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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Tocqueville and Numa: Trustees and Students, How to Inject Student Opinion Into Board Decision-Making

<eater student-trustee interaction can be a good thing. Most of Carleton’s trustees are alumni and many are parents as well. Still, they have all been away for a while and there is no group better than students to give them an idea of what the Carleton of today is like on a day-to-day basis.

Unfortunately, student-trustee interaction is currently fairly limited. Besides a couple of dinners every year and the occasional reception, trustees rarely spend much time with students. As we have held before, Carleton students are an underexploited governance resource. We believe that more student input on the Board of Trustees can only be a good thing. However, formal CSA representation on the Board is the wrong way to accomplish this goal. Rather, increased informal interactions between trustees and students can most usefully inject student opinion into the Board’s decision-making.

Living in a democratic country we are quick to apply the doctrine of popular sovereignty to all models of governance. This is not, however, an appropriate model to use for Carleton governance. The Board of Trustees is not answerable to the Carleton community. They answer to the rest of society on the basis of how well they accomplish their stated mission to “to establish, maintain and conduct a college in which persons may be provided a liberal education.” (For a more nuanced exploration of this point see our blog). We strongly believe that listening attentively to all members of the Carleton community, including students, is the best way to achieve this goal. Still, this does not mean that the Board is formally responsible to the students or any other campus constituency.

We must be careful. however, how we inject student opinion. While many of our peer institutions may have students who vote on their respective boards, we are not convinced that this is prudent. One danger of providing more student access to the Board of Trustees is designing a system to adequately filter input. The Board has limited time and limited means for comparing opinion. It is therefore crucial that the information that is presented to the Board first undergoes some scrutiny from the Carleton community.

This consideration brings us to our greatest objection to the current proposal – it gives CSA Senate too large a role in mediating student input to the Board. In a previous column we have discussed how even the current campus governance system over-represents CSA Senate’s specific agenda. All the same, under the current system in which the College Council filters access to the trustees at least some non-CSA Senate student opinion can be voiced (see Statement of Student Access to the Board of Trustees: “The Board wishes to reiterate that, as part of the governance structure of the College, matters for formal consideration by the Board come to it through its committee structure. That is, items are placed on the Board’s agenda through referral from the appropriate College and Board committees. Therefore, the openness of the on-campus governance structure insures appropriate consideration by the Board of matters of interest to the community.”). The proposed changes would further strengthen CSA Senate’s hand compared to the non-CSA Senate involved student opinion.

We need to ensure that access to the Board is not limited to ideologically extreme students or students who have specific agendas. The Board’s interests are best served by regular meetings with “normal” Carls. Like any other elected body, CSA Senate is highly pressured by student-activists and is likely to convey their opinions most strongly to the Board. Certainly, it is important that these voices are heard, but we believe that the Board would be best served by hearing a variety of voices. This is why we believe that greater institutionalization of student-trustee contact is necessary. Without more effective formal lines of communication, only more zealous, activist student voices would be heard on a very discrete range of issues.

We can do better. While trustees’ time on campus is quite limited, there should be more opportunities for trustees to meet informally with students, to talk with them about their Carleton experiences, the challenges they see for Carleton and to develop lasting personal relationships that withstand the vicissitudes of student popular discourse. These meetings need to be an institutional expectation and not limited to the trustees who sit on the Student Life Committee. The “Statement of Student Access to the Board of Trustees” approved in 1987 refers to several defunct practices which could accomplish these goals. Policies require personal responsibility and we call upon trustees and students to take that responsibility into their own hands and talk about Carleton together—not just for the sake of another wind turbine or more Access Scholarships, but also for the sake of Carleton’s long term mission.

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