Op-Ed: The Trustees Don’t Care About You, So Get Pissed

Chris Meabe

The members of the Board of Trustees don’t care about you. If you ask them, they will sincerely insist otherwise because they truly believe they care about you. The problem is, they have no clue who you are. In fact, they don’t know a thing about you, and the best thing we can do about it is get pissed off.

A few weeks ago, I attended a meet-the-trustees event that was open to the public, although only about twenty students made it. I sat down with a trustee, an old white man I’d never seen before, and a few other students. As I listened to the conversation, it quickly became apparent that he was completely disconnected from Whitman. He spoke derisively about the #metoo movement. He was surprised to find out how much Whitman costs–a number that the trustees vote on every year. He didn’t know what the OP or the IHC stood for. As a part of the event, we cycled around the room and at every stop, the same thing became abundantly clear: the trustees don’t know a thing about our lives. That makes sense for people who spend very little of their time at Whitman.

That’s the problem. For the most part, the trustees don’t know about students at Whitman because they’re rarely here. For all the immense influence they have in shaping our campus, they exercise that control over the course of their three-day-long trustee meetings. That’s why they robotically raise tuition, they throw money in directions that appear arbitrary to the few students that find out about their decisions, and they fail time and time again to anticipate, rather than react to, the needs of students. It’s why, when one member of ASWC asked that trustee about divestment, he replied that he thought that whole thing had blown over and no students really cared about it any more.

He thought that because there hadn’t been a protest. In fact, the only time he said a student’s name in that whole conversation, it was that of one of the 19 non-male-identifying students who stormed into the Board of Trustees’ meeting two years ago, demanding that they take greater action to stop rape on campus. The trustee laughed when he remembered that protest, but the simple fact he remembered that student’s name, paired with his impression that students had given up on divestment made one thing clear: we need to get pissed off at them more often.

Protests are the only form of communication that actually resonate with trustees. At this event, the only time trustees expressed familiarity with the issues facing students was in reference to issues we had protested about recently. So when people say that they’re tired of the protests, they don’t understand that it’s the only way that we can get trustees to listen. We should get angry, get inventive and continue to surprise them with the ways we can demand their ears. Because it doesn’t have to be this way.

The root of the problem is that the trustees simply don’t interact with Whitman students regularly. That’s completely clear if you try and have the same conversation with a member of the administration. Of course there are plenty of valid complaints about the administration’s responses to student needs, but in any interaction with any person who works in Memorial, it is abundantly clear that they are vastly more in-touch with the needs and values of students. Not all of my conversations with administrators have reached the conclusions I wanted, but in every interaction, we have worked off the same pool of knowledge about what people at Whitman want. That’s not how conversations with the trustees go.

I’ve heard it said that we’re lucky to have the trustees we do, because they’re very successful leaders in their fields, but that doesn’t matter if they don’t know who we are. No successful CEO spends just a week-and-a-half a year in the offices of their business, and no public servant spends so little time in the community they serve. But the trustees think that they can know who we are, just because they spent four years here, thirty years ago. With that attitude, they simply cannot care about us.