Despite intense planning by administrators, the Board of Trustees rejected initial plans for the West Union renovations at the Board of Trustees meeting in May.
The details behind the decision still remain unclear, and Executive Vice President Tallman Trask has revealed only that the Board took issue with “a lot of little things.” However, the Board’s decision—and Trask’s lack of transparency—raises deeper questions about the forthcomingness of both Board and administrative decision-making processes.
When the administration first announced its plans to renovate West Union, they worked hard to include student input, soliciting student opinion on a variety of issues. Given the openness of the planning process, it is strange and troubling that the Board struck down the proposal. Although we cannot know the Board’s reasoning, we offer two possible explanations for their decision.
The Board may simply have rejected the proposed renovations in order to exert more control over the planning process. If administrators expected the Board to insist on more control, attempts to solicit student input may have been merely for show, designed to create the illusion of an open process while reserving the real-decision making power for the Board. Although we have no problem with the Board making major University decisions, the administration should have been more forthright if it knew student suggestions would eventually be scrapped at the Board level.
On the other hand, the rejection may reflect deep divisions between the Board and administrators. The University’s major decision-making bodies typically collaborate on large-scale projects to avoid disagreements, so when the Board rejects a major University initiative, it not only slows progress, but also reflects poorly on Duke. The West Union vote is not the only example of division within the University’s leadership. Disagreements between the administration and faculty—exemplified in the faculty’s rejection of Provost Peter Lange’s 2U initiative last spring—also point to poor internal communication.
In any case, the Board’s decision reveals a deeper, more systemic problem—a lack of Board transparency. Currently, Board meetings are closed to the public and media, and there are advantages to the current system. The Board is focused on the long-term vision for the University, and its unilateral decision-making power allows it to execute projects efficiently. Moreover, the Young Trustees ensure that a student perspective exists at Board meetings.
We find it deeply troubling, however, that the Board not only refused to explain why it rejected the initial West Union plans, but also failed to announce its decision in an official press release. Although the Board should not fling its doors wide open, a University that takes seriously the opinions of its stakeholders must have greater transparency at the Board level.
At the very least, the Board should release more detailed justifications for its decisions. Members of the Duke community have a right to know why the Board votes the way it does and, as we have written in the past, greater transparency stands to benefit everyone. If students understand the rationale behind critical decisions, they will more readily accept those decisions as legitimate. Whereas opaque communication invites problematic speculation, greater transparency increases student buy-in.
The Board ought to provide better justifications for its decisions because, ultimately, we all have to live with the consequences.