These days, it is the rare college or university governing board that has not addressed the sometimes-volatile issue of including students as members of the board. A recent AGB study shows that 21 percent of independent institution boards now include at least one student member, and more than 70 percent of public institution boards include one or more students. Whether or not a student trustee should also be allowed to vote on board issues is an additional question for debate, a question to which a rapidly-increasing number of public institutions are answering “yes.”
Trends and Current Practice
Results of AGB’s 2010 survey of governing boards’ policies, practices, and composition show that student trusteeship has become common at public institutions—70.8 percent have at least one student board member. The influence of these student trustees* is also growing: the percentage of student board members granted a vote more than doubled between 1997 and 2010, increasing from 20.5 percent to 50.3 percent.
The inclusion of students on public institution boards is due in large part to state law. In many states, the law requires that external interest groups serve on the governing boards of their public higher education institutions. The theory is that the public, and especially the students, should be aware of and have a say in what is going on at their colleges and universities.
The numbers of student trustees on public institution boards, their term lengths, and how they are named to the board all vary by state. Some student trustees are elected by their peers, some are appointed by the governor, and some public systems employ a combination of student election and gubernatorial appointment (candidates for student trustee are elected by fellow students and the governor appoints a trustee from among those candidates). Often, an institution’s student body president also serves as a student trustee. Sarah Elfreth, in her book, The Young Guardians: Students as Stewards of the Past, Present, and Future of American Higher Education. A Field Guide for Student Board Members, includes details about how students are named to public higher education system governing boards in the United States.
In contrast to public higher education institutions, most independent colleges and universities that include students on their boards have done so voluntarily and in fewer numbers. In 2010, 20.1 percent of independent institutions boards included at least one student. Again in contrast to public higher education institutions, the percentage of student trustees on independent institution boards who have a vote has decreased over the last decade, from 9.3 percent in 1997 to 8.5 percent in 2010.
Obstacles to Student Trusteeship
Perhaps the most important argument against having students serve as trustees (and the decisive argument for many) is that conflicts of interest are sure to arise. For example, since boards have the final say on student tuition, how can they ethically vote on tuition issues if their student members are directly affected by board decisions?
Others oppose naming students as trustees for additional reasons:
•Creating a student trustee position may lead faculty, staff, alumni, and others to argue for a seat in the boardroom, and having numerous places set aside for specific constituencies could dilute the influence of the board’s lay trustees.
•Student trustees are inevitably less sophisticated and experienced with management issues and require special orientation and mentoring before they can be effective. Such training is costly because student trustees are apt to graduate after just a year or two of service.
•The transitory nature of student trustees makes it less feasible for them to lead board committees, where much of the substantive work of the board occurs.
•Student trustees may face challenges in working with other student leaders on campus. Conflict can ensue, for example, when a student is appointed as a trustee by the state legislature or the governor without any influence from the student government association in the selection process.
AGB generally does not support the inclusion of students as voting board members because of the inherent conflict of interest created when a student serves on his or her own institution’s board. However, where there is a tradition of including students as trustees, any move by the board to break with tradition would likely result in a damaging political battle. Best practice when students serve on the governing board is to uphold the board’s standards concerning conflicts of interest. In addition, all trustees should receive a substantive orientation about fulfilling their fiduciary responsibilities and acting in the best interests of the institution as a whole, and not in the interests of any particular constituency. Whether or not students serve on the board, special efforts should be made to assess the effectiveness of the board’s communications with students and to employ the best means of information exchange.
Alternatives to Students as Voting Board Members
Rather than have students serve as voting board members, some colleges reserve one or two spots on the board for recent alumni who might be more in touch with student life than their older board colleagues. Because these younger alumni have no immediate connection to the current campus community, they avoid conflicts of interest.
Including current students as members of board committees without the right to vote or attend full board meetings can enrich the work of the board, enhance understanding, and avoid the possible conflicts students might experience as a full voting board member.
* Trustees at public higher education institutions are often called Regents. “Trustee” is used here to refer to board members at both independent and public institutions.