Cornell University’s Board of Trustees is unique in its inclusion of students as full voting members. Of our Ivy League peers, we are the only one to seat students on our Board even though many other student communities have argued for a similar position. Other academic institutions may allow students to elect a representative to serve on their Board, but Cornell is one of the few institutions to seat not one but two students. One student-elected trustee must be an undergraduate student while the other must be either a graduate or a professional student. Regardless of their academic status, both student-elected trustees represent the student community as a whole. It is worth noting that Cornell continues to seat students on the Board despite the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges stating that it “does not support the inclusion of students as voting board members.” While some argue against the inclusion of students as Board members, Cornell continues to stand by this practice. Student-elected trustees provide a perspective to the Board that it would not otherwise have, and Cornell is able to make more informed decisions with our inclusion than without.
In the next few weeks, the Cornell student community will be electing a new undergraduate student-elected trustee. While only undergraduate students can run for this position, all undergraduate, graduate, and professional students can vote. All relevant election material is now available online, and there will be an Information Session for any interested parties on Monday, March 4 at 5 p.m. in 316 Day Hall. We have decided to jointly write this Trustee Viewpoint to make clear what exactly the student-elected trustees do as we both recognize that the responsibilities of our role may be unclear to a number of students. While we cannot fully encapsulate all that we do in this one piece, we hope that this provides some insight to students interested in the position.
We are full voting members of the board with the same rights and responsibilities as Board elected members. The 64 member board — consisting of experts in finance, construction, health care, research, technology, communications and law — meets four times a year to address a variety of issues impacting Cornell, such as tuition and academic services, campus physical and mental health, student services and property development. Despite their breadth of expertise, many trustees are no longer at Cornell. As such, they may be disconnected from the lived experience of students. It is the responsibility of the student-elected trustees to help bridge this gap. In order to be effective, we must be informed. Therefore, it is our responsibility to stay up to date on issues affecting students and to hear directly from students as frequently as possible.
To share this perspective, we are required to attend and vote in all full Board meetings and the Board committee meetings for those committees we serve on. We each get to present an issue to the Student Life Committee, which allows us to bring matters to the forefront of the Board members’ minds. Additionally, we work together to organize events designed to bring trustees and students together to discuss the student experience at Cornell. Our goal is to create as many opportunities as possible for trustees to hear directly from students. In addition to Board meetings, we are often routinely asked to sit on University committees, campus task forces, or search committees. This may not be a direct responsibility of the student-elected trustees, but it is yet another important way in which we can serve the Cornell student community.
Finally, it would be negligent of us not to highlight two key differences between student-elected trustees and other student leaders. As Board members, we have a fiduciary responsibility to the University. This means that we must make decisions and vote accordingly based on what is in the University’s best interests. While we are there to provide insight into the student experience, we must take a holistic approach to decision making. This often means listening to faculty and staff needs, analyzing national trends and scholarly research and seeking the views of recognized experts. Very often the fiduciary interests of the University align with student interests; however, it would be dishonest of us to say that fiduciary decision making always aligns with how students want us to vote. It is these moments that are the most difficult as student-elected trustees.
This problem is exacerbated by the fact that we are also required to sign non-disclosure agreements — a requirement of all board members, not just the student-elected trustees. We cannot share what is discussed during Board meetings, which very often means we cannot share the discussions that influenced our vote. There are good reasons for this requirement. It allows Board members to honestly discuss problems, bounce new and innovative ideas off of each other and safeguard the University’s long term strategies and plans in order to remain competitive with our peer institutions. But it also means that we cannot explain to students how we voted and what motivated our decision. The pressure to share what takes place during the Board meetings is strong, as you will repeatedly be asked about it. If you want to be an effective trustee, you must abide by these rules or risk being left out of conversations that impact students.
Despite these limitations, serving as a student-elected trustee is an extremely fulfilling experience. You will learn more about Cornell and how it operates than you could ever imagine. You will gain experience gathering information, constructing positions, and conveying your views. You will meet a diverse community of students, faculty, staff and alumni who will broaden your perspective on what it means to be a Cornellian. The responsibility to serve the student community to the best of your ability is not one that should be taken lightly, but, if you commit to that responsibility, you will grow and learn from this experience in ways we cannot convey.
We encourage any interested student to peruse the election material and to attend the information session next. If you have any additional questions, please feel free to reach out to either of us. Both of us would love to share our perspectives and experiences to the best of our ability.
Manisha Munasinghe is the graduate and professional student-elected member of the Board of Trustees, and a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University. Munasinghe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Dustin Liu is the undergraduate student-elected member of the Board of Trustees and a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at email@example.com. Trustee Viewpoint runs every other week this semester.