Courtesy of Cornell University

The Board of Trustees contains a total of 64 members; Cornellians from all facets of life

November 27, 2023

SWENSON | Inside the Boardroom

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Cornell’s Board of Trustees is the largest in the Ivy-League, with 64 voting members, and has a composition that is unique among all institutions of higher education. There are representatives from the student, employee, faculty and alumni constituencies of Cornell, as well as from the State of New York, including the governor, and from the fields of labor and agriculture. There is also one Life-Trustee which is reserved for the eldest lineal descendant of Ezra Cornell, and is currently held by Ezra Cornell ’70. Other Trustees arise from accomplished backgrounds in finance, law, architecture, medicine and real estate, among others.

The Board of Trustees is “vested with supreme control” over the University, which means that all aspects of Cornell, including hiring the president, approving the operating budget or constructing buildings are governed by the 64 voting members. It is inspiring that these decisions have been made, and will continue to be made, in part by students, faculty and staff. 

The board also continues to uphold the leadership philosophy that was cultivated under the guidance of the late Frank H.T. Rhodes, Cornell’s 9th President. He said

“The role of a Trustee is to govern, not to manage. They stick their noses in to inquire, but they keep their fingers out of the execution. They are supportive, not meddling.”

In this sense, the administration and faculty have much autonomy over the daily operations of the University, but are questioned, overseen and influenced by the Trustees. Under this model, I have noticed a complementary and symbiotic relationship between the board and administration; the board is truly supportive. The size and composition of the board also allow for many diverse perspectives and opinions, especially from the different constituencies of Cornell, to be presented directly to the administration. 

As the Student-Elected Trustee, I must thoughtfully synthesize and represent the complex and fluid student perspective to the board and administration. When presented a proposal, it is my job to express the reactions and potential implications it may have on students. During times of crisis, I have a responsibility to notify the administration and urge them to increase support for students, if they have not done so already. I write the Trustee Viewpoint column in hopes to increase transparency around the decision-making processes that affect students and the University, and as a forum to highlight student perspectives and issues on campus. I also attend weekly Student Assembly meetings which are excellent opportunities to share your perspectives with other elected representatives that communicate directly with administrators.

To accomplish these objectives, I must be accessible and approachable to all of my peers. The Student- Elected Trustee is a direct link between the student body, board and administration, and I am eager to share your concerns, opinions and perspectives. I urge anyone to reach out via email, and I am more than happy to set up a phone call or meet in person.  

J.P. Swenson is a third-year student in the School of Industrial & Labor Relations. He is the undergraduate Student-Elected Member of the Board of Trustees. Trustee Viewpoint is run periodically throughout the semester. He can be reached at [email protected]

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