Students on board
The Board of Visitors should consider adding voting student members
With all of the drama surrounding the attempted ouster of President Teresa Sullivan this summer, renewed attention has been paid to the structure and role of the Board of Visitors. Rector Helen Dragas in particular has faced criticism for masterminding the effort to force Sullivan out. We know that she circumvented any scrutiny prior to the Board’s decision by speaking privately to each member of the Board before the decision so none of the meetings would be reported to the public. We also know her conviction that Sullivan needed to be replaced was at least in part fueled by a sense that the University was falling behind in online education. And we also know that at the time of the decision, not one voting member of the Board had a background in education. When I look at all of this information, I cannot help but be convinced that the Board must be reformed to include at least one, possibly several, student voting members.
While this appears to be a radical change in structure to many donors or past and present Board members, I would argue it makes sense given the events of the summer and is even directly in line with the core principles of the University. If President Sullivan’s eventual reinstatement proved one thing, it was this: The administration is not as powerful as the student body. Dragas clearly wanted to avoid the reaction of the students, as she chose to take action while the students were away on summer break. But even with the vast majority of the student body hours away, massive protests changed the complexion of the scandal. Even in its weakest state, the student body overwhelmed the Board with sheer numbers and enthusiasm.
What these protests also showed was that belief in student self-government at the University is still strong. The reason protests were so popular and influential was that those involved truly believed that the school was meant to serve them, and that any attempt to disenfranchise the primary stakeholders or keep them in the dark was counter to the University’s very mission.
Adding voting student members to the Board would give validity to Jefferson’s ideal of student self-government and ensure that no back-room dealings would be able to keep the students uninformed on major decisions. While it could be argued that the Board makes decisions students are unqualified or unable to make, the University is special because it does trust students with more power and responsibility than any other school. Would trusting students to make up a small fraction of the Board be more radical than handing them the keys to the entire honor system?
Finally, student voting members of the Board would have had a chance to completely change the course of the events of the summer. Can you imagine any student confronted by Dragas before the Board met officially would have allowed the decision to be so sudden and mysterious? Do you think a student would have allowed worries over online education to dominate a decision over who would lead a proudly residential University? Do you think a student would have shared the mindsets of executives seeking to run an educational institution like a business, despite having no experience at any level in education? I think, at the very least, more respect for the values of the University and the community of trust would have been shown.
Members of the administration seeking to protect the current structure of the Board will point to the fact that there is a non-voting student member already. I have heard Dean of Students Allen Groves himself say that the student’s opinion is respected, and has power, even without a vote to back it up. Well, that is not enough. Board members should not just be respectful of the student body. They should, as they learned this summer, be afraid of it. They are here to serve us, and this mission is furthered not by limiting our voice in the University’s administration, but by expanding it.
Forrest Brown is a Viewpoint writer for The Cavalier Daily._