Students Push for Recent Graduate Trustees
Issue   |   Fri, 09/04/2015 - 00:48

This semester members of the Association of Amherst Students are planning a major push to reserve two positions on the college’s board of trustees for alumni who have graduated within the last five years.

The initiative was initially Tomi Williams ‘16’s project in AAS, and it became one of his main focuses when he was appointed president in spring 2014. That summer, Williams, along with Douglass Jamison ’16, researched more than 25 other institutions in order to find models of similar initiatives, which have been approved at colleges including George Washington University, Duke, Princeton and Wellesley.

During fall 2014, Williams, Jamison and Elson Browne-Low ’15 discussed the models that had been researched and decided that instead of pushing for seats for student representatives on the board of trustees, as several institutions had done, they would propose reserving two seats for recently graduated alumni.

This past January, the group of students met with Cullen Murphy ’74, chair of the board of trustees, and Andrew Nussbaum ’85, chair of the committee on student life.

According to the faculty handbook, the primary means by which the student body can influence the membership of the board is through the advisory committee to the committee on trusteeship. The advisory committee consists of two faculty members and two students, and in 1972, the board established its intent to “elect as term trustees only those who have been considered by an advisory committee.”

But proponents of the new initiative have argued that greater student participation is needed.

“While the board works in concert with the administration and some avenues of current student input exist, a fresh student perspective is only selectively heard,” said Pierre-Alexander Low ’17, a senator working on the proposal.

In March 2015, Williams introduced the proposal to the board’s committee on trusteeship. Murphy said in an email interview that at this meeting, the board “agreed with the animating spirit of what the AAS was suggesting; the board can only benefit from having broader and more regular conversations with students.” But, he said, “there are significant misgivings, for a variety of reasons, about setting aside seats on the board for any type of person, whether the category is recent graduates or some other.”

Murphy said he expects to discuss the proposal with Williams and other members of the AAS before the full board meets in October.

Williams said the AAS plans to implement a major publicity campaign for the initiative, involving articles, fliers, an organized student petition and time reserved at senate meetings for extended discussion of the proposal.

The initiative so far has been student-led, with no participation from the administration.

The current most recent graduate on the board of trustees is a member of the class of 1996.

“What must be understood is that Amherst College is extremely dynamic,” Williams said. “So much has changed in my three years here, let alone over the past two decades … We need folks who have a comprehensive understanding of the current campus culture, climate, and the many latent needs and issues that are not readily visible or easy to articulate.”

Capital investments, faculty diversification, the open curriculum and financial aid are among the current issues that trustees discuss.

“The understanding of these recent graduate trustees matched with the extensive experience, wisdom and expertise of our current board members can only serve to better the lives of Amherst students and improve the future of our college for all its community members,” Williams said.