Earlier this month, the Social Justice Coalition (SJC), which comprises over 30 student groups, presented the administration with several proposals on improving the University of Chicago in areas such as financial aid and sustainability. (Apparently, the activists wanted a break from bragging about how little they understand economics.) The most substantial proposal would add two student votes to the Board of Trustees, an organization which currently operates with less transparency and student input than the Secret Society of Supervillains. Unfortunately, the proposal was dismissed by the administration. Having a student voice on the Board of Trustees would advance student education at the U of C.
The purpose of a U of C education, and liberal education in general, is to teach students how to be intelligent citizens. Some graduates may be employed at Starbucks for their immediate future, but if the University has succeeded, they will be smarter and more thoughtful than they would have been otherwise. Regardless of one’s career, a U of C degree should be the mark of an active and vocal community member.
Knowing how one is governed and how to question authority are fundamental aspects of being a citizen, and yet among citizens of the University of Chicago, these aspects are lacking. The “authority” delegated to us is little more than a joke. Student Government does little other than pretend to be important and get horribly offended when others don’t share this illusion. The student liaison to the Board of Trustees, our ostensible representative to the board, not only lacks a vote, but isn’t even allowed to attend board meetings in their entirety. We’re given mere vestiges of authority, and frequently obnoxious ones at that. How can we learn to be citizens of real communities if the University doesn’t trust us to be citizens of our own college?
The SJC proposal to address these concerns is surprisingly sensible. There are almost 50 voting members of the Board of Trustees—two student votes would hardly turn our private institution into a people’s university (as those wacky, yet lovable Marxists in front of the Reynolds Club demand), while still giving students enough power to learn how to exercise and question it. Furthermore, under the SJC proposal, each student on the board would serve a two-year term, but would only have a vote during their second year. This would allow them to sit in on meetings and learn how the board operates before having the power to vote.
Critics of the proposal have generally responded with two arguments. The first is that students lack the knowledge and perspective to have anything worthwhile to say at meetings. It is true that trustees of the U of C tend to be business leaders with a wealth of experience, while students at the U of C tend to be annoying and lack experiences that others have had by the end of junior high. The Board, however, decides upon the long-term direction of the University, ruling on things such as investments, property purchases in the neighborhood, and major construction projects. All of these decisions affect life at the U of C, of which many of the trustees have little direct experience or knowledge. Students do have valid and worthwhile opinions on these topics.
The second, more effective argument against the proposal is that members of the Board of Trustees wouldn’t listen to students even if they did have worthwhile things to say. Heck, I barely listen to what many of my fellow students have to say in class, and I fear that the same undesirables who currently busy themselves with looking important and showing up at meetings with Bill Michel would end up with votes on the Board of Trustees. It is possible, however, that if real power were available to students, real leaders would vie for it. Furthermore, the chance that the proposal might be ineffective is not a compelling reason to dismiss it—in fact, it’s a reason that’s antithetical to the ideas of education and experimentation.
While the idea that students should serve on the Board of Trustees is not as dramatic or fun as dumping pennies on President Zimmer’s secretary’s desk (which one activist group did last year in a valiant attempt to end genocide in Darfur), the SJC should be commended for its proposal. This proposal would provide substance to the idea that the University is training us to be better citizens. At the very least, the proposal is worthy of debate, not dismissal.
Zack Hill is a fourth-year in the College majoring in NELC.