In Whitman We Trust

Tyler Maule, ASWC Copy Editor

Last Thursday, ASWC President Jack Percival and Vice President Arthur Shemitz met with the Board of Trustees during their on-campus meeting. The students’ presentation, a yearly tradition for ASWC leaders, centered around the ideas and initiatives of the Whitman student body. The ASWC Unpacked blog, as per its titular duty, interviewed Percival and Shemitz to unpack their recent meeting.

AU: What is the Board of Trustees, and what is the purpose of their on-campus meeting?

Percival: The Board of Trustees is a group of people who are prominent in their field and who have a strong stake and interest in Whitman College and the liberal arts education that Whitman provides. These are people who are alumni, who are parents, [or] are just invested in the college without any affiliation beyond that interest. The Board has two major responsibilities. The first is that they hire and evaluate the President, which is a big deal because that person is responsible for managing the college […] Two, they have sole financial control over the college. They control the budget; they ensure that the endowment will exist in perpetuity to support students in the college […] The purpose of their on-campus meeting is for them to get updates from various staff about the day-to-day decisions that they’re not involved in… They make big decisions regarding finances [and] the direction of the college, and it’s important for them to all be in the room for those causes.

 AU: Has ASWC always met with the Trustees?

Percival: It has since I’ve been here; I don’t think this was always the case. We are invited to several committee meetings on Thursday […] and then we are invited to speak with them for an hour at lunch, in between their executive sessions. The purpose of that hour-long session is for us to communicate student priorities, student interests, student concerns, […] what initiatives ASWC has been pursuing and what our priorities are in terms of the student government. It’s really an opportunity for us to represent students to the highest echelon of the college.

AU: How do you decide what to communicate?

Shemitz: I think that it’s the same as how we come up with what to discuss in Senate [or] what to put in legislation – it’s the issues that have been really prominent on campus, and the ones that are particularly important for the Trustees to know about. This semester we presented on safety, on the adoption of Preferred Gender Pronouns, and on the Global Studies Initiative, because those are three issues we think have been really big for both students and ASWC. So we’re presenting, “here’s what matters to students,” but also “here are ASWC’s priorities going forward,” “here’s what we’re working on,” and often, “here’s what we want you to do.”

AU: Did you just present the three issues, or was it more of a conversation with the Trustees?

Percival: Because they’re inundated with presentations in their time here, I try to keep the presentation very short, and leave the rest of the time for discussion, because that can be very fruitful […]

AU: Have you seen student concerns being addressed by the Board in the past?

Percival: I started presenting to the board my sophomore year when I was the Vice President, and we presented to the Board regarding enrollment concerns, which is a continuing theme this year. But then, we’d talked about increasing applications for the college, because the applications were the lowest they’d ever had that year. Now we’re having a problem with yield. We’ve had more applications than [ever], but not enough of those people who were admitted came. So, the first presentation I gave to them centered on […] what in the college application process could Whitman do better to entice more people to apply. I think that made a difference, and […] influenced some conversations they were having. Last February, we presented on the Power and Privilege Symposium and advocated for the college to create a budget line item for [it, which] happened that year. I think that was a direct response to [the combination of] student advocacy in that setting, on the President’s budget advisory committee, and [from an ASWC] resolution … that combined pressure was really instrumental in the college creating a budget line item.

AU: Do you think this year’s presentation will have a direct impact?

Percival: [This time] we’re speaking about campus safety and preferred gender pronouns. They’re more Operations questions that the Trustees don’t really deal with. But we wanted to update them on those, because [they] are things that students care about. And as far as the Global Studies Initiative [goes], the Board maintained that it is fully in support of Kathy and Pat’s decision to eliminate course releases. I think that in terms of greater transparency in future decisions at the college level [it] will be on us to pressure administrators […]

AU: When you present these issues, do the Trustees give feedback and their opinions?

Percival: Yes; for instance, when ASWC presented its final version of the Divestment Resolution last May – that was a very contentious meeting – there was a lot of discussion from the Trustees.  There were a lot of questions, criticisms, but ultimately, it was a pretty heated (but also pretty good) discussion.

AU: How can students contribute to this conversation?

Shemitz: Students can always talk to me or Jack. They can always apply to be on a governing board, which are the committees Trustees meet with when they come to campus; we have student representations on most of the committees. And those are full members of the committees – they get to participate in discussion, they get to ask questions, they get to meet the Trustees. So that’s a great way to get directly involved. But if there’s anything smaller, or anything one-time that students want to talk about, Jack and I are always happy to talk. A lot of time those conversations are what become legislation we pass, and what become the presentations we give.

Percival: And just to add to that, there are two student representatives on each governing board committee, and that’s where most of the discussion and decisions actually take place. Oftentimes they will vote – for instance, the Student Life Committee voted on something that arose at the last meeting as far as a policy recommendation. And then it went to the Board for approval. So, a lot of the work is done at the committee level where students have a lot of impact, even if they don’t get to see it actually approved.