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Trust issues

Now, with the election of Andrew Alper (A.B.’80, M.B.A.’81) as its new chairman, the Board should seize the opportunity to redefine its relationships with the student body by making a conscious, formal commitment to solicit student input on campus issues.

No one has ever cited the University’s Board of Trustees as a model of transparency. The Board convenes behind closed doors, and even the dates of its meetings are not released. In light of this, recent efforts by Student Government to bring students and trustees together at brown bag lunches are commendable.

But this is only a first step. Now, with the election of Andrew Alper (A.B.’80, M.B.A.’81) as its new chairman, the Board should seize the opportunity to redefine its relationships with the student body by making a conscious, formal commitment to solicit student input on campus issues.

Student representation on the Board is currently limited to two liaisons, one graduate student and one undergraduate, who have no voting rights and sit in only on meetings of the Student and Campus Life committee, one of twelve committees. Consequently, students’ input on the Board—and Trustees’ knowledge of students’ viewpoints—is tiny in proportion to the institution’s power and its impact on student life.

The Board oversees all areas of University development, including new facilities, investments, community planning, and fundraising. It is therefore essential that the line of communication between students and the Board be open in both directions. When making wide-reaching decisions in areas such as housing and dining, trustees would do well to consult with the students their decisions will impact. Moreover, increased exposure to the Board is essential to students being good citizens of the University.

That said, giving student liaisons voting rights—a possibility raised last year by the Social Justice Coalition—is the wrong approach. The Board makes fiduciary decisions based on long-term visions for the school, and these judgments should ultimately be left in the hands of business leaders with years of experience.

However, that doesn’t mean students have nothing to say on these matters. Going forward, meetings of all the committees, particularly Campus Planning and Facilities, and Community and Civic Affairs, should be opened to attendance by student liaisons—who should not just be there to listen, but to share feedback and opinions, as well. Trustees should make even further efforts to hold discussions and open forums to listen to student concerns. Most importantly, decisions directly affecting students should not be made without at least consulting the liaisons, as well as other students when possible.

As Alper takes over, he will face a broad range of challenges. He can best face the obstacles his term will present by consulting the students who make the University what it is.

The Maroon Editorial Board consists of the Editor-in-Chief, Editor-in-Chief–elect, Viewpoints Editors, and an additional Editorial Board member.

1 comment on “Trust issues

  1. reply

    My response on the SG blog: http://sg.uchicago.edu/blog :

    Overall, I think the Maroon editorial board was right on point with their op-ed today, calling on the Board of Trustees to be more inclusive of student voice, and agree with everything they said.

    However, I would say that what they have called for (student liaisons attendance at more committee meetings than simply the Student and Campus Life Committee) is only the first step towards active student engagement. This doesn’t mean I’m suggesting that the Board should immediately have students vote (which would be quite a jump as faculty don’t currently have that honor), but that students should be more involved at lower levels in decision making.

    By the time issues reach the Board of Trustees, many decisions are merely pro forma, having already moved along in their design, conception, or planning such that they can be presented in a timely fashion to fifty busy trustees. That means that much of the work on issues that impact students happens at the decanal or vice-presidential level. Meaningful and consistent access to these administrators throughout planning processes would ensure that student concerns were considered when their input actually can make a difference, and when augmenting policies is a real possibility.

    Additionally, there are areas where students should have more say, specifically in the area of the student activities fee. Currently, SG and other student leaders (and anyone who wants to get involved) makes a recommendation to Sharlene Holly, who makes a recommendation to Bill Michel, who makes a recommendation to Kim Goff-Crews, who makes a recommendation to the President and the Board of Trustees. While our input is taken seriously at all levels, and some degree of consistency is important so that tuition bills don’t change every year, students should have real power and legitimacy, and this reasonable control would allow real action by students to affect the area they should have the most control over.

    Kim Goff-Crews and the office of the Vice President for Campus Life and Dean of Students in the University have made good steps forward, and student input is much more active than only a few years ago. These changes are a good step forward, and should continue, but they also should be carried out in other divisions of the University. The current workgroup on student engagement should make steps in that direction. Changing the hierarchical (and yet de-centralized… go figure that paradox) culture of the institution to one that is inclusive of students has been a slow process, and one for which students must continue to advocate.

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