Unlike its fellow Ivy League peers, Cornell stands alone as the only university to have a student in its Board of Trustees, which is composed of 64 voting members. We elect two trustees, a graduate and an undergraduate student, for two-year terms.
Once elected, each member signs a non-disclosure agreement. What this means is that board discussions, reasoning for decisions and the way in which each member votes is confidential.
Take what you will from the justification for NDAs by current student-elected trustees Dustin Liu ’19 and Manisha Munasinghe grad, who in their Sun column said, “[The NDA] 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.”
Unlike the Student Assembly or other governing bodies on campus, the student-elected trustee holds a unique apportionment of power: The student-elected trustee wields more power and less accountability.
This year’s election season has kicked into full swing. This year, 10 candidates sought three hundred signatures for the petition to be eligible for candidacy and were approved to run.
Facebook pages, websites with custom domain names, Instagrams, flyers, quarter cards, names and slogans blasted everywhere promote each candidate. Accompanying the flurry of advertisements is a robust set of campaign promises, some of which are problematic and antithetical to the actual role of the student-elected trustee. What we need is a quick clarification of the role of a trustee. Typically, specific policies and platform ideas are a valuable means to demonstrate accountability and initiative for change. However, in a student-trustee role that does not allow for pushing policies, policy-based campaigning is extraneous: It serves only to broadcast false promises and garner likeability with voters.
The role of student-elected trustee is not to bring to the Board of Trustees an agenda, a list of policies to implement nor boost specific initiatives. The student-elected trustee is a liaison between the Board, which sits higher than Cornell’s administration, and the student body. This trustee will serve as a conduit between the two groups, channeling communication between students to the Board and vice versa. It will facilitate the relationship between the student body and the Board, and further broadcast student voices. Realistically, the student-elected trustee will be one of 64 seats at the table, not a pioneer spearheading campus reform.
The Board is enshrined with bureaucratic politics: The student-elected trustee must gain the trust and respect of fellow trustees by oftentimes assimilating to the majority vote. An uncompromising, stout agenda that does not benefit the University as a whole will not fly at the Board. Campaign promises such as lowering the rate of tuition hikes, giving $9,500 more in financial aid to students, stopping the increasing rate of enrollment and terminating video lecture courses by professors will not be given the time of day. The trustee holds a fiduciary duty to the university, meaning that when short-term student interests are pitted against university interests, so the trustee has a duty to vote in favor of the University’s long-term financial interests.
Thus, the student-elected trustee must advocate for framing student interests as university interests. The trustee must serve to amplify student voice and concern, to advocate for students and illuminate the student perspective for the Board, but not be so presumptuous as to expect to logroll a series of policy promises.
Here’s what we need from our student-elected trustee: Breadth and depth at Cornell. First and foremost, the trustee must be able to reach out to the wide variety of student groups on campus. They must be able to advocate for the whole of the student body and the niche groups affected by each issue brought to the board. Versatility is key and the ability to represent students from all corners of campus is vital. In regard to depth, the trustee must have knowledge and familiarity with our unique campus and its issues — an awareness with Cornell that can only come from time logged on campus, both in and out of the classroom.
We encourage students to attend the Student Trustee Debate on Wednesday, March 20 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in the Willard Straight Hall Memorial Room. And we encourage students to be wary of empty, unrealistic policy promises.
The role of student-elected trustee, though limited as it stands today, has the potential to redefine the relationship of university boards and student bodies everywhere. It offers a unique seat at the table — one seldom offered. The lack of transparency on the Board can be reconciled through greater accountability by the student-elected trustee. Instead of brandishing unwieldy campaign promises, candidates should prioritize bringing accessibility and communication to the role, enabling them to embody and to represent us to yet a far greater degree.
Laura DeMassa and Canaan Delgado are sophomores at Cornell University. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Double Take appears every other Tuesday.