incredible skills, expertise, and enthusiasm that our board members bring to every meeting, they may lack a holistic student perspective on a variety of significant issues. That’s where the student trustees come in.

Student trustees have a fiduciary duty to the university. What this means is that student trustees must make decisions based on what’s in the university’s best interest. It’s this very fiduciary obligation, I believe, that enhances some community members’ skepticism of the Board. If you’re one of these skeptics, just know that I was once in your shoes. Having served on the Student Assembly as a Cornell undergrad, I jumped at the opportunity to become a professional student advocate as a law school student. I was initially confused by what it meant to be a fiduciary. I quickly learned, however, that doing what’s in the university’s best interest doesn’t mean belittling students’ needs. In fact, it means quite the opposite. Listening to engaged department heads, reading and analyzing data sets, synthesizing research and gaining senior trustees’ perspectives on decisions that impact students’ welfare are some of the greatest joys of being a student trustee.

As a student trustee I’ve become a more competent leader. I have learned how to more effectively convey my views and proposals; to contribute viable ideas in a room full of pioneers; to hold my ground despite cognizable disagreements; and to “toe the line” between my obligations to Cornell’s students and the university.

Outside of board meetings, student trustees may be asked to join campus task forces, coalitions or search committees. This week I was asked to sit on the Coalition on Mental Health. Having attended various meetings and spoken with students regarding mental health services and resources, it is my honor to be apart of this discussion. Serving on the Presidential Search Committee to help select our current president was another remarkable opportunity and the highlight of my first year on the board. Few other universities incorporate student voices into decisions of such great importance.

Serving as a student trustee has been the most rewarding part of my Cornell experience. I hope that this article encourages other students who believe in Cornell’s mission, core values and goals to join the race.

For additional details about running in the Spring 2018 Graduate and Professional Student Trustee Election, please check out the Office of Assemblies’ Website: Please be sure to read the “Trustee Nominating and Committee Election Rules,” before collecting petition signatures. Good luck!

Dara Brown ’13 is a second-year student at Cornell University Law School. She is the graduate student member of the Board of Trustees. Trustee Viewpoint appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.