University of Pennsylvania students want to be included on its board … – The Philadelphia Inquirer

The graduate student assembly passed a resolution earlier this month, asking that one graduate student and one undergraduate be added to the board.
The University of Pennsylvania’s board of trustees is led by a New York City investment banker, one of many board members with a financial or legal background.
There’s also a billionaire who heads one of the nation’s leading makeup and fragrance companies, a pro bono CEO of a group that aids poor women weavers in rural Afghanistan, and the leader of a biotech company that focuses on treatments for emerging infectious diseases — to name a few.
But there’s one kind of member the 54-person board doesn’t have: a student.
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And now, some Penn students say that needs to change.
“Fundamentally, students should have a full say in higher education and especially in their university governance,” said Robert Blake Watson, head of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly and a third-year law student from Kentucky, who also is pursuing a master’s in education policy.
The board at any university has vast oversight. Among its tasks, it sets tuition and room and board, selects the president, and establishes investment policy — a topic in which Penn students have taken particular interest concerning fossil-fuel investments.
The graduate student assembly passed a resolution earlier this month, asking that one graduate student and one undergraduate be added to the board. Under the proposal, the students would have the same rights and power as other board members, including a vote. The resolution also has been put before the undergraduate student assembly, but it hasn’t yet voted.
Penn declined to comment.
Charlie Schumer, 21, a political science and economics double major from Minneapolis who is advocating for the undergraduate student assembly to pass the resolution, said it’s vital to have the voice of students in the decision-making room. There are more than 28,000 full- and part-time undergraduate, graduate, and professional students enrolled at Penn.
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“So many of the trustees aren’t residents of Pennsylvania,” said Schumer, vice president of the junior class and no relation to the U.S. senator of the same name. “They are important, but it’s also important to have voices of those who are actively engaged 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, N.Y., includes two students, an undergraduate and graduate student, with full voting privileges on its board.
Duke University, which isn’t an Ivy but is highly selective, has student members on its board it calls “young trustees” and emphasizes that they are not to advocate for any particular group.
“The Young Trustee position was created to ensure that the board included individuals who are closer to the experience of today’s Duke — not to have students on the board to advocate for student issues,” the university’s website says.
Across the region, student membership on trustee boards varies. The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, which oversees 10 state universities, including West Chester and Cheyney, has three student members with full voting privileges on its board of governors. Others that include students who are full-fledged voting members include Pennsylvania State University, which added a 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’s the president of student government who attends public sessions of board meetings.
Temple “is currently reviewing the structure of student and faculty participation in meetings.” said spokesperson Steve Orbanek.
At Rutgers, the student representative, who is selected by the university senate, a practice in place since 1971, participates in all meetings and board functions, spokesperson Dory Devlin said.
Haverford and Swarthmore Colleges and La Salle and St. Joseph’s Universities, like Penn, don’t have students on their boards. La Salle’s bylaws, however, require that a “young trustee, ordinarily a graduate of the university within the past five academic years,” serves on the board, said Christopher Vito, a university spokesperson.
Swarthmore’s president and vice president of student government attend meetings as “student board observers” but do not participate in decision-making, which is reached by consensus.
At Haverford, which has a decision-making process similar to Swarthmore, the 33-member board of managers is nearly all alumni and comes from around the world. The board is headed by alumnus Charlie Beever, a retired consultant from Fairfield, Conn. Garry Jenkins, dean of the law school at the University of Minnesota and also an alumnus, is vice chair.
Four students selected by the student body serve as representatives to the board and “are fully embraced and invited into the conversations,” said Jesse Lytle, vice president and chief of staff. “But when it comes to official actions, it’s managers only.”
Trustees, he said, are able to take a longer-term view of what’s best for the college and not be overly influenced by daily interests, he said. Their service, usually a period of 12 years, extends “beyond the life span of the students who are inhabiting the institution at any given point,” he said.
Another reason to exclude students from decision-making, he said, is that the board sometimes deals with sensitive personnel or financial matters that require confidentiality. The board discusses some of those matters in private, he said.
But at the Pennsylvania state system, where students are fully involved in those discussions, that hasn’t been a problem, said Cynthia D. Shapira, who has been on the PASSHE board for seven years and chair since 2016.
“There have been times when I’ve had silent worries about student governors participating in personnel, legal and financial discussions, but my silent worries have never materialized,” said Shapira, a former education management consultant from Pittsburgh who also is vice chair of the board at Brandeis University. “Student governors on our board consistently have understood and behaved in accordance with what is expected of all governors. … Perhaps we’ve been lucky in terms of the quality of our student governors, all of whom go through an application process that includes a written statement of interest and interviews at the campus and at the BOG [board of governors] level.”
She noted that she reminds board members every time there is an executive session to discuss personnel or legal matters that it is confidential. She also said that because PASSHE governs state universities, the system is very transparent about financial matters, which might be different at private schools.
At Penn, where students currently are only included on board committees, students hope to put the resolution before the board of trustees as soon as its meeting in early March.
Schumer, the Penn student, said he and another student asked the undergraduate assembly to consider it earlier this month, but they wanted to hear from the administration. He hopes to return with that input by mid-February.
Graduate student Keshara Senanayake said the decisions trustees make affect students’ daily lives in major ways.
“Ultimately the trustees have the final decision-making authority at the university,” said Senanayake, vice president of programming for the graduate student assembly and a third-year law student. “Having students in the room where it happens is very important.”


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