Board of Trustees meetings used to be open to the public. What changed?

Board of Trustees meetings used to be open to the public. What changed?
  Chronicle File Photo | Chronicle File Photo

From discussing the future of new research centers and campus construction to approving tuition hikes, the University's Board of Trustees makes decisions that can have immediate impacts on the student experience. 

It is rare, however, for students to get a glimpse of the deliberations that take place inside these meetings. Duke’s Board of Trustees meetings are not open to the public, but a few of Duke's peer institutions have adopted policies that increase public access to board meetings. 

“The current practice for Board meetings has been in place for about 10 years,” said Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations. “That is fairly consistent with other private universities like Duke. There are no plans at the moment to make any changes to that and that’s where everything stands.”

But this has not always been the case. From 1971 until 2008, the meetings were open. 

Past access

Allowing a public session began during President Terry Sanford's administration in 1971, sparked at least in part by a sit-in. Then-Chronicle Editor Clay Steinman along with student body president Hutch Traver, both Trinity '71, refused to leave the closed meeting until the Board of Trustees reconsidered its transparency policies.

After the sit-in, Sanford allowed then-Chronicle Managing Editor David Pace, Pratt '71, to be the first reporter to cover a Board of Trustees meeting. A few months later, the Trustees voted to open meetings to invited faculty, students and reporters. 

“There were things happening [in those meetings] that were directly affecting the lives of students in the community,” Pace said at the time. “We felt like we had a right to be there and observe the decision-making process that led to these things and report on it.”

Prior to the Board of Trustees shutting off public access, The Chronicle reported on decisions such as tuition hikes, campus construction and the selection of new administrators.

In October 1975, The Chronicle reported on the progress of the University’s plans for the Bryan Center. In the same meeting, Sanford informed the Board of a silent protest demonstration from the Association of African Students. A December 1981 issue of The Chronicle included information about the construction of the Washington Duke Inn and Golf Club, revenues from which would help support Perkins Library. There were also discussions about a presidential library for Richard Nixon, which ultimately never saw the light of day. 

The Chronicle reported on a tuition hike of 15 percent for the 1982-83 academic year—the largest in Duke's history at the time. It included a quote from the registrar during the meeting, saying that the tuition increase would not adversely affect the applicant pool. 

Peer schools

But some peer universities have taken steps to make board meetings more accessible. Some allow members of the public to attend the meetings, but others allow public attendance at an open session prior to a closed meeting.  

The University of Pennsylvania falls into the first category. It allows the public to attend if they contact the Office of the University Secretary. Anyone who does so can only observe, but they can use recording devices. Trustee committees still reserve the right to call executive—closed to the public—sessions during their meetings. 

Kelly Heinzerling—a news editor for the Daily Pennsylvanian, Penn's independent student media organization—said she took advantage of this access when she covered a student protest in late 2017 calling for fossil fuel divestment. Heinzerling said that when she interviewed an attendee after one of the meetings, the attendee used the word “scripted” to describe the meeting.

“It very much felt like a show—there were a lot of people there,” Heinzerling said. “There was a small section to the side for students and people who wanted to observe.” 

Despite the formality of the meeting structure, Heinzerling said she wished more students would attend the meetings even when there are no protests happening.

“A lot of students I spoke to who did attend said that going to the meetings for students is extremely important because it does give a sense of transparency to the university, and it was really cool to see all these adults who went to Penn who are involved in the world now and see how they’re still connected to the university,” she said. “Seeing the behind-the-scenes of how Penn operates for me at least was also a very rewarding experience.”

Access to Cornell University's board meetings has been spottier for the Cornell Daily Sun, another independent student newspaper. Cornell’s Board of Trustees attendance policy falls into the second category, sometimes allowing public attendance at open sessions prior to closed meetings.

“Our Board of Trustees meetings—the bulk of them are closed as well,” said Josh Girsky, managing editor of the Cornell Daily Sun's editorial board. “They’re usually just a bunch of committee meetings and those committees will have [five to 15] minute public sessions to start, and then they will kick our writers out and anyone else that’s just there to watch.”

Girsky noted that the Daily Sun has spoken to journalism rights organizations, which have said it is Cornell’s right as a private university to hold closed meetings. As a private university, Duke is similarly not required to allow public access to its Board of Trustees meetings. 

Behind closed doors

Why did Duke's policy change back to closed meetings 10 years ago?

“The Board of Trustees about 10 years ago did a review of governance and made a number of adjustments to things like the committee structure and meetings,” Schoenfeld said. “One of the recommendations that was made at the time was to reduce the number of people who were in part of the public session of the board meeting.”

Schoenfeld did not elaborate on the reasons for this recommendation. In 2012, former President Richard Brodhead stated that having public meetings really did not mean more transparency. He added that having media present might stifle discussion amongst board members, but insisted there was no desire to maintain a "cloak of secrecy" over the meetings. 

“We’d prepare a presentation for the deliberative session of the board and then we would have another for the open session of the board,” Brodhead said. “If you think there was greater transparency at that point, there really wasn’t.”

Despite the timing, Schoenfeld denied that the removal of the public session was connected to the Duke lacrosse scandal.

Schoenfeld explained in an email that part of the eliminated public session included formal reports from administrators, which are now provided directly to the Board. He added that the Board’s actions are provided in press releases and that the president and board chairs are available for interviews after each meeting. Quotes from these interviews are typically included in The Chronicle's post-press release briefs

When asked whether there is potential for changing the policy, Schoenfeld responded, “You’d have to ask President Price that.” The Chronicle reached out to Price, given that the University of Pennsylvania is Price’s former home. 

Price sent the inquiry back to Schoenfeld. 

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