September 29, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Resuming the Student-Elected Trustee Election

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Cornell is a unique institution in many ways. Our combination of private and public colleges, our incredibly beautiful campus and our ideal of “Any Person, Any Study” are just a few examples of this. We are also unique in the fact that our Board of Trustees, the highest governing body of our institution, seats students as full voting members. Traditionally, there are two student-elected trustees one of whom must be an undergraduate student and the other who must be either a graduate or professional student. I have served as the Graduate and Professional Student-Elected Trustee on the Board for the last 2 years, and the student body would have elected my replacement this past Spring. Unfortunately, given the unexpected direction our semester took due to a global pandemic, this election was understandably postponed. I am excited to announce that we are restarting this election, and, as such, I hope to provide the student community with insight not only into the role of our student-elected trustees but also into the election process.

As I mentioned earlier, student-elected trustees are full voting members of the Board with the same rights and responsibilities as Board elected members. Our 64 member board consists of experts in a wide variety of disciplines — finance, construction, health care, research and innovation, communications, law and many more. We meet throughout the year to discuss several issues impacting Cornell, such as tuition and academic offerings, community health and student services. Despite the breadth of expertise, many trustees are no longer at Cornell, and, consequently, are not fully aware of the student experience. It is the responsibility of our student-elected trustees to help bridge this gap in knowledge. Our most important role is to share the experiences and opinions of the student body to our fellow Board members, so that they may factor this in when making decisions.

To do this, we attend and vote in all full Board meetings and the Board committee meetings for those we serve on. We each present issues directly to the Student Life Committee, which elevates them to the forefront of Board members’ minds, and we also organize several events throughout the year designed to bring trustees and students together to directly share their opinions and concerns. Outside of our formal Board responsibilities, we often are asked to sit on University committees, campus task forces or search committees to once again represent the student perspective. To me, our role is best described as both a facilitator and a storyteller. We always try to create opportunities for students to speak for themselves directly to the Board, but, if that is not possible, it’s our responsibility to convey their thoughts.

However, there is a key difference though between our position and responsibilities as student-elected trustees and those of other student leaders. As Board members, we have a fiduciary responsibility to the University. We must make decisions and vote accordingly based on what is in the University’s best interests. We are there to provide insight into the student experience, but 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. Often the fiduciary interests of the university align with student interests; however, it would be dishonest to say that they always do. It is these moments that make this role particularly difficult. Further exacerbating this is that all board members are required to sign non-disclosure agreements, which means we cannot share either our vote or our motivations.

The student-elected trustee position is a difficult but important one. 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. You will learn just how many people truly care about making Cornell a better place, and you will also see how complex a process that really can be. This role comes with many responsibilities and limitations, but it is truly a privilege to represent the student body in this way.

If you are a graduate or professional student interested in this position, I encourage you to apply. Both the election procedures and calendar can be found online, and I encourage anyone with specific questions to reach out to the Committee for Campus-Constituency-Elected Trustees ([email protected]) who manages this election. The call for candidates extends until October 14th, after which campaigning will officially kick off. While only graduate and professional students are allowed to run for this position, it is vital to note that ALL students may vote in this election, and I strongly encourage you to do so (you will receive a link via email once voting starts). Our institution is going to face many difficult questions in the next two years, and it is crucial we have the student perspective accurately represented to the Board of Trustees.

We are incredibly fortunate to be able to elect students to serve as full voting members on the Board. I can honestly say that during my tenure, my opinion, perspective and insight was truly sought after by my fellow Board members. Consequently, I know how important this role can be. If you are eligible and interested in this position, I encourage you to learn more and potentially run. The campaign process is truly a wonderful way to learn more about your fellow students and their experiences. For everyone else, please explore the eventual candidates’ platforms and viewpoints, and I hope you will cast your vote during the election process the first week of November.

Manisha Munasinghe is the graduate and professional student-elected member of the Board of Trustees, and a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester.