Demanding Access to Trustees

New student group at Davidson wants board to hold regular town hall meetings.

April 14, 2017
 
Photo by Sacha Franks
Davidson students push for more access to college's board.

Amid a heated political climate that has bled onto college campuses nationwide, students at Davidson College, a private liberal arts institution in North Carolina, have demanded easier access to the governing board there.

A digital petition circulating campus since March 31 from a new Davidson student group unaffiliated with the college calls for an amendment to the Board of Trustees’ bylaws that would require at least 20 percent of the board membership to attend twice-annual town halls open to all students.

Such a request comes at a time when, more and more frequently, students are rejecting the notion that their contact person is perhaps a professor or college dean, and have instead sought direct contact with presidents and trustees.

Students have stipulated that the town halls occur on campus within a week of the trustee meetings and be advertised at least one week before they’re scheduled. Public college and university boards generally meet in the open and often dedicate time for attendees to make remarks. Many boards of private colleges maintain no such requirement or practice of meeting publicly.

After trustee meetings, the board should publish a report of its actions, the petition states, with a caveat that confidential information can be redacted at the chairman’s discretion.

Between 30 and 45 people sit on Davidson’s board.

Following the election of President Trump, some students on campus were scared, representatives from the group Ortaculture said in a phone interview.

Minority students feared the new administration’s policies that would restrict their rights, the students said. Protests in Charlotte, proximate to the college, spawned by a police officer’s fatal shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in September 2016 “burst the bubble” of Davidson, said Evans Schmedtje, a junior and a member of Ortaculture. A coalition called Charlotte Uprising emerged from those protests.

Given the election results and the protests, a network of students, primarily drawn from the existing minority student organizations, formed Ortaculture. Those involved with the group deliberately avoided chartering with the university -- and subsequently taking its money -- because organizers wanted to ensure independence and lobby the leadership without any ties.

The group name derives from the Latin word “orta,” or “arisen,” which the students translated into “Rising Culture.”

Though the group of 40 or so students has held lectures on hot-button topics like police brutality, the petition has served as its first major campaign. Access to information and board decisions is an appropriate first step to allow the students to plan around policy the board sets, Schmedtje said.

Student government at the college is “disempowered,” said Santiago Navia, a senior involved with Ortaculture. The president of the Student Government Association may attend trustee meetings and speak but cannot vote.

Last week, when the board convened, students with the group gathered outside the building where the trustees met, with signs saying, “Sign our petition,” and one that simply asked, “Let’s get coffee.”

Davidson spokesman Mark Johnson said via email that trustees are “eager” to speak with students and a request to talk with them at their last meeting likely would have been accommodated. Students enjoy extensive access to the trustees, Johnson said. He pointed out the position of the student government president, and that students participate in committees the board has set up that focus in various aspects of university life. Some students also participate in a “social function” with the board when it meets, like a two-hour lunch for the board’s April meeting.

Johnson did not make Davidson President Carol Quillen, who was due to meet with Ortaculture students Wednesday, available for an interview.

Richard Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, called the petition at Davidson an “exaggerated request.” He questioned whether the bylaws of the board were even the proper place to include the students’ stipulations.

“I’m sure the students are passionate about the issues they’re representing, but to overregulate the response could have a reverse impact,” Legon said. “I’m sure if I’m right about Davidson and its leadership that they’re doing as good a job as they can in reaching out and engaging students in multiple ways.”

Legon acknowledged that since the election, a sense of agitation has grown on college campuses, one that is not unhealthy, because it can create dialogue among students. However, they need to learn how to best engage with existing systems of communication with leadership, he said.

In a statement Tuesday regarding the Davidson petition, Armand Alacbay, vice president of trustee and legislative affairs at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said that governing boards should “be receptive to all, but be beholden to none.”

“It’s critical for trustees to be knowledgeable about campus life, accept faculty and administrator invitations to attend campus events, and thoroughly understand the institution’s unique character, resources and needs -- but ultimately, they represent the interests of all, not just one constituent group,” the statement said.

“As fiduciaries of the public trust, trustees rightly demand accountability of their institutions, and likewise, students and the public should expect the same level of accountability from governing boards. Above all else, boards must exercise independent oversight to protect the institution’s financial and academic integrity and, therefore, should use their own discretion as they build structures for communicating with students, faculty and others on campus. Reflexively responding to the demands of any one group without taking a comprehensive view of the institution’s needs would be a failure of board leadership.”

Thus far, the students have collected almost 200 signatures on their petition, nearly enough to bring the measure to a full referendum for a student body vote.

They will deliver the petition to the student government, which will confirm the validity of the signatures. If a majority of the student body votes yes on the proposal, it will be added to the board’s agenda for consideration.

Davidson started out as an all-men’s liberal arts college and has maintained a small, rural feel, though as the city of Charlotte expands, so does its influence on the campus.

“Part of the issue we’re having now is almost all old white men are making the decisions … it’s a deeply undemocratic process,” Schmedtje said. “Their experience from 30, 40, 50 years ago isn’t the same, and the institution has changed drastically.”

All colleges, both private and public, have grappled with the problem of board diversity, and are “leaning into it,” Legon said.

Finding willing volunteers for a board, who are both diverse and with a connection to the institution, can be difficult, he said.

A similar movement to Davidson's has sprung up at Salem College, where students have rallied for the Board of Trustees to undergo mandatory diversity training. They’re seeking yearly meetings with the board there, and two student representatives on the board who are allowed to vote.

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