Hear the Voices of Your Students and Invite Them to Serve

By Lynnette M. Heard October 19, 2020 February 8th, 2021 Blog Post
Blog Post

Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.

Why Student Trustee Leadership Matters

Colleges and universities are mission-driven to prepare students to step forward into the workforce and become leaders in their fields.  The enthusiasm engendered while matriculating can be harnessed and put to good use when they are called to serve as student trustees. What better place to showcase the power of their preparation than through board service on their own campuses? The decisions they help make today will last for generations to come.

Student trustees represent the voices of their peers (both graduate and undergraduate) and provide direct feedback, insights, and fresh perspectives about how they and their futures are affected by board decisions.

Many public institutions began making room for students to take a seat at the table nearly three decades ago when governors honored calls from active and engaged student advocates to include them in charting their course. Yet fewer independent or foundation boards have taken advantage of their talented students’ voices and intellectual capital to bring new voices and innovative ideas into consequential conversations and decisions.

Perhaps boards feel the burden might be too great to have confidence in the confidentiality and discretion or are worried about student workload.  Yet consider how many talented students already work to finance their education, raise families, or help their parents raise siblings.  Many crave the opportunity to offer their experiences and perspectives to impact the decisions of their institutions. For students with the maturity and political savvy, board service instills a deeper and more significant relationship with their soon-to-be alma mater.  Further, it develops their maturation and leadership skills as they enter the workforce.

Independent and foundation boards should consider the added value student trustees’ perspectives will bring to strategic and decision-making processes, especially during the post-COVID-19 days ahead.  These students, like no other generation, are living through enormous stress, pressure, and disappointment.  Yet they are thriving and demonstrating resiliency and unparalleled innovation in the virtual academies.

Why Now? Boards can leverage student trustees as ex officio, nonvoting members who bring their voice to the boardroom at a time when institutions are facing some of the most difficult challenges in their history. Boards will:

  • Obtain firsthand, immersive, and sustained “student experiences” from those you are committed to serve, and who are not afraid to use their voices as “consumers” and share ideas.
  • Weigh important decisions using the student trustees as a sounding board and gain a reality check on the criticality of key issues such as cost, course relevancy, social justice, among others.
  • Take the opportunity to more deeply collaborate with the division of student affairs in recruiting the best and brightest students positioned to serve.

Ensuring Success

While AGB acknowledges there could be a conflict of interest created when a student serves on his or her own institution’s board, there are illustrative best practices widely available to help ensure that students understand their duty to uphold the board’s standards concerning such conflicts.

In addition, when all trustees receive a substantive orientation at the start of their terms, student trustees are held to the same high standards and expectations of their voting peers.

One student trustee of a West Coast institution reflected on the importance of her voice as her institution made plans to reopen during the fall semester.  She said, “I am so glad I was asked about the impact of the decision to continue operating since my future, the job that I hope to start after graduation, is waiting for me. Being at the board table allowed me to share how the decision impacts me.”

In Chris Rasmussen’s 2016 Trusteeship article, “Aging In,”  he cites Shinjini Das’ perspective on millennials serving on boards, which is relevant for student trustees who have “characteristics that are quite beneficial to any team or organization including fresh perspectives and renewed energy, a thirst for challenges and a hunger to grow, a desire to be a hero and create a profound impact, a keen sense of adaptability, and a quest for mentors and brutally honest feedback.”

Finding the best and brightest

While many institutions and foundations might naturally look to their student government associations for the first pool of prospective trustees, effective partnerships with offices of student affairs and multicultural programs to develop rigorous criteria and pre-identification of candidates aids in ensuring the candidate pool represents a diverse cross section of the student population and are well vetted before appearing on the slate.

One word of caution: Find the capacity to include not just one student who could be perceived as a “token” representative of the student body.  Seek a few students who, as a cohort, can learn, lead, and serve together.  Stagger their terms and consider various stages of their graduate and undergraduate experiences.  Offer mentoring from a well-respected board member to the newly appointed/elected student trustees, and utilize current precedent and best practices to sustain and retain their involvement.

What some board members say about their student trustee colleagues:

  • “Student trustees are an integral part of the board. They inform almost everything we do.”
  • “We trust our student trustees implicitly and have never had an issue or concern with confidentiality.”
  • “Having also served on the foundation board, I think the inclusion of student trustees is an important next step that will improve engagement and inspire philanthropy.”

If we don’t demonstrate our commitment to students by showcasing and trusting them now, can we authentically invite them to be engaged alumni and philanthropists later in their lives?

Lynnette M. Heard is a senior consultant for AGB.

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