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“Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.” —H. L. Mencken

You’re in a leadership role on a campus that wants to do something you consider destructive, or ill-advised, or even illegal. What do you do?

To some degree, it depends on your theory of your role. Are you more of a delegate or more of a trustee?

In political theory, a “delegate” is someone whose job it is to represent the will of whomever delegated them. If the people want to do something stupid, then so be it; your job as a delegate is to give them what they want, even if you suspect it’s a bad idea. A delegate isn’t supposed to stray from popular opinion within the group they represent.

A “trustee,” by contrast, is entrusted to wield positional authority for the good of the group, drawing on the trustee’s own best judgment. While a smart trustee will be aware of public opinion and will defer to it when the cost is low, a trustee will sometimes defy the popular consensus in the name of a perceived greater good.

Much of the time, the distinction is abstract. But it becomes clear quickly when a solid majority goes off the rails. A trustee will try to bring them back; a delegate will cheer them on, even if that means going off a cliff with them.

Colleges are usually governed by boards of trustees. Their loyalty is supposed to be to the mission of the institution, rather than to any given constituency or even to the appointing authority who put them there. Sometimes the popular will butts up against the mission of the institution, as is happening in Florida right now. When that happens, trustees should uphold the mission, even if that means annoying large and/or powerful entities.

Although the framers didn’t put it in exactly these words, it’s possible to see the House of Representatives as built on the logic of delegates and the Senate as built on the logic of trustees. That’s why senators weren’t directly elected until the early 20th century. The original idea was that senators would be a better sort of person, more able to take the long view and cast aside the passions of the moment. They were originally elected by state legislatures on the idea that legislators would know them personally and could size them up. After all, you wouldn’t want to entrust power and judgment to an idiot.

That was the theory, anyway.

Delegates are vulnerable to the criticism of being little more than robots or weather vanes. A pure delegate really isn’t worth talking to about anything substantive, unless you’re talking about poll data. They have no core convictions on policy, other than to do what’s most popular at the time. If the public mood changes, so do they.

Trustees are vulnerable to the criticisms of being elitist and/or corrupt. Defending the rights of an unpopular minority against an angry majority may be the morally right thing to do, but many in the majority will see it as elitist (or “woke”). And since even those who pay attention to the big picture can have feet of clay, flaws that might be relatable in a delegate can come off as hypocritical or worse in a trustee. (“What makes you think you’re better than the rest of us?”)

The distinction between the two camps, while necessarily a bit overdrawn, comes to the fore when issues become heated.

Over the long term, what would happen if entire college faculties had to turn over every time partisan control of the state government changed? If the answer is “nothing good,” then we should probably stop and think hard before any partisan purges. That may require a given administration tolerating some folks it finds irritating. The alternative would become unwieldy over time. Purge the liberals now, purge the conservatives in a few years, then flip back again; no university could withstand that. Trustees—the folks whose loyalty is supposed to be to the mission—can’t be shy about saying that. If they can’t say it, they aren’t trustees at all.

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