Who Rules the School? Trustees and Transparency

Lachlan Johnson

This week a small group of powerful people will meet behind closed doors to decide the future of Whitman College, as the Board of Trustees hold one of their three annual meetings. The transparency of Whitman’s Board of Trustees and administration has been a source of contention for years, and despite some steps taken to increase communication, a recent survey of students found many are still unsatisfied and uninformed.

In the last year, there have been a number of controversies involving transparency, including the suspension of the debate team, suspension of parts of the Global Studies Initiative, and trustees’ lack of response to numerous resolutions passed by student and faculty in favor of divestment from fossil fuel companies. This November two Divest Whitman members, juniors Mona Law and Mitchell Cutter, formed the Transparency at Whitman Working Group (TWWG) and collaborated with ASWC to poll students on their perceptions of the Board of Trustees, administration, and ASWC.

“The idea was to look into how students really felt about governance in general at the college. Could things be improved by the administration, by the Board of Trustees, by ASWC to make things more clear to people?” said Cutter.

Is Whitman Transparent?

Since December, nearly 300 students have responded to TWWG’s survey. Results show the majority of students are not confident in their understanding of the roles of President Murray and the Board of Trustees. Nearly half of respondents were also unfamiliar with the role of ASWC. Respondents expressed a strong desire for increased transparency from trustees and administrators.

There is a wide gap between most students’ perception of transparency and the trustees’ stated goals.

“The Board has an obligation to work with the administration to make sure we are communicating [to the Whitman community] what we are thinking, what we are hoping to accomplish, and what our priorities are,” said Brad McMurchie ‘84, the chair of the Board of Trustees. “We try to do that through regular communication with the campus following our meetings, which happen three times a year. I’ve been to a faculty meeting, [and] it’s quite common for board members to participate in multiple forums on campus.”

Just a few years ago, the Whitman administration was significantly less transparent than it is today. Since becoming chair of the board in 2014, McMurchie has worked with the college’s president to send an email to the campus community after every trustee meeting explaining what decisions were made. In addition, student representation on governing board committees was expanded in the spring of 2013 following advocacy by then-ASWC President Kayvon Behroozian ‘14.

This week 43 students selected by the Dean of Students office also had the opportunity to sit down and have dinner with trustees, a first in the college’s history.

“To my knowledge, and I’ve been here a long time, I don’t think there’s ever been a large dinner like this with students and trustees, [and] I think it’s really terrific,” said Dean of Students Chuck Cleveland. “They’ve done this with faculty for years, and I hope this is the beginning and not one and done.”

Students were selected by the Dean of Students’ Council to include a diversity of class years and be representative of the student body’s gender balance and ethnic diversity. Residence life staff, club leaders, interns in college offices, athletes, and ASWC are all represented. In addition, some students not invited to the dinner with trustees had the opportunity to network with them at an event arranged by the Student Engagement Center.

Transparency at other colleges

Whitman’s peer institutions have various approaches to transparency. Rhodes College holds “trustee debriefs” at the end of trustee meetings, where the trustees communicate face-to-face with the campus. At several schools the President holds office hours where students can drop by to discuss concerns, a policy Whitman President Kathy Murray is willing to consider should students be interested. Murray has also met with several student groups this year, and is committed to speaking with students who reach out.

Some of Whitman’s peer institutions have “young trustee” positions that guarantee recent graduates a chance to participate in campus governance; of all Whitman’s peer institutions, it is the only one without a trustee who graduated from the college in the last 25 years.

One of the most common requests from students advocating for transparency at Whitman College is the inclusion of a student representative in closed-door meetings of the Board of Trustees. Half of Whitman’s peer institutions have student representation on the boards, including Macalester College, where President Murray was Provost & Dean of Faculty before coming to Whitman.

“[The student liaison position] worked when it was a student who was really interested in getting back out to students, after and before those meetings, to solicit their views and to share what had happened. Some years that worked better than others; it was totally dependent on the interest level of the person selected,” said Murray.

Student representation

Though Whitman’s Board of Trustees doesn’t have a student liaison, a handful of students appointed by ASWC serve on various governing board committees. However, according to the TWWG survey many students are unfamiliar with these opportunities.

“We do have student representatives on each of the governing board committees, and I don’t think students always realize that,” said ASWC President Jack Percival. “I would encourage people to read the ASWC e-mails that we send, because much of the information [about the governing board positions] is included in there.”

Unlike other ASWC positions, representatives to governing boards are chosen by ASWC’s Nominations Committee, not elected by the student body.

“I think the nominations committee is a really good way to do [appointments], because one, it’s nice to be tied to the institutional resources of ASWC if [representatives] want that, and two, it gives them a lot of legitimacy to go through this very intense, rigorous process [of applying],” said Percival.

Moving forward, TWWG is undecided about whether to advocate for particular changes in policies surrounding transparency. Divest Whitman plans to use the results from their survey in art installations challenging trustees to be more transparent in their decisions and respond to student concerns, including fossil fuel divestment.

“It think there’s a lot of concern right now about students not feeling their voices are heard,” said Law. “I think ASWC does a really great job…but the fact that people have concerns about the transparency for the college means…the student government has a responsibility to take that into consideration.”