Voices that care
A student voting member on the Board of Visitors would be able to protect students’ needs and concerns
It may be dead by now, but last week a bill in the Virginia General Assembly would have required the University’s Board of Visitors — and board of visitors at every four-year public university in the Commonwealth — to include a student member elected by students. Sort of. The Board would still appoint the student representative, but that representative would “be chosen from individuals elected by the institution’s student body, student government, or other equivalent group of the relevant institution.”
Last week, with the bill on the Senate’s higher education subcommittee’s docket, Student Council discussed the bill (“Student Council discusses possibility of elected student Board representative,” Feb. 6). Both Hillary Hurd, the students’ current representative on the Board, and Council President Johnny Vroom spoke against the bill. Let’s set aside the embarrassing irony of two student leaders at a university founded by Thomas Jefferson arguing against representative democracy and consider their arguments.
According to The Cavalier Daily, Hurd said, “I believe it is really important to represent the students … But I don’t think it’s a good idea for there to be a general election. So much of running for election is part of articulating an agenda. Applying to the Board of Visitors is not having an agenda.”
According to Merriam-Webster, an agenda is “a list or outline of things to be considered or done.” Why would anyone want a representative without one of those? If you don’t stand for something, as the cliché goes, you’ll fall for anything. But the present system, in which the executive committee of the Board chooses the students’ representative, makes sure that representative understands the Board’s role and operations, Hurd and Vroom argued. Vroom said the system also allows the representative to build a trusting relationship with the Board, something Vroom argued is crucial.
But the University webpage that calls for applications says, “More than anything else, the Student Member serves as a soundboard for the Board of Visitors with regard to issues that affect students at the University.” What are the chances that a so-called student representative chosen by the executive committee will be an effective “soundboard … with regard to issues that affect students”? Hurd’s performance during last summer’s unpleasantness, which saw the forced resignation and eventual reinstatement of University President Teresa Sullivan, suggests the chances are slim. While students were denouncing the Board’s action, Hurd was counseling students to trust the Board. Later, while students were protesting just outside a Board meeting’s doors, Hurd asked the Board for more transparency but didn’t call for the Board to reconsider its actions.
Another Cavalier Daily story (“Reber proposes voting student BOV member,” Sept. 13, 2012), said Alex Reber, chair of Council’s representative body, was agitating for the student representative to be a voting member of the Board. “Students should have a voice in how our school is governed,” Reber was quoted as saying in The Cavalier Daily. “Hurd [has] a voice, but this would be not only a voice but a vote. There’s a big difference between who can vote and who can’t.” That same article said Law Prof. George Cohen, chair of the Faculty Senate, didn’t see why the student representative should get a vote. “It’s more important to have a seat at the table and be actively engaged in discussion than to have a vote,” he told The Cavalier Daily. “We already have a non-voting student member.”
That’s another odd idea. Apparently it would be all right with Cohen if citizens didn’t vote for president or governor so long as they got to have an actively engaged discussion with whoever did get to vote.
The student representative on the Board doesn’t necessarily get to keep his or her seat at the table and be actively engaged in discussion. The section of state code governing boards of visitors declares, “Nothing in this section shall prohibit any board of visitors from excluding such representatives from discussions of faculty grievances, faculty or staff disciplinary matters or salaries, or other matters, at the discretion of the board.”
It’s unlikely that the single vote of a student representative would carry great weight on an 18-member board (counting the student representative) or 19-member board (counting a faculty representative the same bill seeks to mandate). But at least the students would have some say. At the University, students can’t even come to Board meetings and speak for themselves. According to the University’s webpage about the Board, “The meetings are open to the public, but there will be no opportunity for public comment.”
It may seem odd to argue for more student democracy when the Student Council President race has only one contestant, but in a democracy, to quote another cliché, people get the government they deserve. On the Board, students get the representation the Board’s executive committee thinks they deserve.
Tim Thornton is the ombudsman for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.