SMU is one of a handful of universities in the country where a student sits on the governing board of trustees. SMU officials are proud of that. They cite it as proof that SMU is committed to empowering students in important university decisions.
There are strings attached, however.
The selection process for the student trustee position is shrouded in secrecy. Applicants are questioned on whether they can be trusted to keep secrets. The board then selects a student with little direct input from students. And once the student joins the board, meetings — and decisions — are made in private.
Many students say the secretive process means they have little input into the board’s decisions.
“Even if they make decisions that won’t have an impact for a long time, students should still be involved more directly,” said Coleman Anglin, a sophomore philosophy and foreign language major. “As it is, it seems they’re just paying lip service to the idea of student empowerment.”
Thomas Kincaid, the SMU student body president who recently was selected to serve as the student trustee in 2004-05, disagreed.
“The fact that there is a student sitting on the Board of Trustees is a symbol of SMU’s commitment to student empowerment,” he said. “It shows the extent to which the school trusts the students.”
Some students feel that they had little or no say in deciding the fate of the men’s track and field team.
On Friday, February 20, the board voted to eliminate the men’s track and field team. Though university officials had been considering the move for a year, they never publicized what they were doing.
Officials said they told the SMU Student Senate they were considering eliminating the team. But they acknowledged that they did so in a closed meeting.
“It was a closed session, so it might have been confidential,” said Meredith Price, the current student trustee. “I’m not sure the information was made available to the students.”
Kincaid said those who needed to know were told about the possible elimination of the program.
“The students know what’s going on through their representatives,” he said. “The track team was told ahead of time. We compete for student athletes as well, if we put it out there that we’re cutting a program ahead of time... recruitment and morale would suffer.”
Members of the track team say they did not get the notice until the 11th hour.
“We were told on Wednesday, and the decision was made public on Friday,” said Abraham Ekal, a sprinter on the track team. “If we had been told officials were considering cutting the team with more time, we could have at least tried to raise money to keep the program.”
The athletic committee presented a report suggesting that the board cut the track team, and the board agreed. Officials insist students were given a say in the decision through their representatives. But most students said they had any no inkling of the bomb the administration was about to drop.
“It seems to me that the decision to eliminate the men’s track team is looked upon negatively by the majority of the students,” Anglin said.
The board, not students, selects who will represent the student body.
Initially, a committee of administrators, student representative and incoming student officers select people to be interviewed.
Kincaid declined to elaborate on the interview process, saying it is “confidential.”
However, officials acknowledged that as part of the selection process, students must answer three essay questions, one of which probes an applicant’s willingness to keep a secret.
It says, “Confidentiality is a serious obligation for a member of the Board of Trustees and its standing committees,” and asks for “an example of a situation where [the applicant was] confronted with the choice to disclose sensitive information, and explain how [he or she] dealt with that situation.”
Some think students should be given more say in who they want as student trustee.
“We’re adults and should be treated as such,” said David Pan, an SMU sophomore. “We’re paying a lot of money to go here, and it makes you wonder if they’re really interested in what students want.”
Once a student has been nominated, the board makes the final decision.
However, according to Butch Oxendine, editor-in-chief of Student Leader, some schools are now allowing students to elect their board representative.
“The power of an institution is in the board of trustees, so ideally you’d like a student there, one who isn’t necessarily a student senator,” said Oxendine, whose publication is the official voice of the American Student Government Association.
SMU officials dismissed the idea.
“I don’t think the student trustee is supposed to represent students, rather he or she is supposed to bring a student’s point of view to the table,” said Norman Wick, president of the faculty senate and a member of the board of trustees.
“The board just wants perspective.”