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Pluses and perils of a student on Board of Trustees

Published: February 13, 2014, 5:22 pm ET
Opinion Editor

It’s been an open secret around the University of Richmond campus that there is a push to put a student on the board of trustees.

In the wake of the sports cuts and Ring Dance change controversies these past two years, there seems no better time than now to push for greater student representation in the secretive machinations of university government. But we as stakeholders in this community must be careful: Do we want real voice and power, or a token gesture of inclusion?

Richmond’s board of trustees is a body of 22 people, largely alumni who’ve done well. Many of them are longtime donors to the university, and so it’s not a surprise to see the names Weinstein and Queally among the board’s members.

Besides appointing UR’s president, who becomes a board member as well, the board of trustees must sign off on all major decisions the university makes, from buying land and constructing buildings to approving the school’s budget and even granting tenure.

As such, a seat on the board of trustees is not merely a titular honor, and their meetings are the equivalent of UR’s own Congress meeting. But very much unlike Congress, these meetings are completely private.

In Virginia, university governing boards have fallen under heavy scrutiny in recent years, particularly at Charlottesville’s University of Virginia. There, in the summer of 2012, U.Va.’s board of visitors unexpectedly forced the resignation of the university’s popular president, Teresa Sullivan. The shadowy nature of the board’s move, largely led by Helen Dragas, the board’s rector, sparked widespread outrage among the students and faculty at U.Va. and dissent from alumni donors and the academic community nationwide. As protests raged on across the historic, manicured campus of Thomas Jefferson, the board held their ground for weeks as The Cavalier Daily and other news organizations dug into the dirty backroom dealings that had led to the ouster. Finally, when the governor of Virginia threatened to fire the entire board, Teresa Sullivan was reinstated.

I tell this story as a cautionary point: The U.Va. board of visitors has had a student board member since 1983, but this position is essentially a joke. Hillary Hurd, the student board member at the time of the crisis (and, for the sake of full disclosure, a graduate of my high school), initially came out in full support of the board’s decision. This didn’t make sense: Why would the student’s representative on the governing board support a decision that the student body was almost unanimously against? It’s because Hurd was not beholden to the students; the non voting student representative was, and still is, appointed by the board itself. This seems to be the case at many institutions statewide that even let students on their boards (VCU, for the record, does not).

Unlike the required open meetings of the boards of public universities, it’s doubtful that UR would ever even release minutes from board of trustees’ meetings. On the university’s website, there is no contact information for the board members besides their names and residences, but I find it hard to believe that these members would bother returning phone calls or emails anyway. Our student governments (because UR is special enough to get three, apparently) seem to be little more than resume lines for their members, so putting a student on the board might be our only option as students to lobby directly to the people who control University of Richmond. But we need to do this right: an elected board member who speaks for the student body, and gives us a path into the rooms of power.

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