University of Pennsylvania students want to join the Board of Trustees

The University of Pennsylvania Board of Trustees is headed by a New York investment banker, one of many board members with a financial or legal background.

There’s also a billionaire who runs one of the country’s leading makeup and fragrance companies, a volunteer CEO of a group helping poor weavers in rural Afghanistan, and the head of a biotech company specializing in the treatment of emerging infectious diseases concentrated – just to name a few.

But there’s one breed of member that the 54-strong board doesn’t have: a student.

» READ MORE: Penn awards biggest one-time raise to graduate students as Temple continues negotiations

And now some Penn students are saying that needs to change.

“Basically, students should have a full say in higher education and particularly in its university administration,” said Robert Blake Watson, head of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly and a third-year law student from Kentucky who is also pursuing a master’s in education policy.

The board of every university has extensive oversight. His responsibilities include tuition, room and board, electing the president, and setting investment policy—a topic in which Penn students have shown particular interest in the context of fossil fuel investing.

The student assembly passed a resolution earlier this month asking that a graduate student and an undergraduate be placed on the board. Under the proposal, students would have the same rights and powers as other board members, including one vote. The resolution was also submitted to the student assembly, but it is not still tuned.

Penn declined to comment.

Charlie Schumer, 21, a Minneapolis-based political science and economist who is campaigning for the student assembly to pass the resolution, said it’s important to have the students’ voice in the decision-making room. Penn has more than 28,000 full-time and part-time students, graduates and professionals enrolled.

» READ MORE: Penn students camp out on campus greens to meet their environmental needs

“So many of the trustees are not Pennsylvania residents,” said Schumer, a junior class vice president and no relation to the U.S. Senator of the same name. “They are important, but it’s also important to have voices from those who are actively involved with the university every day, people who live in the community.”

Penn wouldn’t be the first Ivy League school to add a student. Cornell University in Ithaca, NY comprises two undergraduates, one undergraduate and one graduate student, with full voting rights on the Board of Directors.

Duke University, which isn’t an Ivy but is very picky, has student members on its board whom it calls “young trustees” and insists they shouldn’t lobby for any particular group.

“The position of Young Trustee was created to ensure that the board includes people closer to the experience of the current Duke – not having students on the board who are committed to student affairs,” the university’s website reads.

Student membership in boards of trustees varies across the region. The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, which oversees 10 state universities, including West Chester and Cheyney, has three full-voting student members on its Board of Governors. Other students who are full voting members include Pennsylvania State University, which added an undergraduate student in 2015, and Rowan University in New Jersey.

Rutgers and Temple have a student on the board, but they don’t vote. At Temple, it is the student union president who attends the public sessions of the board meetings.

Temple is “currently reviewing the structure of student and faculty attendance at meetings,” said spokesman Steve Orbanek.

At Rutgers, the student representative, who has been in office since 1971 and is elected by the university’s Senate, attends all meetings and board functions, spokeswoman Dory Devlin said.

Haverford and Swarthmore Colleges and La Salle and St. Joseph’s Universities, like Penn, have no students on their boards. However, La Salle’s charter requires that a “young trustee, usually a graduate of the university within the last five academic years” sit on the board, said Christopher Vito, a spokesman for the university.

The President and Vice President of Swarthmore Student Council attend meetings as “Student Committee Observers” but do not participate in decision-making, which is reached by consensus.

At Haverford, which has a similar decision-making process to Swarthmore, the 33-strong board is made up almost entirely of alumni and comes from around the world. The board is chaired by alumnus Charlie Beever, a retired consultant from Fairfield, Connecticut. Garry Jenkins, dean of the University of Minnesota Law School and also an alumnus, is vice chair.

Four students selected by the student body will serve as board representatives and “are fully accepted and invited to the discussions,” said Jesse Lytle, vice president and chief of staff. “But when it comes to regulatory action, it’s just managers.”

Trustees, he said, are able to take a longer-term view of what is best for the college and are not overly swayed by day-to-day interests, he said. Their service, typically a 12-year period, extends “beyond the lifespan of the students who live in the facility at any given time,” he said.

Another reason for excluding students from decision-making is that the board sometimes deals with sensitive human resources or financial matters that require confidentiality. The board is discussing some of these matters privately, he said.

But in the Pennsylvania state system, where students are fully involved in these discussions, that wasn’t a problem, said Cynthia D. Shapira, who has served on the PASSHE board for seven years and has served as chair since 2016.

“There have been times when I’ve had quiet worries about student governors participating in human resources, legal and financial discussions, but my hidden worries have never materialized,” said Shapira, a former education management consultant from Pittsburgh who is also the vice chair who is on the board of directors of Brandeis University. “Student governors on our board have consistently understood and acted accordingly what is expected of all governors. … Perhaps we were lucky with the quality of our student governors, who all go through an application process that includes a written expression of interest and interviews on campus and at the BOG [board of governors] just.”

She noted that she always reminds board members that any board meeting to discuss personnel or legal matters is confidential. She also said that because PASSHE regulates public universities, the system is very transparent on financial matters, which might be different in private schools.

In Penn, where students currently only sit on board committees, the students hope to present the resolution to the Board of Trustees at its early March meeting.

Schumer, the Penn sophomore, said he and another student asked the student assembly earlier this month to consider it, but they wanted to hear from administration. He hopes to return with this input by mid-February.

PhD student Keshara Senanayake said the trustees’ decisions greatly affect the students’ daily lives.

“Ultimately, the trustees have final decision-making authority at the university,” said Senanayake, vice president of programming for the student assembly and a third-year law student. “Having students in the space where it’s happening is very important.”