On February 22nd, I received an email from Alumni Relations inviting me to participate in the election of this year’s Alumni Trustee. I was a bit surprised. So that’s how trustees are selected? Although I spent a good portion of my four sleep-deprived and over-caffeinated years at Williams serving on college committees, and familiarizing myself with the school’s governing structure, I was unaware of the Trustee selection process. It took graduating and being sent an actual ballot for me to realize how much power members of the Williams community have over the direction of the college.
Before I continue, here are some technical details you should know about the Board of Trustees:
The school has a fluctuating number of Trustees (between 11 and 25 at all times). Five of these are considered “Alumni Trustees.” They are nominated by the Society of Alumni and elected to 5-year terms, a new Trustee voted each year. The remaining 6-20 Trustees are referred to as “Term Trustees,” and are selected by the Board of Trustees itself.
Last week I opened up my “final reminder to vote” email, and clicked on the link. The page it took me to stated “You will find on this ballot the information you need to make an informed choice, including statements from three outstanding Williams alumni.” I scanned the description of the three trustee nominees, Cooper Jackson, ’89 Anne Melvin ‘85, and Chris Sweeney, ‘97. Their ballots consisted of the response to the question “What defines your sense of responsibility to Williams, and how might that guide your leadership and contributions as a trustee?”
All three of the nominees responded to the prompt by emphasizing the many ways that Williams has affected their lives. They addressed the second half of the question by either vowing to further the college’s educational mission or help prepare it for the challenges ahead. The ballot also informed me of the nominees’ occupations, where they lived in the country, and some of the activities that they participated in at Williams.
All three candidates are clearly very passionate about Williams and accomplished in their fields, but, from the ballot, I did not think that I knew enough about each candidate to make an informed decision. Which issues would candidates be most passionate in addressing or promoting in their roles as board members? How would (or wouldn’t) they communicate with the Williams community? The answers were unclear.
I decided to interview the candidates for the Williams Alternative. If they answered my questions other alumni could make an informed decision, and students could participate in the process. I emailed all three of the candidates asking them if I could speak to them for the Alternative about their positions on issues currently important to the college. I also reached out to the head of the Alumni Society, Lelia Jere ‘91, to see if she would be willing to give me more information about how the candidates had been selected. Perhaps the nomination process would give me more insight on why each of the candidates had made it onto my ballot.
I ended up speaking with both Leila and Brooks Foehl, ’88, the Director of Alumni Relations, who, together, suggested that a holistic character assessment is an appropriate basis for selecting a Trustee.
Leila informed me that “the nominees are not running on a platform, as with political candidates, and therefore do not have a “position” on issues. They are being presented to alumni as individuals with the requisite professional and life skills to serve on the Board of Trustees.” In response to my query about how to make my decision, Brooks reiterated this and further elaborated, “As to what qualities alumni weigh in making a choice, there are any number. We know that professional background, volunteer engagement, alumni demographics, personal relationship, etc., are just some of the factors that go into people’s consideration.” This is not only the college’s de facto arrangement, it is also the Society of Alumni’s official policy, written in its Constitution (which is well-worth a read if you have the time).
In his email, Brooks informed me that he had advised the candidates against speaking to me, and invoked a categorical imperative-style justification. If they agreed to speak to me they might have to speak to any number of alumni asking all sorts of questions. Not being obligated to, they chose to remain silent, and I received no responses.
According to my ballot, a Trustee’s main function is “helping to guide college policies and programs.” While Trustees do not govern the school, and are far from the only influential members of the Williams community, their advice to the president on specific policies has demonstrably influenced the direction of the college. Yet when electing Alumni Trustees, there is no established precedent for discussing the issues that Trustees actually deal with.
Accepting a position on the Board is a huge responsibility, and I understand that not all of us can or should aspire to the job. But if the rest of the community is excluded from the room where it happens, then we need even more confidence that those we elect are representing our voices. Otherwise what’s the point of having a vote in the first place?
As an alumnus I wanted to differentiate the three candidates from each other so that I could make an informed decision about whom I was electing. But the outcome of this election will probably not influence me, and the rest of the voters, altogether that much. Williams students have no say in who Trustees influencing collegiate decisions are, yet they are undoubtedly the most affected by those decisions.
In the past few years students have become increasingly vocal in their demands to gain access to the board. I spoke with Valeria Sosa ‘19, a student working with a coalition of student groups to increase communication with Trustees. Valeria prepared a statement along with the Minority Coalition Steering Board, expressing their frustration with the relationship between students and the administration.
“Students have been systematically denied a voice in college affairs,” the statement reads, “at an institution that insists this is our home. If we are truly to be a part of Williams, then administrators and Trustees must listen to our concerns. Ultimately, we are the ones affected by their decisions. We want to work together toward a more inclusive Williams — it’s time for the Trustees to respond.”
According to Valeria, a survey of the campus conducted by College Council’s VP of Diversity and Community, Wendy Suiyi Tang, demonstrated significant interest in engaging Trustees around issues. Some of the most pressing include more equity and clarity in the financial aid process, increased mental health and sexual assault services, and greater transparency from the board of Trustees itself.
Students want to have a voice in this process but are disenfranchised. Alumni have voting power, but have not yet called for greater public engagement with candidates. The college would benefit from a forum in which the community engages Trustee candidates. This way, College Council and the Minority Coalition would be informed enough to endorse a candidate, and alumni would be able to cast meaningful votes.
Voting for this year’s elections closed Tuesday night, but the conversation is not over. Responsive to students’ calls for discourse, Trustees will be holding an open reception at the faculty house this Friday, April 15th. While the purpose isn’t to discuss college politics, I encourage students interested in understanding more about the Board to attend. As Alumni our role is not simply to represent our own voices, we must also pay attention to student concerns. Should we seek to permanently change the Trustee election process, it only takes fifty alumni to petition an amendment to the constitution, and a simple majority vote of at least fifty members of the society of alumni at a society meeting. Regardless, I expect the community to continue this conversation in the classic Williams vein – with rigorous, critical engagement, and a commitment to bettering ourselves and our community.