Flaws in Board of Trustees Call for Reforms

Perhaps the most generous observation one might make about last semester’s documentation controversy is that it generated a great deal of conversation. From passionate TSL articles to Facebook diatribes to protest movements, I have never seen the entirety of the Pomona community as engaged as it was in the aftermath of the abrupt termination of 17 members of the Pomona College staff. Unfortunately, despite all of that engagement and conversation, I don’t think that our campus ever came to a consensus about the legal and ethical requirements of the situation—and I rather doubt that we will. The situation is still too unclear, the emotions too raw and the legal situation too vague for common ground to be reached easily (or maybe at all).

In light of the above analysis and the fact that the Board has already made its final decision on the matter, I recommend that we, the student body, set aside our ongoing disagreements about the particulars of the situation for the time being. I suggest we set it aside not to forget about it, but to focus on an underlying issue that the ugly events of last semester brought to the surface: the transparency, accountability and legitimacy of the Board of Trustees.

Perhaps I am an outlier in this respect, but until the events of last semester I had never given much thought to the governance of Pomona College. In the recesses of my mind, I assumed that President Oxtoby was basically in charge, and the Board was sort of an opaque and unimportant advisory body that existed because we wanted wealthy alumni to feel involved with the College community. Although the administration wields a great deal of power on a number of issues, my understanding was incomplete. The events of last semester conclusively demonstrated that ultimate authority within Pomona College rests with the Board of Trustees—not President Oxtoby.

The Board doesn’t just initiate investigations that may or may not be legally required. It charts the direction of the College, approves new hires and has final say over the budget. Although they almost always defer to administrative recommendations in these matters, their mere existence undoubtedly exerts a meaningful influence over the process. At the end of the day, these are the people whose decisions are often responsible for the media coverage we receive, both positive and negative (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/02/us/after-workers-are-fired-an-immigration-debate-roils-california-campus.html?pagewanted=all). If they mismanage the College, it will be run into the ground; if they prove more adept, we will be proud alumni. What I am trying to say is that a lot depends on the decisions of the Board of Trustees.

As students, we are remarkably uninformed about this small cadre of persons that possesses a great deal of power over our lives. An examination of the Pomona College Board of Trustees’ website yields relatively little information: names, employment and graduating year of members, short “highlights” of a few meetings and contact information for a secretary. Information such as detailed meeting minutes, organizational structure and selection procedure are not available on the website. From this limited information, I gleaned that there is only one recent graduate on the list, who fills the token “Young Alumni Trustee” position. After her, the most recent graduate is the class of ’92. There are no current students serving on the Board. 

I contend that the Board should increase transparency by providing (at a minimum) the information I described as missing above, increase its legitimacy by accepting student members into its midst and change the structure of the Trusteeship Committee (the committee composed of Trustees that selects new Board members). 

All of these reforms will provide more opportunities for current students to influence the trajectory of the College. There are several reasons why this should be the case. First, the Trustees who run this prestigious private institution are, in an important way, mere students themselves, distinguished from us primarily by their graduation year. Pomona is a community spanning generations of students, and today’s students have just as much—if not more—interest in ensuring the thoughtful governance of our College. Second, I believe that when actions are carried out in my name—as in the case of the worker terminations—I should at the very least have some understanding of the institution behind the action. Finally, the Board should be informed by the life experiences and political views of its current students, who must actually live with their decisions. Why should we expect that a board composed of people that grew up 40 years ago to even be capable of making the best decisions for students today? 

The Board needs to consider this limitation of lived experience, and realize that generational differences cannot be bridged easily. I urge the Board to add current students and more recent graduates to the Board as full voting members in order to alleviate this problem. Although the Board in its current incarnation has contact with and receives input from students, they are not official voting members, and thus lack standing and influence. The sophomore, junior and senior classes should each have one representative on the Board. Additionally, recently graduated classes should be given priority for new seats. The new members should not just be given random, at-large seats, either. The Board conducts business primarily through a committee system, with extensive authority concentrated in its executive committee and committee chairs. Positions as committee chairs might be one solution to this problem; alternatively, new members could receive guaranteed positions on committees such as Finance, Audit, and Trusteeship that currently lack students. By increasing student (and recent alumni) participation in the Board, the Board can regain the faith it lost through its actions last semester, and also make decisions that take into account the viewpoints of the student body.

Increased student membership in the Board is a necessary but insufficient reform to Board composition. The Board chooses its current members by itself, without guidance or input from non-Board members, through the Trusteeship Committee (a committee composed entirely of current Trustees). What if this selection process leads to members whose political viewpoints are diametrically opposed to those of the student body? Would the current Board leadership be who it is today if Pomona College students or alumni at large were given a voice in the process? I challenge the Board to incorporate the broader Pomona community into its selection process in some way—whether through student members on the Trusteeship as I recommended above, some sort of referendum, or another form of legitimization. As it is, the Board’s replacement system is unhealthily self-perpetuating. It lacks both the legitimacy that would come from a more inclusive process, and the fresh thinking and diverse perspectives of new members.

Examining my contentions about Board composition through the lens of last semester’s worker documentation controversy, I think it is clear that Board leadership and composition are highly relevant. Using publicly available information from the Center for Responsive Politics, I looked into the political donations of several members of the Board, and noticed substantial contributions to the campaign of Mitt Romney, a candidate who supports “self-deportation” of undocumented workers and who most Pomona College students are not inclined to support. I am not at all suggesting that support for certain candidates should be a disqualifier for Board membership—I am merely arguing that on this issue, the Board leadership’s support for Mitt Romney suggests that it is out of touch with the student body’s position on immigration. I firmly believe in the good faith of the Board, but because the Board lacks transparency and the legitimacy that would come from increased student participation, I do not know for certain whether or not they allow their political beliefs to guide the College’s governance. 

Pomona College is an incredible institution, one that I am proud to attend. It has a Board of Trustees full of highly qualified individuals for whom I have a great deal of admiration. But even the best institutions need periodic reform to restore trust. The creation of the task force on trusteeship was a praiseworthy start, but it will be a failure if its deliberations do not result in increased student representation on the Board, a more inclusive selection process, and a more transparent Board. Additionally, as a preliminary demonstration of a commitment to transparency, the Board should release the full and unedited results of any and all internal reviews into last semester’s worker documentation decision to the student body.  Get better, Board of Trustees—your College needs it.

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