Dara Brown ’13 law ’18, the outgoing graduate and professional student-elected trustee, reflected on her time on Cornell’s Board of Trustees in an interview with The Sun, encouraging students to get involved in something meaningful to them.
Brown said that throughout her term as a trustee, she has seen that the University’s best interest and students’ best interest often overlap.
“I think that the notion that [student trustees] have a fiduciary duty to the University still stands,” Brown told The Sun. During her time on the board, Brown said “that most of the time when you’re making a decision that’s in the best interest of the University, it’s also in the best interest of the students, even if it’s not what the students feel is the best interest at that time.”
She also explained that she believes “a lot of the times, the trustees are on the same page as students.” When news arises “in a negative way” on campus, it “isn’t necessarily something that the trustees supported,” she said, citing the example of the recent idea for a merger between the ILR school and the human ecology college.
“For the merger between ILR and Human Ecology for example, there was no support vocalized at our last meeting regarding that,” Brown said. “Yet, when the news hits The Sun or other outlets, there’s an underlying idea that this has been backed by the board.”
Brown said that in the future, student trustees could work on the issue of “enhanced transparency” to keep students, faculty and administrators informed on board sentiments “so they’re not kept guessing or thinking the absolute worst.”
Brown looked back on a column she penned for The Sun in January 2017 following the election of President Donald Trump and the subsequent Women’s March, in which she wrote on the need for students to use their voices for positive change. She lauded the “strong coordination” and “intelligent efforts” that students put forth during her term to make sure that their voices were heard.
“I think students have definitely mobilized in ways that maybe we didn’t believe they could mobilize,” she said. “We’re students, and we’re students first so when you see, you know, people doing weeklong demonstrations after the hate crimes, it’s pretty incredible.”
Brown also commented on the consensual relationship policy debate, saying she thinks the policy process has been “handled excellently.”
“Anna [Waymack grad] and the Dean of Faculty [Charles] Van Loan are doing a terrific job in continually, continually analyzing their proposed changes and taking comments and incorporating them and presenting to the assemblies,” she told The Sun. “I think it’s been a really amazing process so far, so I look forward to seeing their final product on a much-needed change.”
Brown also noted that she “really respect[s]” President Martha E. Pollack’s decision that if a policy is not passed by the end of this year, she will “put her best efforts to get one passed by the board.”
“I think that that shows kind of her commitment to the issue as well,” she said.
Reflecting on her role as the graduate and professional student-elected trustee compared to the role of the undergraduate student-elected trustee, Brown noted that “it’s a lot of overlap, but there are some differences.”
For example, Brown mentioned how issues like housing or diversity and inclusion can affect both undergraduate and graduate and professional student communities, but with differences, like structural ones.
“The graduate community itself is more spread out than the undergraduate community, so sometimes it is more difficult to get a united pulse on what students are feeling,” Brown said. “And the issues vary per school, and so professional schools will have different issues than graduate school, and the ways to resolve those issues … also vary significantly.”
One of her greatest challenges as a trustee was reaching out to “as many communities as possible” and gaining their perspectives on important issues, Brown said.
“There’s always a feeling like you could be doing more to gauge student perspectives,” she said.
Brown attributed some of the drop in the number of candidates running for student-elected trustee to potential fears of the responsibilities of the position or the concern that students who serve as trustees will lose their “activist voice.”
However, Brown said she has “found that the board really does listen to the student trustee and take what they say to heart.”
“You know, when the students speak, the boardroom kind of pauses and listens,” she said.
In the future, Brown said, stronger efforts should be made to publicize the trustee elections so students who might not know about the position can participate.
“There’s a lot of campus leaders out there who would definitely fit the mold of a trustee and be wonderful in the position who maybe aren’t on the GPSA or student government, maybe didn’t go here for undergrad as myself, but would be really amazing voices on the board,” she told The Sun. “So figuring out how to reach back out to those individuals I think would increase participation in the election.”
Brown, who said that being able to serve as trustee has been “wonderful,” encouraged students to “get involved in something they’re passionate about.”
“You should definitely become a part of something that you can put your whole heart into,” she said. “That’s where you’ll be the best decision-maker and make decisions that you feel proud of at the end of the day.”