Joe Bonni resigned as graduate liaison to the Board of Trustees last week after it became clear that his academic research abroad would prevent him from attending this quarter’s meeting. He has since suggested the reaction to his resignation reflects systemic under-appreciation for the position.
Bonni, a fourth-year anthropology graduate student, will be conducting research in Syria during the Trustees’ March 4 meeting, and University Secretary David Fithian told him he would not accept a proxy to attend the meeting in Bonni’s place. Bonni resigned February 15 to allow SG to appoint a new graduate liaison, and will serve as an ex-officio member of SG cabinet when he returns.
Graduate Council voted last night to replace Bonni with fourth-year history graduate student and former SG Vice President for Student Affairs Toussaint Losier, and he will be confirmed as the new liaison if College Council approves the appointment tomorrow. Before resigning, Bonni nominated Losier to replace him as a proxy, calling the former SG vice president for student affairs and current graduate council member “a perfect candidate for this position.”
Fithian said in an interview that proxies are not allowed to ensure consistent dialogue between liaisons and trustees throughout the year. “One of the reasons we don’t allow that is that the liaison role is meant to be a relationship with the Board that goes beyond being that of a mere visitor,” he said.
Both trustees and liaisons go through an orientation on how the Board works when they first take on the role, Fithian said, and the liaisons are expected to develop a working knowledge of the Board through the course of the meetings.
He was also concerned that any proxy might not have the approval of the student body. “The important thing is that, to serve as an effective liaison, there has to be some legitimacy by which that person is chosen.”
There is an undergraduate liaison to the Board of Trustees as well, third-year Greg Nance. The two liaisons attend quarterly meetings with the Student and Campus Life Committee, one of twelve Trustee committees, where they act as advisers but do not vote.
Bonni said the issue raised a number of problems with the role. In a letter sent yesterday to Fithian, Chairman of the Board of Trustees Andrew Alper (A.B.’80, M.B.A.’81), and President Robert Zimmer, Bonni objected to liaisons being “held to the same standard of responsibilities and obligations regarding proxies” as trustees, who are not allowed proxies, while not being given the same privileges. “This is an unreasonable contradiction to impose upon the representatives of the University Student Body,” the letter said.
Fithian said the limited time students had to serve as liaison was reason enough to prevent them from appointing proxies, while the 47 trustees are more at liberty to skip meetings. “The difference between a trustee missing a meeting is that they serve over a much longer period of time, and there are many other ways that a trustee is engaged in the work of the Board between formal meetings. But, again, the system we have is that two elected liaisons serve for a year.”
Bonni also wrote that the policy precludes some graduate students from running, who may be called away from the University on relatively short notice to conduct field research.
“The Administration is also, intentionally or not, stating no graduate student who has regular fieldwork to complete should be elected to the liaison position. This would automatically disqualify many graduate students in the Social Sciences, Humanities, and Divinity School as they typically require fieldwork to earn their degrees and opportunity for such fieldwork may arise and need be pursued at any point during the academic year or career,” the letter said.
Bonni said in an interview he found out that he could be going abroad this quarter in August, after he was elected, and didn’t receive confirmation until recently. He will travel to Syria to study the oldest extant Christian church.
Bonni, who had served on Graduate Council for two years, ran for liaison as a write-in last spring after no candidates ran in the primary. He said he had alerted administrators who worked with SG that he might be called away for research, but was told it would not be a problem.
Fithian suggested graduate students who wish to serve should work hard to ensure they would be able to attend each meeting. “[The position] requires that students who are interested in serving this role choose to do so at a time they won’t need to be away for field work,” he said, adding, “I don’t think it means that someone like Joe couldn’t serve.”
SG President and fourth-year Jarrod Wolf agreed. He said any graduate student who wants to be involved with the Board but could have a research conflict “can communicate their own opinion to an individual who is supposed to be going to the Board of Trustees on behalf of the student body.”
Wolf said SG is considering ways to improve the position—holding more trustee luncheons, having students sit on more committees, or even adding another liaison—but the body is divided on how to enact changes without jeopardizing the progress SG has made in increasing student presence on the Board already.
“The fact that we started off with one liaison and then increased it to two liaisons and now are having quarterly trustee luncheons are very big and important steps, and I think we wouldn’t want to take any action that would necessarily hinder us from improving our relationship,” Wolf said.
Losier said Bonni had been doing a great job as liaison. “What I think is really unfortunate is the fact that the Board couldn’t accommodate his schedule into him not even voting on board members but just attending and speaking at just one committee,” Losier said.
“I think it’s a really exciting opportunity to continue the work that Joe is doing and make a significant push for voting rep of students on the Board of Trustees,” he added.