Get on Board

By | March 22nd, 2012 | Haircut, Ithaca, News & Views

A commentary on how the student trustee appointment process leaves little room for dissent

Image by Daniel Sitts

Later this year, in some sealed off meeting away from the student body, Ithaca College will appoint a new student trustee. The position places a single student on the College’s Board of Trustee’s for two years, granting them full voting rights on issues that profoundly affect the school’s population. They’ll sit on committees of IC’s largest benefactors with a chance to give voice to student concerns.

In short, the student trustee could be a force, someone who presses those in charge of our school and asserts influence at the highest levels of the administration. Instead, the current selection process all but ensures the position is a farce, a decoration that creates the illusion of student participation while keeping power away from those whose tuition funds the school.

The position falls short of its promise because the board itself ultimately selects the lone student representative, creating a situation in which there’s little chance for dissent. The SGA Constitution only vaguely designates the selection process, leaving it entirely up to the Board of Trustees. The Board appears to have taken full advantage of this power. Those interested in becoming a trustee need to apply to the current trustee, junior Elizabeth Stoltz who, along with Michele Lenhart, director of student leadership and involvement for OSEMA, assembled a team of students that will review the applications. This committee will interview those interested before passing on three nominations to the Board. Ultimately, the Board will conduct their own interviews before settling on their choice.

There’s no way of knowing exactly what criteria students have to meet in order to satisfy the Board members and join their ranks. The Intercom message inviting students to apply loosely defines the standards as people “who are engaged and invested in the success of Ithaca College, are of sound character and display a natural tact for working with others.” However, one has to wonder what constitutes “investment in the success of Ithaca College.” Would the Board of Trustees ever appoint a student who vocally dissents college policy? Like someone who campaigns to pay a living wage to all campus workers, a move which costs the school money? What about a student who advocates for an Asian American Studies program? Or even a person who questions the necessity of raising tuition to more than $50,000 per year?

It’s unlikely at best, because such a person would be a thorn in the side of the administration at Board meetings, complicating proceedings with student concerns. They don’t want that; they just want the appearance of it.

If the position is to hold any meaning at all, Ithaca College needs to open the student trustee post to democratic elections. Students could either vote directly for the trustee or even vote for the committee members who conduct interviews with the candidates. Students would turn out for these elections because the position could truly matter; if they have a stake in the process, they’ll be willing to participate. The trustee should be a permanent member of the budget committee, so that those who pay tuition have a direct say in the school’s cost. And, of course, there should be more than one student representative on a 32-member board.

Other schools hold an election for the position. Even Cornell, with a larger, more unwieldy student population, has a democratically elected student trustee. Why don’t we?

If the administration isn’t ready to implement some sort of vote, then it should drop the pretense of having interest in student concerns altogether. It shouldn’t bother asking Stoltz and other students to interview applicants before they talk to the Board because a committee assembled at the discretion of the Board, not by democratically elected student representatives, interviews the candidates. In fact, the Board shouldn’t have a student trustee at all if the current selection process is maintained because if the single student voice on a 32-member committee is selected by the existing members, the position becomes nothing more than a rubber-stamp slapped on the Board’s decisions. It looks like student participation, but only if you ignore the mechanism behind it.

Sam McCann is a senior journalism major and member of the Labor Initiative Promoting Solidarity who’s “invested in the success of Ithaca College.” If you’d like to talk more about transparency in student trustee appointments, email him at smccann1@ithaca.edu or come to LIPS meetings on Tuesdays at 7 P.M. in Williams 218.

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  • 2 Comments on “Get on Board”

    1. Anonymous

      Where are the interviews in this article? Have you personally interviewed our current student trustee about her role on the Board or other trustees to measure the value of the student voice on the Board?? I don’t believe the author even took into consideration the fact that Elizabeth has stood up for the student body and has taken an active role in Board discussions. How do I know this? Because I’ve spoken to other trustees of the Board who can defend the fact that she has provided a strong voice on behalf of the student body. Also, the author says that the student trustee COULD be a force. It IS a force! Maybe the author is just fearful that IC will not have as active of a student trustee in the future, because Elizabeth has been a very strong force on the Board.

      I understand that the author was trying to criticize the process, but in doing so, provided no primary research or any sort of support to back any of the claims being made here. Next time, I suggest conducting interviews before publishing a criticism like this.

    2. Sam McCann

      You’re right, I didn’t conduct any interviews myself for this piece. However, as you point out, the piece is designed to address the process, and I believe it does so. I’m not disputing Elizabeth’s work; in fact, I know Liz personally and respect her a great deal. However, I question the mechanism that grants her the position she has– if she’s supposed to represent the students in any meaningful way, she shouldn’t be appointed by those in power. Otherwise, she’s answering to the board, not the students, inherently handcuffing her ability to radically address any issues. Even if she has spoken to the board about some of the topics I raise in my commentary, the fact that she was appointed by the board, not elected by the students, limits her effectiveness as a student representative.

      Also, I didn’t really feel the need to interview the trustees, because I seriously question the possibility of any earnest answer from them on the topic. Let’s say the trustee wasn’t “providing a strong voice on behalf of the student body.” What would the response from the trustee be? They’re unlikely to criticize their institution, or the processes employed by it, and I didn’t really feel like printing their hollow, predictable pro-administration words in my commentary. However, if they’d like to provide any criticism of the process, I’m all ears.

      You are right, I am fearful that the next trustee could be completely impotent. The current process makes that a likelihood.

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