The Young Trustee Nominating Committee was founded to amend a process once conducted internally by Duke Student Government, which had previously helped many of its members become Young Trustees. The YTNC was founded on two main principles: First, DSG should not monopolize the Young Trustee selection process and, second, some committee is necessary to screen out unqualified applicants who might otherwise be elected by the student body.
Although Wednesday’s Chronicle article erred because more members of the YTNC and semifinalists had DSG ties than reported, the spirit of the article is still true. Given the goal of the YTNC to pick finalists fairly without DSG bias, more clarity and transparency is necessary, especially to ensure the consequences of potential biases are mitigated.
First, procedural mechanisms must be predetermined and strictly followed to ensure fairness. The considerable power of the YTNC demands full transparency in how applicants are screened and selected. Prohibiting members from voting on candidates for whom they have declared a conflict of interest makes sense. But this does not prevent members from voting strategically on other applicants to benefit their favorites.
We learned that one candidate who received unanimous support after one vote automatically advanced as a finalist, while other finalists were subject to multiple rounds of voting. Even if equal voting procedures would have produced the same results, this unequal application of rules contributes to the idea that the selection process is biased. An ad hoc procedure runs counter to the YTNC’s supposed commitment to objectivity and undermines its legitimacy, as does the ability of YTNC members to publicly endorse candidates after the selection process.
Second, relying on members to differentiate between major and minor conflicts themselves—and submitting them to the candidates for approval—does not on face eliminate the potential bias. Members of the committee have an incentive to downplay the extent to which they are connected to an applicant. While two individuals who served in DSG at different times may not have a personal relationship constituting a “major conflict of interest,” YTNC members currently serving in DSG will likely see DSG experience as legitimizing a candidate—a benefit not afforded to applicants from organizations underrepresented on the YTNC.
None of this implies that members acted unethically or maliciously. On a small campus, biases are inevitable. Yet given these conflicts of interests are focused around one organization, more must be done to combat this bias. Given that a DSG committee selects the YTNC, that two thirds of YTNC members are affiliated with DSG and two out of three finalists this year are affiliated with DSG, the YTNC has a heightened responsibility to establish transparent and fair procedures.
Many different types of students are capable of being Young Trustee, including those that have no experience with the largest campus organizations. The YTNC risks becoming an insular committee of like-minded students picking students resembling themselves in interest and outlook—especially when their procedures are amorphous and opaque. In Tuesday’s editorial, we provide more ideas for how the selection process might be improved.
Precious Lockhart, a YTNC member, and Nicole Kyle, a semifinalist, recused themselves. Chris Brown, a finalist, is on leave from the editorial board.