“Joys do not stay, but take wing and fly away.” The Roman poet Martial captured that uncomfortable feeling of seeing something good drift from us and wanting to somehow hold onto it. How do you make change that lasts when you’re not around to keep it in place? Institutionalize it. And how can Duke students institutionalize an undergraduate’s perspectives? By electing an undergraduate to the Board of Trustees.
The Young Trustee has been with us for a long time. Since 1972, the Duke undergraduate student body has elected someone to a three-year term: “one year as an observer and two years as a voting member.” It seems a promise of enduring, overlapping student voices providing our insights at the highest levels of university power. The Young Trustee clearly gets people excited. A who’s who of more than a dozen student groups have backed their favorite candidate. The Young Trustee gives us a (sadly too infrequent) moment of something like real community. Students help each other’s campaigns and carve out time to meet together and discuss their visions for what Duke has been and should be. Whether a focused pre-professional group like Catalyst or a wider affinity group such as the International Association, those groups who do mention the whole field talk about their choice as the best of four good choices.
And hopefully, our thinking goes, these finalists will continue their advocacy for issues important to us in their three years on the Board. Feminist publication The Muse endorses Archana Ahlawat as “the strongest advocate for women,” while the Editorial Board backs Trey Walk as “the most anti-establishment candidate.” Read whatever endorsement you please. You’ll find the common theme: as they have done at Duke, so will they keep on doing after Duke.
Except that once the Young Trustee is elected they have to stop thinking like an undergraduate, at least partially. Consider senior vice president and Secretary to the Board of Trustees Richard Riddell’s Feb. 6 email. We’re voting, the email reads, for “a fiduciary of the university, not an advocate or representative.” The Young Trustees hold three of 37 seats on the Board—eight percent of the vote—and are meant to “consider what is best for the whole university, not a particular constituency.”
So, here is my question: does the way that the position of Young Trustee is structured militate against the Young Trustee’s remaining a fair and accurate student voice?
To be clear, I am criticizing the office and not its future occupant. It’s a shame that the office rewards years of work for this community with a partial moratorium on that same work. We’re supporting finalists on the expectation that they’ll keep doing what they have been doing, but once elected they are meant to focus less on “constituencies” and more on “the university as a whole.” So far as being Young Trustee requires whoever is elected to distance themselves from the “constituencies” they worked with as an undergraduate, the office seems structurally ill-equipped to provide an undergraduate perspective to the Board’s deliberations. It’s a problem noted in years past, and it’s not going away.
But there is a further problem still. The Young Trustee is not a student. The Young Trustee is one of Duke’s alumni. Granted, the Young Trustee is a recent graduate, but they are no longer that undergraduate voice in any meaningful sense.
Each year, about 25 percent of Duke’s undergraduate population changes. One class leaves, another comes in, and inside of four years Duke becomes a wholly different place than it was at the outset. Think of everything that’s happened for you in the past week. In the past year. Think of how steadily the fabric of this place changes.
Imagine how much your knowledge of Duke would change, how disconnected from this day-in, day-out reality you’d feel, if you were only on campus four times a year. Per its own website, “The Board of Trustees meets four times each year.” A Young Trustee, in their three years on the board, has to come to campus 12 times. We’ll all have done that in the next two weeks. A Young Trustee has to adjudicate Duke’s present--lives they know so little about--through their personal, limited experience of Duke’s past. Perhaps the Young Trustee can come back to campus more—if they can take time off from work or graduate school or whatever comes next—but time and distance will do their work.
So, I ask: can the Young Trustee remain a fair and accurate voice for students, despite the role’s focus on creating distance from students and the reality that the office is occupied by a former student growing ever further from Duke?
It seems a sad state of affairs. What have we got? We’ve overestimated the extent to which the role of Young Trustee allows its occupant to continue doing the work that gained their election. We have student groups coming together, students making time to discuss their views and people across campus in dialogue about their hopes and priorities. We pound pavement, start websites, overhaul our social media, put up flyers. All we’ll have to show for it is one elected official who can’t do that much for us.
Or, instead of placing significant hope for change in one position, we could appreciate the fact that we have a student-led, student-driven mechanism for effecting change that we can leave dormant until the next Young Trustee election, or put to some good use in the meantime.
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Henry David Thoreau wrote that “Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it.” We pour so much effort into choosing the occupant of what’s effectively an alumni position. What could we change on this campus if we poured this same effort, these same three weeks of near-constant energy, into any one of the causes that we think one person alone should be able to handle? We’ve shown ourselves quite ready to come together, pick a goal, and do our all to reach it. How much better this place would be if we all did that more often.
Tim Kowalczyk is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.