Offering different perspectives

Rachel Abbey

Student trustees face many ups and downs of leadership role

David Creamer, vice president for Administration, finished his presentation about how students learn.

He was proposing a way for Kent State to update the campus technologically using additional funds from raising tuition to the Board of Trustees.

At the end of the presentation, Creamer walked directly over to Kimberly Thompson, the undergraduate student trustee.

Creamer, Thompson and R. Douglas Cowan, chairman of the board, began discussing the merits of the plan versus the strain on tuition. Creamer and Cowan listened intently to Thompson, asking questions and taking note of her answers.

Cowan wanted to know if modern students would move toward a purely online education, and Thompson gave her opinions on why not.

As a student trustee, she has the advantage of two viewpoints in the university: Someone who helps make policy and someone who is affected by it.

“We’ll frequently ask them when there’s an issue regarding student housing or education facilities or new technology,” Cowan said. “They’ll usually give us input on things like that. They’ll say things like, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea,’ or ‘Yeah, we need to improve on that.’ They’re not bashful.”

A learning experience

All Ohio universities are required to have two student trustees, appointed by the governor, Cowan said.

It’s an educational experience for the students, and it adds a student perspective to the otherwise business-based Board of Trustees.

Thompson, a senior public relations major, is in the second half of her two-year term. Erin Kleman, graduate student trustee studying interpersonal communication, attended her first meeting in August.

“It hasn’t been an ‘Oh you’re less than me,’ situation,” Kleman said. “They’ve been very welcoming, even respectful.”

Thompson said she discovered at the Ohio Student Trustees meeting that Kent State’s student trustees are treated more respectfully and like equals than at many universities in the state.

Student trustees are included in most of the board’s responsibilities. They attend meetings, serve on committees and are expected to be educated on issues and participate in discussions.

They can even attend the closed executive sessions as long as personnel issues, such as contract negotiations, are not being discussed, Cowan said.

No voting allowed

Student trustees also lack voting rights. The Board of Trustees is responsible for hiring and firing university employees and for implementing policy, Cowan said.

“It wouldn’t be fair to ask a student trustee to assume that liability and responsibility,” Cowan said. “It’s really an educational opportunity for them and for us.”

The Ohio Graduate Council, a lobbying organization for graduate students at the state level, is looking into getting voting rights and full executive session privileges for student trustees, said Jeffrey Fuller, Kent State’s representative.

However, the group first wanted to see if student trustees would be interested in these rights. So far, they have only been interested in executive session rights.

“Voting rights kind of put undue pressure (on student trustees) when looking at things such as tuition hikes,” Fuller said. “What student wants to vote for tuition hikes even though it might be necessary?”

Thompson said the trustees are meant to operate for the whole university, and that’s one reason their daily jobs are separate from Kent State.

“They’re outside the university. They can make decisions a lot more objectively than we can. As students, we have a conflict of interests. Of course we would try the best we could, but I don’t know that we could be as objective,” she said. “I’m almost appreciative about being left out of the collective bargaining because a few faculty members did approach me about it, and I could truthfully say that ‘I’ll let your concerns be known, but I am not part of the decision.’ I was free from that pressure.”

Kleman also said she was fine with not having voting rights. Student trustees only serve for two years, while other trustees serve for nine. She said she feels too new to make an educated decision about something affecting the entire university, and the other trustees have time to become fully informed.

Student trustees may also feel discouraged from voting because they might be the minority, Fuller said.

“Over 90 percent of votes on the board are unanimous, so does it really matter if they get a vote’ is questioned by some,” he said. “I don’t know how I feel about that. If they want to dissent, it’s good to have that dissenting voice, even if it doesn’t mean anything.”

However, at Kent State at least, the student trustees said they feel they are listened to.

“With or without a vote, board members do respect students’ opinions,” Kleman said. “Students are the customers.”

Being a voice for and to the students is the most important part of the position, Creamer said. Student trustees learn how difficult choices are made, and they can explain to the student body why an unpopular change, such as a rise in tuition, may be necessary.

“They engage directly with board members and dialogue surrounding voting issues, even if in the end, they do not have voting rights,” Creamer said.

Hanging out with the president

Thompson said she’s enjoyed learning how the university works.

“The actual meetings are slim,” she said. “What takes the time is really being invested in the undergraduate students.”

Thompson said she tries to keep involved with undergraduate students by participating in student organizations, reading the Daily Kent Stater and staying in touch with the Undergraduate Student Senate, but she gets most of her student insight from being a resident assistant.

Talking to her residents, looking at residence service handouts and attending Kent Interhall Council meetings keep her updated. Thompson actually found out about the position through a KIC announcement.

Terms are two years long, and the undergraduate and graduate student trustee positions open up alternately, said Greg Jarvie, dean of Students and Student Ombuds. Positions are unpaid, but student trustees may receive perks such as parking passes and occasional dinners, Kleman said.

Application notices are sent out early spring semester. According to university policy, applicants must be qualified to vote in the state of Ohio by being at least 18 years old, a resident of Ohio and registered to vote.

Interested students fill out an application and the search committee, including students representing the student senates and prominent student organizations, picks qualified students to interview. They then choose a maximum of five to recommend to the governor’s office, where the trustee will be chosen.

The interview only takes about 20 minutes, Kleman said, but other parts of the process take much longer.

Students can put anything in their application file, such as academic work they are proud of, published clips or awards, Jarvie said. A resume is expected, and an academic transcript and three letters of recommendation are required.

They also do a background check, Kleman said.

“Luckily, I don’t have any felonies,” she said, laughing. “It wasn’t until June or July that the governor’s office called and said, ‘Congratulations, you got it.’ I was starting to lose hope, but I guess it’s a long process.”

After student trustees learn they’ve been accepted, they meet with all of the vice presidents and learn what their departments do, Thompson said. She found they were immediately accepting and supportive.

Kleman said she has found the same support through personal interactions and congratulatory e-mails and notes.

“Being able to chill out with the president was a cool experience,” she said.

“(At the first meeting) the president sat her stuff down, looked right at me, came over to meet me and said ‘Hi, I’m Carol.'”

Contact administration reporter Rachel Abbey at [email protected].