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Harping on Young Trustee

Last Friday night, we learned that Kaveh Danesh won the Young Trustee election. Though I think Danesh will do an excellent job during his three-year term on the Board, elements of the endorsement process concern me.

The establishment of the Young Trustee position was one of Terry Sanford’s lesser accomplishments. Yet the process of choosing the position has caused an uproar from the undergraduate student body over the past decades of its existence.

Debates about how the Young Trustee (hereafter written as YT) selection process should progress have been raging long before 2009, when Duke Student Government voted to open the controversial selection process to the general student body as an election. The goal of that change made sense—that the student body would collectively be able to choose the candidate best fit for the job. The problem is that students may not actually understand the purpose of the YT.

Sanford had clarified this purpose of the YT in a memorandum in 1977: “The reason for including students on the Board of Trustees was quite different from representation. The desire was to get younger members on the Board … whose viewpoint, close to students, would be a valuable addition.”

In February of 2010, Dan Blue, the current chair of the Board of Trustees, reiterated Sanford’s explanation in a rare appeal to undergraduates, reminding students again of the role of the YT. “While having experience with a particular constituency … Trustees are asked not to be advocates for that constituency, but for Duke as a whole—always thinking of what is best to support the overall mission of the University” he said.

The role of YT is undoubtedly one of the most powerful positions the student body can bestow upon one of its members. But however powerful and prestigious it may be, the YT is not supposed to represent the student body. Rather, the YT is an added perspective on the Board dedicated to enhancing Duke’s horizons, not merely just for its undergraduates.

Many students don’t understand that the YT is not supposed to be an advocate or representative for the student body, much less for specific factions within it. Student endorsements from this election cycle reflect this misunderstanding.

Quoting directly from endorsements published last week in The Chronicle, the Environmental Alliance reasoned that Olly Wilson was “best suited to represent the sentiments of the undergraduate environmental community.” Engineering Student Government argued that Kaveh Danesh “will best represent our voice.” Baldwin Scholars and Diya both mentioned how Olly Wilson’s and Kaveh Danesh’s ideas “align” with those of their organization.

Blue Devils United indicated their belief that Olly Wilson would be the “best student representative.” Duke Democrats even blatantly referenced the concept of an agenda, positing that Olly Wilson’s “record of activism on campus proves that he will advocate for our agenda of social responsibility and diversity inclusion.”

The above endorsements indicate that many student organizations believe that the YT has the power—indeed, the responsibility—to represent their own pockets of interest on the Board of Trustees. This understanding is in direct conflict with Sanford’s and Blue’s conception of the position.

I do not mean in any way to berate student groups for choosing the candidate that best embodies their own values. In an election that’s run much the same as those for DSG representatives, students are invariably led to believe that they should vote for the candidate that best echoes their beliefs. Although more endorsements are a handy way of signaling which candidate is most broadly engaged with the University, the process can also encourage student groups to think that Young Trustees will plead their cause to the Board.

Therefore it must be made clear to students that the YT will not be actively or specifically fighting for Duke’s undergraduate student groups or for their ideals. Before they endorse a candidate or vote, students should have realistic and accurate expectations of the YT. Perhaps DSG’s attorney general and the Board of Elections should have more of a responsibility to make student groups understand why they are endorsing a candidate and how they should go about doing so. If this is not possible, then the endorsement process should not exist.

We do ourselves, the Young Trustees, the Board of Trustees and Duke a disservice if we believe that the YT is a representative of the student body. The YT is more than that. The YT safeguards the well being and successful trajectory of Duke as a whole. Like other Trustees, he or she comes from a specific background—a background that helps the Board make informed decisions. Expecting the YT—or any other Trustee—to elevate the interests of their background above that of other Duke constituencies is unfair and unprofessional.

The student body has become disconnected from the true purpose of the Young Trustee position. The new process works—but students must understand its real meaning.

Ellie Bullard is a Trinity junior. Her column runs every other Wednesday.

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