Most institutions of higher education are structured with shared governance between its students, faculty and trustees. At Lawrence, students participate through Lawrence University Community Council (LUCC). The faculty oversees hiring and various aspects of the curriculum. The Board of Trustees has jurisdiction over everything else.
There is communication between the faculty and the trustees, and between the students and the faculty. However, there is little communication between the students and the Board of Trustees. Meanwhile, Lawrence administrators have not yet considered creating this connection.
While the governance of Lawrence is shared between these three bodies, the lack of communication between the students and the trustees creates a top-down system of decision-making that excludes the students’ perspective from major decisions facing the school. Having a student representative on the Board of Trustees would better engage the student body in the governance of our school and provide the Board of Trustees better insight into the way their decisions affect the school.
There are some valid concerns over having student representation on the Board of Trustees. For example, a student trustee would have a problem with decisions, such as tutition hikes, that are not in the students’ best interests.
Having students on the Board of Trustees may inhibit the school from making difficult but necessary choices. However, trustees also have conflicts of interests. Different trustees may have different ideas of what the best long term outcomes for Lawrence are, such as how to juggle the money we invest into the conservatory or athletics program.
Despite these conflicts, they are expected to make the best decision possible for the university. The student trustee would be treated no differently. Whereas the trustees’ merits give them a unique outlook on our school, so does being a student at Lawrence University. The student would be expected to make decisions that would be best for the school, not just the student body.
A student representative on the Board of Trustees would allow the trustees and the student body to interface on equal ground. Allowing the student body to understand the decision-making process of the trustees is beneficial to both the students and the trustees.
The trustees often deal with decisions regarding long-term interests of the school. These long-term interests still have short-term consequences for current students. Having a student on the Board of Trustees would allow them to have a better understanding of the short-term consequences of decisions they make with respect to long-term goals.
Currently, students are not engaging in school governance to their fullest potential. LUCC general election participation could certainly improve. Committee positions within LUCC often go unfilled. Students receive news of major decisions with disdain without making earnest effort to understand those decisions. Having a student on the Board of Trustees would open a new avenue of shared governance and encourage students to take a more active role in the affairs of Lawrence University.
These theoretical benefits have worked at other private institutions. Colorado College — a school that bears similarities to Lawrence in size and philosophy — allotted a student representative position on their board of trustees. In 2011, Jill Tiefenthaler, Colorado College’s incoming president, borrowed the system from her previous tenure at Wake Forest University. As president of the university, she understood the importance of engaging students in the decision-making process of the board of trustees. Both the trustees and the student body at Colorado College found this to be a beneficial and exciting change to their school.
Eleven students applied for the position of student trustee at Colorado College the first year the policy was implemented. Elliot Mamet, the current student trustee at Colorado College, spoke about the benefits of the student trustee model.
Mamet believes that “the student trustee was listened to the most out of anybody on the board. [The board] really really wanted to hear [their] opinions.” Overall, both Mamet and Colorado College at large believe this change to be a successful one. The Lawrence administration should take note of the benefits that Colorado College enjoyed from placing a student on their board of trustees.
Lawrence students need to take a more active role in the governance of their school. The administration also needs to respect the perspective of the students. Having a student trustee would accomplish both of these tasks.
As students who live and breathe the Lawrence experience daily, we have a unique understanding of what harms and benefits the school. Trustees are named as such for a reason — we place implicit trust in their ability to make decisions that are best for the institution. The administration should place that same trust in Lawrence students who can offer a unique perspective on what the best interests of the school truly are.