The Case for an Elected Board of Trustees

Until recently, I knew
little about the Pomona College Board of Trustees. However, I was lucky enough Oct. 10 to attend this year’s Student-Trustee Retreat, which focused on increasing the
diversity of the Board. While I had some good conversations at the retreat,
such as with board chairwoman Jeanne Buckley, I saw too many examples of
racism and obliviousness on the part of white trustees and students.

These instances made it clear
to me just how out of step our governance is with our professed values. And
once I researched how board members are selected, and realized how it is a
self-perpetuating bastion of privilege, I became even more upset. Is it any
wonder that the board has never chosen a president that is not a white man when
it is largely made up of rich white men?

While the Board of Trustees
sets policy that governs Pomona College as a whole, the Board does not represent those for whom it sets policy. For example: Current board members choose
new board members, largely on the basis of wealth or ability to
fundraise for the college. From talking with people experienced with working
with the board, it seems board members see themselves as providing a service
that students buy and as necessarily representing the Pomona community.

The board is too rich, too white and too unaware of its privilege—to an even greater degree than Pomona itself. Others have recognized this problem: The recent President’s Advisory Committee on Diversity’s recent report set as a goal that the board be much more diverse by 2025—which I fully support. But this doesn’t go far enough. 

In short, Pomona is an oligarchy, not a democracy, so we must ask ourselves the following: Do we want a board that governs for us, or a board that represents us?

If we believe in democracy,
in making sure all voices in our community are represented—students, faculty,
staff and alumni—we must change the board to make it more democratic and responsive to the community. We should change the governance of the board so
that it can better govern Pomona.

The first step in making
the board more representative of the community should be to change the mindset
of current trustees. The retreat focused on diversity, yet when we broke up
into small working groups, we did not take any time to consider the
positionality of the people in the room. 

Many student groups on campus do
exercises to make people aware of their own privilege and others’ lack thereof
before discussing anything, let alone diversity. We should do the same at
future retreats. It is a simple way to start the discussion from a place of
awareness, rather than ignorance. It is worth taking the time. 

Similarly,
future discussions should include ground rules for discussion that many student
groups use, such as “speak from experience,” or “step up and speak, but then
step down and let others speak too.”

But this is only a
short-term solution. The only way to make the board more responsive to the needs
of our community is to fundamentally change its structure so that it is more
representative.

Some of the more
straightforward alternatives would be to give student representatives on the board full voting power and increase the number of students allowed to serve on
the board. We could also begin to allow non-trustees to nominate new board
members.

There’s always the option
of becoming a full-on democracy, i.e. electing the entire board through a popular
vote composed of students, staff, faculty and alumni. We could elect candidates together, or faculty could elect
faculty members, staff elect staff and alumni elect alumni, just as students elect the student representatives. Some terms would expire annually,
like the Senate, and candidates would have to gather signatures and submit a
short bio and platform. Perhaps the students, faculty and staff could vote
first so the alumni can see where the community stands before voting themselves.

Simply more dialogue
between the board and the community, or more transparency at the board, would
go a long way. The board publishes notes, but they are not detailed
enough—they’re simply lists of what the board talked about. Meetings are not open to the general student population.

Unfortunately, democracy
isn’t perfect—it’s actually pretty messy. Indeed, there is certain strength in having an
institution that speaks with a singular voice and maintains a large endowment.
Alumni seeking to become trustees could also be discouraged from donating large
sums of money to the college if the selection process is by popular vote.

Even when taking all of
these concerns into consideration, creating a more democratic Pomona is
definitely worth a shot. Alumni that wish to be on the board, for example, can use their donations as a sales pitch to be elected. Furthermore, alumni may be more inclined to
donate more if they know that their money will be a spent by a board that is democratic.

At the end of the day, the board must be made more democratic. Instances such as the mass firing of
workers in 2011 or the lack of dialogue about divestment make it clear that
the board is all too often out of touch with the broader community.

In the end, the board has to approve these changes itself. If you are so inclined, email Theresa Shaw, the board’s secretary, and let her know what you think. The
President’s Advisory Committee on Diversity has also provided a way for us to
give feedback on their report. Please, write to them about the board by signing
into mypomona.edu and then going to “Diversity at Pomona College” on the left
sidebar.  

Ben Bleiberg PO ’15 is a public policy analysis major from New York City.

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