Staff editorial: Board of trustees lacks transparency, in excess of authority

Shortly before Carly Rae Jepsen took the stage at fall WILD Oct. 5, the Washington University board of trustees convened for its quarterly meeting. At the close of the proceedings, the board had selected a replacement for outgoing Chairman Craig Schnuck—Andrew Newman, chairman of Hackett Security Inc.

This was probably the first time most Washington University students heard of Newman. However, he has been influencing the lives of Washington University students for more than three decades, serving on the board since 1987. Newman has been part of the process of making decisions that have directly affected the college experiences of tens of thousands of students, most of whom only learned his name with this announcement.

This phenomenon is indicative of a larger problem with the board: Simply put, the Washington University board of trustees has serious issues with transparency. Four times a year, a group mostly composed of businesspeople who students would not recognize if they saw them walking across campus, meets in a room, reaches a series of decisions and announces those decision to the University community.

From the point of view of the students who actually attend the University, whose lives are most substantially affected by the board’s meetings, these decisions are delivered out of nowhere, with no context as to how they happened.

The board’s website does not provide much clarity. Aside from the charter and a list of people that serve on the board, there is not much information to work with. There is no information about parameters for board membership, when their next meeting will be, anything resembling an agenda or major announcements from the most recent meeting.

The website does confirm just how sweeping the board’s authority is. According to a list on its homepage, the board is in charge of nearly every major decision concerning the University’s finances, including the annual budgets and managing the endowment, as well as approving tenure and new degree programs.

The bottom line is that the board has huge powers of the University, yet students are left largely in the dark about almost every detail of its operations.

The lack of publication of the requirements for and length of membership is particularly relevant to the overall problem of transparency. A cursory look at the list of current board members shows that the vast majority of them have business backgrounds, and many of them have names that are already attached to various buildings and programs on campus (Brauer, Kemper, Sumers, Skandalaris). Though it would be easy to criticize the board for electing another white businessman to be the next chair, it is very hard to tell how the board might go about making sure there are other types of people among their ranks who might become the next chairman without any information about how someone joins the board.

Clarifying the process of how one joins the board might help students understand who is making the decisions, and it might allow for more people who are invested in the future of the University become involved in the board.

The board has a single method for transparency and communication with the student body at the moment: the undergraduate and graduate representatives to the board. This is a mechanism that should be bolstered. It is naive to think that two students (per degree level) could possibly represent the diverse interests of the entire undergraduate student body. The student representative program should be expanded to allow the board to hear a wide range of student voices, making them more accountable to the students and more able to make decisions that are in their best interest.

This would allow the board to more adequately and directly address student concerns. In particular, recent movements like the Fight for $15 and the push for fossil fuel divestment from groups like Fossil Free WashU require action from the board and opening up lines of communication with those groups would help them tackle issues that are important to the University community.

The board of trustees is perhaps the most consequential institution in determining the direction of the University. The people who are the most directly affected by this direction—the students—should at the very least be informed how these decisions are made.