There are certain hallmarks of campus life which when encountered serve as sudden reminders that spring semester is in full swing. The chaotic but lively swarm of tents in K-ville, the destructive sweep of the flu and of course, the Young Trustee election. Signs of the election are everywhere with student groups releasing endorsements, flyers flying all over campus and campaign materials flooding social media newsfeeds.
The Young Trustee position is deeply embedded in Duke’s history, dating back to 1972. The Duke Board of Trustees takes on an elected undergraduate student for a three-year term, in which the student spends one year as an observer and two years as a voting member. The current Young Trustee application and election process is formal and bureaucratic. Every year Duke Student Government (DSG) puts together a Young Trustee Nominating Committee (YTNC). This year, DSG amended the bylaws for the YTNC, changing the minimum number of committee members from ten to eight in order to create a higher quality selection committee. The YTNC then accepts written applications for students interested in applying for the Young Trustee position. This year the committee selected eleven semi-finalists, who were interviewed, and then announced four finalists. After the finalists are announced, there are over two weeks until election day. The results of the election are decided based on a majority vote, which means there is potential for a run-off before finalists are announced.
While the process of applying and selecting a Young Trustee is highly scripted with by-laws and committees, it is still unclear what the role of the Young Trustee actually is. The application states, “The Young Trustee should demonstrate an ability to think broadly about the university, understand the role of the university in society, be curious about larger institutional issues facing Duke, and respect how universities are administered and governed. Also, the Young Trustee should be independent and collegial and be a good representative of Duke University. Young Trustees are fiduciaries of the university, not advocates for any particular agenda or issue.”
There appears to be a glaring disconnect here. Young Trustees are asked to sit on the Duke Board of Trustees, be holistic thinkers and act as representatives of our university. However, out on the campaign trail it becomes immediately clear that the student body doesn’t understand the role of Young Trustee. Students expect candidates to run on a “platform” and have specific stances on issues ranging from housing, curriculum reform and construction. Thus, the Young Trustee campaign process has turned into a sad state of affairs where candidates are forced to explain how and why they will advocate for specific student groups when in reality their role will be to represent the entirety of Duke.
There are also a range of issues with the structure and pace of the Young Trustee campaigns. In the current structure, Young Trustee finalists must make rapid-fire meetings with as many groups on campus as possible. Finalists reach out to almost every club, Greek organization and selective living group as possible and then run around campus in a wild goose chase to meet as many students as possible. The biggest drawback to this structure is that students who aren’t affiliated with organizations on campus might not get access to the circuit of meetings and don’t necessarily meet all the candidates.
Social media, unsurprisingly, also plays a huge role in the election. Candidates who are in larger student organizations have bigger networks to push their campaign content onto other student newsfeeds. This essentially turns the election into the same popularity contest from your fifth grade study body president election. Instead of glittery posters and cookies, the candidates now have shiny profile pictures and photo-ops on the BC Plaza.
The greatest issues of the election is, however, our collective action problem. Due to the murky role of Young Trustee and a general lack of investment, students get overwhelmed by the myriad of endorsements and new profile pictures. Without institutionalized, accessible opportunities to get to know the candidates, students might either not vote or vote for the person whose name has come up most often.
Going into next year’s election cycle we should find ways to improve the campaign process. Instead of long weeks parading around Marketplace and canvassing East campus, candidates could be asked to release a short video available online. The campaigns should be limited to a shorter period and individual meetings with student groups should be replaced with open meetings available to the student body. DSG could also host a series of town-halls open to the entire student body in order to give everyone access to the election and give students a chance to compare candidates.
While our Young Trustee processes are far from perfect, the concept of having a student sit on the Duke Board of Trustees is a striking opportunity. It allows the student body to have a voice, and a face, on the Board. Take the time to learn about our four qualified finalists and send in your vote this Tuesday.
Shruti Rao is a Trinity senior. Her column, “taming of the shru,” usually runs on alternate Thursdays.
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