Lehigh’s Student Senate recently proposed an idea of having a senate member sit in on Lehigh’s board of trustees meetings, which are currently closed off to students.
The board of trustees is a group of elected individuals acting as a body to make policy decisions and govern the affairs of the university.
Senate President Victor Cochrane, ‘22, said he has been invited to sit in on board of trustees committee meetings, such as the Student Affairs committee meetings, which are different from the board’s general meetings. Cochrane said in the past, former Student Senate presidents have been able to sit in on board of trustees committee meetings as well, but not the general meetings or executive sessions.
Allison Kirkpatrick, ‘22, vice president of communications for Student Senate, said the Senate wants to have a working relationship with administrators to ensure that students have a voice and administrators are hearing directly from students.
Cochrane said it is important for students to have their ideas heard since the board of trustees has influence over the university’s future.
He said some students feel as though the board of trustees are making long-term decisions without student input due to a lack of communication and transparency from the board.
Kirkpatrick further said the board of trustees is a group that some students feel underrepresented in, considering it is primarily made up of white men.
The board of trustees committee, consisting of Student Senate members interested in helping get a representative to sit in on board of trustees meetings, is working on a proposal for the board to consider, Cochrane said. He said the Senate hopes to have it completed by May.
Vice President for Student Affairs Ric Hall said the board of trustees is aware of the Senate’s interest in attending meetings and will be prepared to respond to a formal overture from students.
“All of our board members, they have been college students somewhere,” Hall said. “But they are not college students at Lehigh in the year 2022, so they do not have the perspective of a currently enrolled student.”
Hall said he has been a part of institutions that had student trustees. He said having students present was a positive experience because there were no self-centered interests. According to Hall, these students cared primarily about advancing their institution and added a perspective that did not previously exist on the board.
Cochrane said this is not the first time Student Senate has tried to gain access to board of trustees meetings. He said past senates have not been successful because the board of trustees may not have believed college students were able to think long-term.
“I disagree,” Cochrane said. “To say that would be to underestimate college students and our ability to know what’s going on in our daily lives. (The board of trustees) needs to know how these long-term changes are impacting current students.”
Pippin Katalevsky, ‘24, a student senate member, said the senate is currently researching other schools’ boards of trustees which incorporate students to help with creating their plan.
Cochrane said the most challenging part about having a student sit in on board of trustees meetings is the logistics, specifically with how the student will be chosen. He said as of now, no selection has been made because the Senate is still working through how to go about selecting a representative.
Cochrane said the introduction of a student to board of trustees meetings will be a trial and error process. Even though there may be some logistical obstacles to overcome, he said he hopes the overall mission of the initiative – better communication, greater transparency and investment in students – will still be achieved.
“When and if it occurs, I think there will be some growing pains to try and figure out what exactly this means to have a student representative on the board. But then, over time, I’m sure board members will say ‘why didn’t we do this sooner?’” Hall said.
Additionally, Cochrane said the Senate is working through how the chosen student will be able to attend board of trustees meetings as a full-time student and how multiple communities will be able to voice their opinion through this one student liaison.
“It’s obviously a very serious job that (members of the board of trustees) hold,” Kirkpatrick said. “There is a lot at stake in the decisions that the board of trustees makes, so I think in that sense, they might not feel it is the most appropriate to have a student sit on the board.”
Despite these challenges, Kirkpatrick said Student Senate members hope they will eventually reach their goal. She said she thinks having a student present at meetings will be very beneficial.
Cochrane said he understands it is uncommon for students to sit in on these meetings, but he said Student Senate is hoping to achieve their goal because many students are passionate about making Lehigh better.
“We are hoping that right now is a good time,” Cochrane said. “The board of trustees is changing. Especially after the wave of COVID, a lot of students are looking toward their administration (for) transparency and to have a larger ability to make decisions.”