Cornell University sophomore Leslie Barkemeyer does not just take finals; soon, her duties will also include helping decide key university issues ranging from faculty salaries to financial aid. Last week, Barkemeyer was also elected to the university’s board of trustees — the equivalent to the Yale Corporation — as a full voting member.
Cornell is the only Ivy League institution with students and faculty members on its board of trustees, which is the university’s highest policy-making body. At Yale, all 16 members of the board of trustees hold Yale degrees, but most of them haven’t eaten in a University dining hall or taken a final exam in decades. But Yale administrators said the current structure of the Yale Corporation is most appropriate for the University’s policy-making task.
The Cornell board of trustees has 42 voting members, as well as 22 non-voting trustee fellows that Cornell administrators said play a large role in influencing policy decisions. Two of the voting trustee positions are reserved for students, two are slated for faculty and one of the spots is for a non-academic employee of the university, like a dining hall worker.
The election of students, faculty and non-academic employees to the board of trustees is not new to Cornell. Faculty members have served as university policy-makers since 1917. Cornell created the student posts in 1971 and added the staff trustee spot in 1975.
No other Ivy school has such a democratic representation of the university community in its governing board. The 16-member Yale Corporation, the University’s highest policy making body, has significantly fewer trustees than any of the other Ivies except for Dartmouth College, which also has 16 trustees. The governing boards of Harvard, Princeton and Brown universities and the University of Pennsylvania have more than 40 members each.
But Yale administrators said the small size of the Corporation and the fact that students and faculty cannot be trustees is advantageous to the school.
“The Yale Corporation works vastly better than larger boards,” Yale President Richard Levin said. “It is an actual working board that deliberates and decides issues.”
But Cornell faculty trustee, professor William Fry, said in two years of serving as a trustee, “It has not been my experience that the board moves slowly.”
The senior fellow of the Yale Corporation, former Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke ’71, attributes the structure of Yale’s board of trustees to tradition.
“The composition of the board is now as it was in history,” Schmoke said. “Our charter, from back to colonial times, sets out a certain structure, and that has been followed pretty carefully.”
Yale is actually locked into its current system of governance. Levin said to change the composition of the Corporation, the school would have to ask for permission from the Connecticut Legislature. If the state made this change, Yale would lose autonomy over its original charter.
But University administrators said not only tradition and efficiency justify the composition of the Yale Corporation. It’s also a question of ideology.
“We don’t have a conception of trustees as representatives of any interest group,” Levin said.
He added that if one constituency, like students, is represented within the trustees, that could open the floodgates for every group to demand representation — which would amount to a significant number of additions to the trustees.
The newly elected Barkemeyer understands this tension.
“On the one hand, I was elected by a constituency,” Barkemeyer said. “But the definition of a trustee is not a representative. I can’t always look from the student standpoint.”
At Princeton, the board of trustees does not include any students but four of its 40 spots are reserved for “young alumni,” or recent graduates of the university. Each year, juniors, seniors and students who have graduated within the past two years vote for these trustees, Princeton associate secretary Ann Halliday said.
Some Yale professors and students said they are not sure if student and faculty trustees would be a good idea, but said they believe anything that increases the power and raises the voices of different constituencies is positive.
“Representation in and of itself doesn’t produce democracy,” professor of women and gender studies Laura Wexler said.
History professor Robert Johnston said while gaining student representation on the Yale Corporation would seem unlikely, it would be a great addition.
“I would love to see something like that happen,” Johnston said. “It would provide valuable input from segments of the community that are shut out.”
Yale College Council Treasurer Vidhya Prabhakaran ’03 said adding a student presence to the Corporation, even one without voting rights, would be a good move.
“The most important thing is that there is at least a student presence at the meetings,” Prabhakaran said. “I don’t think a student would ever get voting rights, but I do hope [the Corporation] could have a non-voting student member.”
Schmoke said trustees do make an effort to hear concerns of various constituents at every meeting.
“We meet with the [Yale] College Council, the gradate student senate, faculty members and labor leaders,” Schmoke said.
But Cornell trustees said the structure of their university governing board is the most democratic system.
“If there is a very outspoken housekeeper that loves Cornell, they should have the opportunity to be a trustee,” Barkemeyer said.