State compromises on student trustee voting rights

Daniel Moore

As early as this fall, Ohio public universities could allow students on their boards of trustees to vote — if they so choose.

House Bill 377 passed 12-11 in its committee session late Wednesday night after legislators scrapped the mandate that would force universities to grant full voting rights to student trustees. Currently in Ohio, each 11-member board has two nonvoting students who also aren’t allowed in executive session.

The original proposal, introduced Nov. 15 by Reps. Mike Stinziano (D-Columbus) and Mike Duffey (R-Worthington) — and formally endorsed by Gordon Gee, Ohio State president — would have required all universities to change that. But Duffey said a compromise was necessary to eliminate any future roadblocks to the legislation’s passage.

Duffey said legislators received a significant amount of private pushback from universities in their respective districts and took the cue of opposition.

“Not every university was publicly vocal about that,” he said. “But behind the scenes they were communicating that to us through the IUC [Inter-University Council of Ohio].”

Stinziano said legislators considered the many changes affecting the state’s university system and were more willing to compromise on the mandate because they “appreciated that concern.”

“In an ideal world, I think both sponsors — myself and Rep. Duffey — feel confident that every university should pursue this, but in discussion it was clear some universities didn’t want a mandate from the Statehouse put on them,” Stinziano said. “That’s kind of how they viewed this. They felt that just having student trustees was adequate and gave them the appropriate voice.”

Bowling Green and Ohio University, he said, have been the “most vocal” against the legislation. Dave Kielmeyer, BGSU’s senior communications director, said the university has not taken an official position on the legislation, and no one at OU was available for comment late Thursday.

However, Duffey said remaining neutral to the issue is a cop-out for hiding opposition.

“Students should be asking their administrations and their boards of trustees to take a position because if they don’t take a position, they’re basically saying they’re not for student voting rights,” Duffey said.

Duffey thinks it’s a “cultural thing” for some university administrations to feel uncomfortable with students in a position of power.

“They feel like students might challenge them,” he said. “For them, they like the way that they’re running the ship right now.”

Legislators have their own opinions as well, he said, behind closed doors.

“I’ve heard everything from ‘students aren’t responsible and don’t have enough experience’ to ‘they have a conflict of interest — the governance being the governed,’” Duffey said. “I don’t find that persuasive at all. I think that those are excuses.”

Active student trustees would have the best long-term interest in mind for their own education, such as reducing student debt by keeping costs down, which is also in the best interest of the state.

“They will demand those things, because students are perfectly aligned with what the state of Ohio needs,” Duffey said.

Kent State President Lester Lefton has said he believes the bill could pose a conflict of interest.

“It’s a mildly controversial notion because we recommend against placing students in a conflicting situation, such as voting on their own tuition,” Lefton said after the bill was introduced. “The board of trustees needs to be an independent body and not conflicted by voting on things that would affect them.”

In a statement released Thursday, board secretary Charlene Reed did not comment directly on Kent State’s position on HB 377.

“As it is still early in the legislative process, we will continue to monitor the bill and its implications for governance,” Reed wrote.

The bill’s next stop will be the Ohio House, which Stinziano said could be in the next couple weeks. Gov. John Kasich is expected to sign it into law.

Contact Daniel Moore at [email protected].