What Does it Mean to be a Student Representative?

Lachlan Johnson

The student body is meant to have a voice on the governing boards that advise the Board of Trustees on the college’s most important decisions. However, a recent survey sent to students on administrative transparency suggests that the majority of students don’t know who the student representatives to these boards are.

Student representatives to the governing boards are appointed by the ASWC Nominations Committee. While they are intended to communicate with the student body, formal methods of sharing information and soliciting feedback have been nearly unheard of due to lack of clear guidelines from ASWC and confusion about what information from committee meetings is meant to stay confidential. To remedy this, ASWC officials plan to encourage student representatives to be more proactive about communicating with ASWC and the student body as a whole.

“It’s important for student representatives to be informed on a wide range of issues that are important to students, and in those discussions present viewpoints that are reflective of those opinions and also reflective of the values of the student body.” said ASWC President Jack Percival. Percival is serving on the Enrollment Committee for his third year. As ASWC’s president he is also an ex-officio (non-voting) member of the Student Life and Diversity committees.

Student representatives to the governing boards are not elected. They are chosen by the ASWC Nominations Committee which reviews resumes and cover letters, interviews candidates, and endorses nominees who are nearly always approved by the full ASWC senate. While Percival and McCorvie agree that student representatives ought to aspire to learn about public opinion among the student body, there are currently no clear guidelines for this in the ASWC by-laws.

“[ASWC] lets each student define their own role. If this was your philosophy, you could only present your own viewpoints on a committee…I very much believe in a hybrid between that system and voicing what my constituents think as well. Yes, my viewpoints are important, but I absolutely try to include the voice of my constituents,” said junior ASWC senator Mitch Cutter, who sits on the Buildings & Grounds Committee.

The transparency survey organized by ASWC and Divest Whitman last fall found 61 percent of respondents were unsure about how ASWC communicates with the Board of Trustees, and 74 percent were unfamiliar with the governing boards.

“All of my work [as Nominations Chair] is finding these [student representatives], so it’s frustrating [that] the student body doesn’t have these voices they can access. But [the survey] also points to the need to make some real change,” said AnnaMarie McCorvie, the Chair of ASWC’s Nominations Committee.

When The Pioneer reached out to student representatives at the beginning of February to ask what issues were discussed and whether there were any topics they wished to ask of students, none responded. According to Percival and McCorvie, this was in large part due to concerns that sharing information could break rules regarding confidentiality about what is discussed in committee meetings.

“I’ve been very cautious about sharing things that may not necessarily be…[shareable] frankly because I don’t want to endanger that system at all. I’d like to keep the powers that be happy about how the system is working out,” Cutter said.

Chair of the Board of Trustees Brad McMurchie, Vice Chair Nancy Serrurier and Chair of the Trustee Nominating and Governance Committee Barbara Feign clarified guidelines for confidentiality in an email to The Pioneer. Generally, agenda items for trustee meetings can be shared and discussed by student representatives. For example, the Student Life Committee is beginning a study of alcohol use on campus, and the Enrollment Committee is investigating why the college missed this year’s enrollment target.

“Each of these introductions could lead to a conversation about the topic where the student representatives could broaden their understanding of student views and also provide an opportunity to encourage students to learn more about the topic, if they are interested,” said McMurchie, Serrurier and Feign in the email.

Specific details of the conversations that take place during committee meetings and materials used during the meeting that are not already publicly available (such as admissions and financial aid statistics) are to be kept confidential. This is meant to ensure that only a single conclusion is released by a committee, that data such as enrollment statistics and financial details of the college are not released in such a way that it could weaken its competitive position and that individual committee members feel as though they can express opinions that may be unpopular.

McMurchie, Serrurier and Feign also expressed a view of student representatives slightly divergent from that held by ASWC officials who wish to see greater engagement between representatives on governing boards and the student body.

“Surveying other students, formally or by asking around, may have a place in ensuring the student reps are aware of and express the range of student views, though the student reps will generally have more information about the topic than their peers. Informed opinions are useful to the conversation, uninformed ones less so,” McMurchie said in the email. “The real value [of the student representatives]…are their thoughtful contributions made as intelligent, informed committee members who happen to be students.”

In the next year, McCorvie plans to rewrite ASWC bylaws to ensure student representatives to governing boards work more closely with ASWC to communicate with the student body in both sharing the topics being discussed by governing boards and soliciting feedback from their constituents.

“It’s kind of been lost on ASWC that the college committees and governing board [representatives] are part of our student government,” McCorvie said. “They’ve become this separate thing, and in a lot of ways our by-laws could be shifted so [that] these representatives know they’re part of ASWC and are the best student representatives they can be.”