The independent news organization of Duke University

How to build a representative Board of Trustees

Throughout the Young Trustee campaign, Liz Brown outlined the need for greater representation of Durham voices on the Board of Trustees. She made a powerful case for locality to inform the Board.

But the conversation around Durham voices informing Duke’s policies should not stop with the end of a student election. 

We have 37 members of our Board of Trustees. Of these 37 trustees, just two live in the Durham area. And those two board members were not appointed, but rather are Duke President Vincent E. Price and Graduate Trustee Anna E. Knight. We have appointed members from Deloitte, McKinsey and Bain Capital, yet the city whose wellbeing is crucial to our campus does not hold a seat.

And the decisions that the Board of Trustees makes do not just affect Duke students. Whether we like it or not, the decisions the Duke administration makes have immense implications for the Durham community. And these decisions cannot properly reflect the values and the opinions of the Bull City when a 37 person board has only two members who live in Durham. To make decisions that reflect the depth and breadth of the Durham community, we must go beyond input to give votes to community members. 

At the December meeting alone, the Board approved the financing for the Physical Therapy/School of Nursing Education Building, the withdrawal from Certain Quasi Endowments, and the financing and design for the Duke South Baker House. All of these decisions, which will involve residents of the Durham community, were made without their consent or voice. 

This fundamental flaw on our governing board only widens the chasm between the University and the community that surrounds it. Duke is far and away the largest employer in Durham, and the Duke University Hospital is the fourth largest employer in North Carolina. As of 2012, more than half of Duke employees call Durham County home. Yet those Durham residents have no voice within our university’s most important governing body. 

Each choice has serious ramifications for Duke staff, faculty and the broader Durham community. And Durham should have a serious role in that decision-making process. 

Without a Durham resident holding a seat, the lived experience of an entire city does not have a place behind the mahogany doors at the Washington Duke Inn, where the board meets. Our administration cannot in good faith advocate for a productive relationship between Duke and Durham when they do not respect the Durham voices to this minimal level.

Every member of our Board of Trustees has spent four years interacting with the Duke community. But how many of them have explored Durham and built meaningful interactions with Durham community leaders? 

And those trustees who engaged with Durham during their undergraduate days must understand that Durham is a dynamic and evolving modern city that has transformed again and again since their graduation day. Issues of gentrification have flared up, lack of affordable housing has become a major problem and Duke is now considering the ramifications of a $3.3 billion, 17.7-mile light rail that would connect our campus to NCCU and Chapel Hill. 

At the end of the day, Durham is a complex community influenced by racial issues, even as entrepreneurship and innovation continue to thrive. Without Durham residents who hold a worldview informed by lived experience within the community, the Board of Trustees cannot begin to understand the complexity of Durham and the ramifications of their decisions for that city.

Over the past several years, the Board has also taken steps to make its actions more opaque, rendering it even less responsive to the wishes of the surrounding community. Members of the Durham community can no longer access the decisions of the Board, even though those choices made at the Washington Duke have serious effects for the local economy and their daily lives. 

But this does not have to be the case—and in fact, it was not always the case. During Terry Sanford’s presidency, the Board of Trustees kept their meetings open to the public. But because Duke is a private university, the board can close its doors. In 2010, it did just that. That decision is not the fault of any member of the current board; each term is only six years, so the Board has completely turned over since then. But the issue persists. 

We need the Board to be more directly responsible to Duke students and the broader Durham community. And we need to represent the diverse array of people who call Durham home on our Board of Trustees. 

As the current trustees consider appointing new members, I challenge them to create a transparent selection process and to consider their stake in the future of Durham. They need to think about the future of our university, and the productive relationship we hope to continuously build with the Bull City. 

Steve Hassey is a Trinity junior. His column usually runs on alternate Thursdays.

Comments