Leadership & Governance

A Rare Look at What Makes Student Trustees Effective

U. of Southern California

Raquel M. Rall: "The students that we found had the highest levels of efficacy were part of boards where they had two years on their term."
April 23, 2015

Most colleges’ boards of trustees reserve at least one seat for a student representative, but the young people who hold such positions vary widely in terms of how they weigh in on board decisions. Some student trustees speak out eloquently and often on board matters, freely expressing dissent if they think their fellow trustees are poised to trample students’ interests. Others function mainly as quiet figureheads, meekly going along with the majority on votes. The role of student trustees in shared governance generally has escaped the attention of researchers, and remains poorly understood.

Two scholars at the University of Southern California’s Pullias Center for Higher Education — Raquel M. Rall, an assistant research professor, and Daniel Maxey, a doctoral student — set out to fill some of that knowledge gap with a study presented this week at the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference. They interviewed 30 current or former student trustees who have held voting seats on the boards of public colleges or public-college systems over the past five years. Their interviewees served on 26 boards in 21 states.

The Chronicle spoke with Ms. Rall about the study’s findings. Following is an edited and condensed version of the conversation.

Q. What did the student trustees see as their proper role?

A. It was split [with] this duality of being a trustee and being the voice for students. On the one part, they wanted to do everything, to the letter, that any of the other trustees did. They had this other side coming at them saying: You need to make sure students are in the conversation and they are at the forefront and they are included in how decisions are made.

Q. Did you get a sense from your interviews that the student trustees’ fellow board members, or their institutions’ top administrators, truly wanted them to be more than figureheads and to have much of a voice?

A. Primarily, students said that they were well received, so they were able to reach out to the other board members. They had a good relationship with the campus president or system president. At the same time, they would communicate to us that they felt differently. They felt like they weren’t validated. They felt like they could never do enough to be on par with their layman colleagues. A lot of times if they were the only student on the board … they felt like they were sort of the one man on a team. Regardless of what their voice was, it was going to be outnumbered.

Q. How much independence did the student trustees assert? Were they inclined to challenge fellow board members, or to simply to follow their lead?

A. Those with what we saw were the highest levels of efficacy were those who were really self-motivated and took the initiative. Before they were even on the board and had their first meeting, they were reading agendas, they were reading old minutes, they were communicating with people, visiting different campuses, talking to students. On the board they communicated. They were proactive and being vocal. Even if they were just agreeing with what everyone said, they would verbally make that known, and say, Yes, I agree. Regardless of what they were going to do, they were going to be heard. The ones that didn’t, they went along with what everyone else said … They would read the board pamphlets or the folders or materials that were given to them, but they did not take any initiative outside of that to seek out information.

Q. Did they get much accomplished?

A. No. Even those with the highest levels of efficacy, they would still say, I am hoping that the next student trustee will finish this off for me because I’m out — I am not able to see it through because my term is so short. They weren’t able to get a lot accomplished at all primarily because they were on the board for such a short time. They would start, and their first meeting would be in July, or their first meeting would be in August, and they were out the next spring.

Q. Does the position need to be changed?

A. We need to look at it more closely and evaluate it. Term length is definitely one consideration we need to think about. The students that we found had the highest levels of efficacy were part of boards where they had two years on their term. The first year was more like a designee — they did not have a vote, they shadowed the older student trustee, not older by years but by terms. In the second year they became that voting member. Those students tended to have a greater sense of efficacy and feel like they were able to accomplish something on the board, versus those who only had a year and had no one to shadow and learn from.

In addition to the term length, what we would recommend to be considered is the number of students on the board. If there is only one student, they often feel isolated, or the "odd man out." Think about potentially two members or even three members on the board, so there is also that sense of collegiality, not just with the larger group but among those student trustees who know what it is to be a student, and still trying to navigate classes and papers and midterms as well as dealing with the important issues of the institution, or the important issues of the system or the state. Students will tell you, I am in a room with 50-year-olds and 60-year-olds, who have been CEOs, who have accomplished everything, [and] their concerns and their perspectives are vastly different from the students’.

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at peter.schmidt@chronicle.com.