The Board of Trustees corporately addresses the University community that it governs in three ways. First, it lets Duke news releases spin flattering stories about its deliberations. Second, it allows reporters a short briefing after meetings to ask a few necessarily superficial questions. Third, every once in a while, one if its members will give a speech at a University event, usually one arranged for an entirely different purpose.
We are not the first to point out that all of this passive communication is pretty thin gruel, resembling less legitimate governance and more the booming voice that hides the harried man from Kansas behind the curtain.
There is a tired debate about how much access media organizations should have to Board meetings. We do not wish to repeat it. All told, the Trustees should lock the doors and close the blinds when effective discussion requires secrecy and anonymity.
Our demands are more modest. They stem from the simple irony that Duke, which every day strives to teach students how to make well-justified decisions, expects so little from its highest decision-making body. The Board indeed never meaningfully justifies its decisions to the University community.
After each of its meetings, the Board should release a report, printed on Board letterhead and signed by each of its members, that specifies every major decision made at that meeting and lays out the Board’s reasons for endorsing that decision. We are not seeking a precise transcript of the meeting. All we are asking for is a proactive effort by the Board to justify its decisions to a Duke community that is expected to live with them.
There is no reason not to do this. Providing public justification for major decisions allows the Duke community to understand the rationale for and contribute to major decisions. It is in the Board’s interest to publish justifications—the University community can only buy into projects to which it feels connected.
The introduction of the Duke Kunshan University project, first conceived in 2010, is a perfect example. Neither the administration nor the Trustees ever properly justified the project. The grim result was a Duke community that complained for years about the vague project foisted on it. Suspicion could have been assuaged by strong justification at the outset.
The Trustees’ justifications must take a certain form. Official Duke news outlets simply name a nonsubstantive feature of a decision—that it is groundbreaking, exciting or innovative—and stop there. Real justifications weigh the strengths and weaknesses of a decision in light of alternatives. Constructing a campus in China or a new building for the Nicholas School might be a good idea—but in doing so, what are we not doing, and why?
The faculty demand transparency from the Academic Council, which publishes minutes for each of its meetings. Students demand the same of Duke Student Government. We cannot hold these bodies accountable, and then let our Trustees so easily off the hook.
Chris Brown recused himself because he is a student representative on the Board’s Business and Finance Committee.