Five student candidates for the undergraduate trustee position on the Board of Trustees discussed their platforms and qualifications in a Wednesday, April 26 forum moderated by Sun editor-in-chief Angela Bunay ’24.
Each year, the Office of Assemblies holds an election for a student position on the Board of Trustees, the highest governing board at Cornell. Undergraduate and graduate students are each represented by one seat, held by a student for two years, elected in alternating years. This year, the undergraduate position is open, which means both the candidates and the electorate will consist entirely of undergraduate students.
The student who wins the position will hold a two-year term running from July 1 of this year to July 30, 2025, where they will participate in committees and hold full voting power alongside the other Trustees. According to the 2023 Student Trustee Election website, Cornell is among the few institutions in the U.S. to allow their students to hold such a powerful position.
The Board of Trustees, headed by President Martha Pollack, serves as the most influential governing body at Cornell — serving as the executive decision makers on all aspects of the University’s functioning, according to Cornell’s bylaws. The Board of Trustees is made of 64 members that include alumni, students, faculty, Cornell workers, business people, agriculturalists and the eldest descendant of Ezra Cornell — among others. With terms spanning from two years to lifelong appointment, Trustees on the board approve the annual budget and financial plans and make the final call on all major University decisions.
The year’s eligible candidates are Andrew Juan ’25, Bahram Mehretu ’26, Audrey Pinard ’25, Veronica Lewis ’25 and J.P. Swenson ’25. A sixth candidate, Heily Gonzalez ’26, dropped out of the race this week.
According to the 2023 election website, candidates must be a full-time undergraduate student registered in good standing throughout their two-year term.
Among other requirements, candidates must also petition for at least 150 undergraduate signatures and attend the candidate forum. At the forum, candidates were asked seven questions about experience, relations with other trustees and the University, constituent needs and priorities for their term.
Juan is a sophomore in the Brooks School of Public Policy who is running on a platform of improving health, access and spirit. He described his vision for how the Cornell community can improve access to healthcare.
“Ever since the pandemic, our generation as a whole has lost a sense of belonging because we’ve all been separated for so long,” Juan said. “Now that we’re all back together, we need to work to [foster] social connection. We need to bring back that sense of belonging. We need to make sure that every student at Cornell feels welcome and feels like they belong at Cornell.”
Juan specifically mentioned that negative perceptions of Cornell Health discourage students from seeking out assistance. He believes community engagement is the way forward.
“The Board of Trustees needs to ensure that we increase funding towards building social communities at Cornell through clubs, activities [and] athletics,” Juan said.
In order to do this, Juan said he would draw on his previous experience in administrative bodies. Juan is currently an undergraduate representative on the University Assembly and a chair of the U.A. Campus Welfare Committee.
“I will be doing nothing more than just continuing the work that I already do just on a larger scale with the Board of Trustees,” Juan said, “ensuring that I can balance what our institutional focuses are with the focuses and needs of the student population.”
Mehretu is a first-year student in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations who hopes to address housing, food and financial insecurity at Cornell. He emphasized that ensuring basic needs are his top priority — and that he would be firm in demanding them.
“I believe that one of the largest issues that we face on campus is basic needs and insecurities,” Mehretu said. “These basic needs are somewhat hidden from the larger Cornell population, but these are insecurities that we see on a daily basis. We know that students aren’t on the meal plans, we know that students are struggling to find housing in their junior and senior year [and] we know that students are struggling with their finances. This is because of a lack of centralization of resources, as well as a lack of resources.”
Mehretu said that he believes that the Board of Trustees should advocate for a central basic needs center to boost access.
“Let’s house a financial aid office that can provide other options besides high interest loans. Let’s provide housing offices that can provide you aid to find a property that isn’t predatory,” Mehretu said. “Let’s focus on creating food depots where students can come and take food privately, without having shame.”
Mehretru also emphasized that he will advocate for student needs on other important issues like Title IX reform and mental health.
“I would look to keep [relations with the Administration] cordial and respectful, and at the same time be firm on very important issues,” Mehretu said. “When it comes to [mental health, basic needs and Title IX reform], amicability is not going to be my first intention. I will be going in there with respect and cordiality, but I will not be looking to give [the] Administration leeway or give administrators grace in some of these situations, because they are too important.”
Mehretu also emphasized a desire to bolster mental health services. In order to achieve his goals, Mehretu said he would draw on previous leadership and advocacy positions in social justice organizations. He noted that these positions taught him to speak up and to compromise.
“Before I came to Cornell University, I was the executive director of a social justice organization. Within this position, I was meeting with politicians. I was meeting with the city council and the mayor. I was meeting with the state senate and state representatives,” Mehretu said. “In these interactions, I’ve learned the skills of when to recognize to compromise and how much to compromise.”
Pinard, a sophomore in the College of Engineering, wants to make sure students’ voices are heard in the decision making process, and is advocating for improved sustainability efforts, equal opportunities and simplified misconduct reporting services. Pinard explained how she believes Cornell’s mental health system is the largest challenge facing the University.
‘I definitely think we have to address the mental health crisis on campus,” Pinard said. “With the increasing academic pressure and stress levels, students are experiencing higher rates of anxiety, depression and also other mental health challenges.”
A mental health report of the 2019-2020 year found that 42 percent of Cornell students were unable to function academically for at least a week due to anxiety, depression or stress. This figure was up from 33 percent in 2015.
Pinard called for the Board to invest in more mental health resources, including hiring more professionals, expanding service availability and promoting a campus culture that values mental well-being.
“I would work to bridge the gap between the Administration and student body by hosting meetings and creating opportunities for students to share their experiences and offer suggestions for improvement,” Pinard said. “Additionally, I would push for the implementation of mental health programs and initiatives that prioritize the needs of marginalized and underserved student communities, such as LGBTQ+ students and students of color.”
Pinard also mentioned her desire to see more sustainable efforts in classrooms, highlighting her work on existing initiatives that included a recycling program for lab pipettes and a repurposing of excess materials for dyes and makeup. Pinard also hopes to implement a murals and garden committee.
In order to achieve these goals, Pinard said she will draw on her experience moderating and addressing student issues as president of Toni Morrison Hall last year, and will focus on open and honest communication.
“I plan to establish open channels of communication with relevant administrators to ensure that student voices are heard and considered in important decision-making processes,” Pinard said. “I believe in finding common ground and working together towards mutual solutions that benefit the entire Cornell community. Transparency and accountability are also important to me, and I plan to regularly update students on my activities.”
Lewis, a sophomore in the School of Hotel Administration, hopes to increase accessible transportation and promote equity among the student body. Lewis explained that she believed health care — particularly gynecological access — is the most important issue the Administration needs to address.
“I believe that the biggest issue at Cornell University is healthcare access and that includes both mental and physical healthcare access,” Lewis said. “We have female students who are receiving gynecological care as far as Rochester because they cannot receive it on campus, and it will be outside of provider care and come at great expense to them — not only monetarily, but through their class time.”
Lewis explained that in order to achieve this reform, she would maintain a firm yet non-abrasive demeanor, noting that she particularly understands how to communicate respectfully with the Administration as a student in the School of Hotel administration and the daughter of a faculty member. Lewis currently serves as the vice president of external affairs and as the School of Hotel Administration representative for the Student Assembly.
“I have seen how faculty members and students interact with [the] Administration and have seen what works most effectively and communicating the needs of the students to them,” Lewis said. “I’m not going to be going in as a loaded gun, but as a hammer. I will be of course firm, but I will not be explosive in nature and I will make sure to advocate for the needs of the students while advocating on both sides.”
Lewis also emphasized her desire to implement a bike share program as a means to provide equitable transportation to all members of the campus community.
Swenson is a sophomore in ILR and hopes to address access to healthcare, communication between students and administrators and the inclusion of marginalized groups. Swenson explained that his experience receiving mental health services informs his focus on improving these services for students.
“I would say that the biggest issue that plagues the most of the Cornell undergraduate population has to be the access to mental and physical health services through Cornell Health,” Swenson said. “I think that — as a person who has received services from Cornell health, especially with the [Counseling & Psychological Services] program — it is a long and enduring process that is slow and takes a lot of ambition. And when someone is down, it might be hard to try to put all that effort in to receive those resources.”
Should he be given a position on the board, Swenson said he will be an advocate for students struggling with mental and physical health issues.
“I want to increase and implement education for first-year students because a lot of first-year students are just thrown into Cornell,” Swenson said. “If your mental health and physical health is not up to par, there’s no way you can succeed as a student.”
Swenson also mentioned a desire to implement a bike share program on campus, increase funding for club sports and professional clubs, subsidize lunch bills and bolster diversity, equity and inclusion programming. In order to do so, Swenson said he will make himself accessible to students with open Zoom calls and draw on his experience as an undesignated at-large representative for the S.A. to find common ground with other Trustees.
“I’m going to remain cordial and respect[ful], but I need to put an emphasis on the students’ need to enact change. By doing so, I hope to work with them to find out the benefits of both parties,” Swenson said. “I believe that is the most effective way to achieve change… if the Administration thinks that a resolution or change or proposal will benefit them, they’ll be more amped to pass this resolution and enact change. That change will ultimately benefit the students.”
Elections will begin May 1 at 10 a.m. and run until May 4 at noon.
Allyson Katz ’26 is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].
Correction, April 29, 7:47 a.m.: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Andrew Juan was in the College of Human Ecology. The article has been corrected to reflect that he is in the Brooks School of Public Policy.