BLAZE: Get on Board

The selection process for the Board of Visitors student member correctly balances democratic principles with pragmatism

Before beginning this argument, I suppose it’s worth addressing the fact that I am the current Board of Visitors student member and therefore may be thought to be a biased reporter on this process as the beneficiary of its present structure. I’d like to think that my bias will not affect my reporting in any negative way other than the simple fact that I cannot report first-hand what the consequences of a different process might be. I will leave it up to you whether or not my argument is sound.

In what I think to be an unfortunate phenomenon, very few students know how the student member is chosen. I am to blame for that, as the current conduit between the Board and the students. It is not a popular election, in both senses of the word. Despite the fact that the selection process occurs almost concurrently with elections for Class Council, Student Council and Honor, few students know when it is going on. As of today, the process is two thirds of the way to completion.

This process begins when applications are made available at the end of the fall semester. Any student at the University may apply, undergraduate and graduate students alike. This year there were twenty-four applications, including one from the Darden School, two from the Law School, one from the Batten School, and twenty from various undergraduate programs. These applications are reviewed by a selection committee, headed by Vice President of Student Affairs Pat Lampkin, and Secretary to the Board of Visitors Susan Harris. Traditionally, the Chair of the University Judiciary Committee, the chair of the Honor Committee, the Student Council president, the student member to the Board, a graduate school representative, and two at-large selections are made by Ms. Harris and Vice President Lampkin in the interest of representing a diverse range of student opinions, comprise the committee.

The committee reviews the applications, which consist of a resume as well as a few short answer questions, and through careful evaluation and discussion, narrows the list of applicants down to as few as six or as many as ten. This year there were eight. These candidates are then interviewed by the committee; the interviews last approximately twenty minutes and usually everyone on the committee is able to ask a question. From these, two or three applicants are officially nominated by the committee to be interviewed by the Executive Committee of the Board. The Executive Committee is composed of the Rector, Vice Rector and (this year) five other board members. The student member is also a part of this round of interviews, as is Vice President Lampkin. Once the Executive Committee has nominated a candidate, the full board votes in a closed session to select the student member.

I can feel the immediate response to the conclusion of this process as an unpopular one. How can the student member possibly be expected to be the best representative of student opinion and interest if he or she is selected by the Board alone? Rest assured that there is a more than reasonable explanation for this. First of all, it has to be considered that the Board deserves to have a say in the selection if there is to be any chance of cooperation with the student member. The position is all about the dual responsibility of representing the decisions of the Board to students and the thoughts of the students to the Board. If the Board is going to be at all receptive to what the student member has to say or at all willing to share with the student member their thoughts, they have to be able to work with him or her in a relationship that requires delicacy and discretion. Do not lose sight of the fact that the student selection committee, comprised of elected student officials and representatives meant to capture a wide range of student opinion, plays a much larger role in selecting the candidate than does the Board. Last year there were 44 applicants, and the student committee was responsible for whittling that number down to three. This is a decision that is made by students — albeit through an indirect democracy — as much as, if not more than, the Board itself.

Why not make the selection into an election? Why not strive for direct democracy? As I mentioned above, there is value to the board being able to weigh in on the final decision. This is also not a position for which students ought to campaign. The position is non-voting and therefore to have a platform and an agenda on which to campaign would not only be detrimental to interacting with the Board but also disingenuous to the student body, nothing more than a hollow promise.

As it stands, the process allows experienced student leaders, students from a variety of backgrounds and administrators very familiar with student affairs and board operations to refine the search to narrow field of candidates, each of whom the student committee feels could ably serve as the student member. Such is the nature of the discussion deciding their nomination. From the range of three highly capable students, the board selects one to serve as the student member, completing a process that is built on the responsibilities and demands of the position. There may be amendments to the position itself that have some merit to them, but the means by which the current position is selected is balanced in favor of student self-governance while remaining fair to the Board.

Blake Blaze is a fourth-year in the College and is currently serving as the Board of Visitors student representative.

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