April 22, 2008

The way forward

As the current representatives, we are delighted to see the increased interest in Liaison to the Board of Trustees positions. Student Government (SG) has made progress this year in helping trustees get a firsthand sense of what is most important to students at the University of Chicago. Seeing the depth of the various candidates’ proposals shows that students have a good understanding of the various ways in which the liaisons can be powerful advocates for student concerns. The liaison position is one that involves significant behind-the-scenes activity—this work rarely takes place through the kinds of public actions more clearly required by other SG positions such as president. The role of the liaison is to bring disparate groups and people into a conversation with one another and, through these often unprecedented encounters, to encourage action on the issues most important to students.

Perhaps the two most important challenges facing next year’s liaisons are enhancing the two-way communication and accountability of the role and increasing opportunities for the liaisons and other students to interact with trustees. One of the difficulties is reaching the thousands of students spread across the diverse divisions, professional schools, and interest areas. Simply advertising events on campus can be difficult, while communicating en masse directly with the student body is next to impossible.

We have attempted to make the proceedings of the trustee meetings as available to students as possible—working with the Secretary of the University to issue public summaries after every meeting and inviting students to meetings about the trustees’ activities. Hopefully next year’s liaisons will continue to work to develop reliable communication so that students can effectively articulate concerns to the liaisons and the liaisons can relay their progress and work to the student body. One veritable form of communication has been this year’s five fireside chats with trustees with a possible sixth later this quarter. However, we need more, specialized interaction between students and trustees. By finding out specific interests of trustees, such as public service and law, issues of race and gender, or sustainability, the liaisons can create events to link students and trustees. Some trustees may want to get involved with on-campus events, such as cultural shows or featured speakers, and the liaisons could work with the Administration to make these increased interactions a reality.

Through enhanced trustee–student interaction, trustees will be increasingly convinced of the importance of student involvement in many areas of University decision-making. To the credit of the Zimmer administration and the committed group of recently hired vice presidents—most notably the new Vice President and Dean of Students, Kim Goff-Crews—the future looks bright for student engagement with the administration. The next liaisons must keep this alive and work hard to make sure that students are continually a part of important discussions.

Lastly, a key venue for enhanced student engagement with the trustees is in the actual Board of Trustees meetings themselves. The liaison position is new and was initially created to work for the establishment of a permanent student trustee. The specter of a permanent student trustee misses the point entirely. Just as there is not a faculty trustee, the Board is unlikely to create a position for a student trustee. But through continued positive engagement with trustees from the Board, student voice can take on an increased weight in University decision-making. Even without a permanent representative, there is much that students can do to influence how trustees think about and engage with the University.

One way to encourage increased student influence is through expanded liaison participation in Board committees. Traditionally the liaisons attend the Committee of Student Life. For this spring’s meeting we are working to attend the Community Affairs meeting or the Facilities and Services Committee. Pressing to get liaisons to as many meetings as possible and showing why student involvement is beneficial in these meetings will serve to further the long-term goals of the liaison position and the student body.

We are confident that whichever candidate is elected will make progress. Involvement with the University can be frustrating, fulfilling, and thought-provoking. We encourage all future liaisons to never be discouraged and to work toward enhanced student engagement and communication and University-wide accountability.

Hollie Russon Gilman, the undergraduate liaison to the Board of Trustees, is a fourth-year in the College majoring in political science. Erica Simmons, the graduate liaison to the Board of Trustees, is a Ph.D. student in political science.