When asked about student representatives to the board, board members often suggest something like: “They’re great... they just tend not to make their voices heard.” There is no doubt much truth to that experience, but new research being released this week suggests such reflections might be more helpful in reverse: "..[W]e just haven’t positioned the board to hear meaningfully from students.”
The Student Voice Index report, published by the National Campus Leadership Council (NCLC) with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, stems from a national survey of student body presidents. Prompted by instances of student unrest, the survey asked these student leaders about their involvement in college and university governance and the strength of “student voice” in their institutions. Among the report’s findings:
- “Engagement with the governing board matters, no matter the role;”
- Speaking rights in board meetings matter more than voting rights; and
- Only 22% of student representatives report being trained for their position on the governing board, with only 13% of those agreeing their training prepared them to fulfill their duties to the board.
AGB research shows upwards of 70% of public governing boards have student representatives, nearly two-thirds of them holding a vote; and over 20% of independent governing boards have student seats, fewer than half of them voting. Regardless of the structure that’s been adopted, boards (and the chief executives they appoint) would be well-advised to demonstrate real respect for student voices, consistently seeking student insights and input and incorporating them into major decisions. The AGB Board of Directors’ Statement on Shared Governance (2017) states:
While it is appropriate and necessary for a governing board to keep some discussions confidential, important board decisions should be delivered promptly, with evidence of the board’s thoughtfulness. Increasingly, constituencies beyond the full-time faculty and senior administration (such as staff, students, part-time faculty, and alumni) have an understandable expectation of being both informed and consulted on important board decisions.
The NCLC research suggests today’s student leaders are interested in adding greater value to institutional decisions. How to best position the board not just to listen but to hear the “student voice” is a healthy question to consider.